Thursday, April 20, 2017

Implementing teacher training in gamification through Minecraft: Putting the forces in motion

The following is a rationale for using Minecraft with students where I work teaching EFL in a military academy setting. I thought I would post it here and perhaps develop it further (and I in fact have updated this slightly in April, 2018).

What is Minecraft?
Minecraft is a game involving critical thinking, collaboration and cooperation, strategic analysis, creative engineering, and architectural skill that is extremely popular in its own right. In 2016 50,000 copies a month were purchased and 40 million players a month logged into the game (according to Jeff Kuhn in Kuhn and Stevens, 2017, see reference at end of this post). It is particularly being utilized in education where teachers wish to promote the skills listed above in their work with students. As evidence of how seriously this has impacted education, Microsoft has bought the game from its creators Mojang and is marketing it at huge conferences such as ISTE where their workshops on Minecraft are attracting lines out the doors of educators eager to learn more and use it in their classrooms.

Why in a military academy context?
I think it would be of particular use in my context because the game is designed with fascinating depth to suggest seemingly endless possibility. It emulates military skills such as strategic thinking, establishing a base in a wilderness, protecting it from threats arising in the game, and teaming with others to develop their base through finding resources that can be put to use in creating objects to further team goals. Use of Minecraft would introduce elements of gamification in our coursework (as opposed to using ‘games’ in class, which is not the same as gamification). Students could communicate with us in various ways about their experiences playing the game.

The things you can do in Minecraft are limited only by your imagination. You can find coal and iron and create metal objects, such as railroads, where mine carts you can ride in are powered through redstone, so you can build machines that work on wiring you devise. You can set logic gates, and program in the game. You can build and fortify, set up farms so you can feed yourself and others, raise animals, and grow your own trees so you have an endless supply of wood. You have to employ strategies and carry out advanced planning to thrive in the game. Often players will work in teams.

I created this set of Minecraft challenges for my students in the military college where I work. The challenges are designed to get them to take the tutorial that comes with the Minecraft Edu version, cross the ravine at the end of the tutorial and explore the world on the other side, and eventually parachute into a wilderness where they have to establish a perimeter, defend it, and sustain and develop it in cooperation with other players in their platoon / team.

Who enjoys Minecraft?
Children and adults of all ages enjoy it. It is played by kids as young as 4, e.g. pre-literate, so it relies more on intuition than on language. However there is much evidence of children in foreign countries becoming fluent in English through explaining in that lingua franca what they are doing in Minecraft to others around the world. This article gives an example of one such person, a ten year old Croatian boy who achieved fluency in English through Minecraft
Minecraft can form the basis of writing and multimedia projects where students are highly motivated to show what they are building and doing. They also will research how to do things on Minecraft. One teacher in Turkey reported how his students went out and bought an advanced Minecraft guidebook in English, and helped each other read it, because it wasn’t available in Turkish. Dave Dodgson has recently joined the moderating team of EVO Minecraft MOOC to help teachers understand the dynamics of gamified learning:

What is needed to get Minecraft working where you teach?
Any individual who plays Minecraft requires an account which must be purchased from Mojang for about $28. That’s for a lifetime license, but annual licensed logins are available through educational institutions for only $5 per user, from

The Mojang user ID allows you to play any version of Minecraft. There are many versions with different capabilities. Trusted users are normally white-listed on servers, so in practice you can only play as a single player, or on servers where you are allowed to enter. In order to fully exploit the game in education, it should be played in community mode on a server available to multiple simultaneous users.

The full PC / MAC version of Minecraft is the most versatile. We are looking to purchase licenses for the education edition which I am not familiar with first hand, but it allows up to 30 to play at once, according to It is also possible for us to get a free trial for a limited time.

Training teachers
This brings us to the most important thing needed, and that is a cohort of teachers who are aware of how Minecraft can leverage their learning and that of their students through gamification.

Two years ago, in 2015, my interest in Minecraft as a tool for this kind of learning was such that I organized an Electronic Village Online session for the purpose of learning how to play the game and understand how we could use it to gamify learning environments. We have just completed our third year of the community that was formed then. I have become an accomplished player, and I have a network of other teachers (plus Paul) who can help us with the server side issues. 

The EVO Minecraft MOOC community landing page is here,

To start a similar teachers’ group at your institution you'd need to install the software where teachers can use it and show them how to play there using user ID from the pool requested. Where I work, we will have to experiment with networking other devices so teachers can play in leisure time, which is needed for them to become familiar enough with the game to see how their students might learn it and use it for productive class purposes. It is not necessary in this game that teachers be authoritative sources of knowledge. Students and other players will inevitably make discoveries which they will be eager to share with peers and teachers alike, using communication skills we are trying to teach them.

Further reading
I have described the process of how teachers can learn to be proficient in Minecraft in presentations at conferences, one of which resulted in this chapter in the proceedings of the 2016 TESOL Arabia conference:
  • Stevens, V. (2017). Gamifying Teacher Professional Development through Minecraft MOOC. In Zoghbor, W., Coombe, C., Al Alami, S. & Abu-Rmaileh, S. (Eds.). Language Culture Communication: Transformations in Intercultural Contexts. The Proceedings of the 22nd TESOL Arabia Conference. Dubai: TESOL Arabia. Pages 75-92. Available:

The following free eBook gives comprehensive information about how and why teachers use various aspects of Minecraft to further pedagogical goals:
One of the contributors to that book is Jeff Kuhn, who is on our team of expert co-moderators of EVO Minecraft MOOC. He and I have just written an article which we have submitted to TESOL Journal, having been invited to do so by the journal editor. The article appears in the December 2017 issue of TESOL Journal, where if you are a TESOL member, you can log in and read it for free.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Short History of Community in EVO Minecraft MOOC

On Friday Feb 3 I am scheduled to give another talk about EVO Minecraft MOOC.

I have given several such talks over the past couple of years, and usually I focus on how EVO Minecraft MOOC serves as a game board for teachers to learn through experience about gamification. I normally make the point that whereas we play Minecraft, we are really learning about constructing learning environments that are compelling and self-directing, and whose basic premises might apply across a range of subjects and classroom contexts.
In my presentation Friday, I might try and encapsulate some of this as background, but in this presentation I want to discuss recent developments with the EVO Minecraft MOOC community as it has evolved over the three years we have been a community. Many aspects of this evolution have themselves taught us a bit about gamification.
When we started EVO Minecraft MOOC in 2015 our approach was a departure from the norm in EVO sessions in several respects. For one thing we were the only EVO session that required a purchase, albeit a modest one (less than $30 per user ID paid to Secondly, as I have done in all my EVO endeavors, when we started a Google+ Community page, we remained in the same community space the year after, and the year after that (most EVO sessions, even if they have the same name and same moderators one year to the next, start the following year in a brand new community space, on the assumption that newcomers like to feel the session is unique to them). Another way we are different is that, although we have a syllabus, we have been using it less and less. We ascribe to the Community as Curriculum model (Cormier, 2008) which encourages participants to drive what we do rather than expecting them to follow a pre-ordained path through our program.
One interesting aspect of this is that, as we have evolved in our third year, our approach has changed to the point that we hardly even have tutorials. This was not so in the beginning, when we assumed that we would have to teach people how to play Minecraft from scratch. In our first year we started with a flat map server in creative mode and all met there. Monsters are benign in creative (in fact, we use them for target practice) and players have access to a full range of materials available in the game; whereas in survival mode, monsters are lethal, and players must find materials in the game and keep them safe from loss through unexpected demise.

In our first year in EVO Minecraft MOOC, experts like Jeff Kuhn and his colleague Aaron Schwarz, and our young moderator Filip Smolčec showed us how to build and craft and delighted us with plagues of rabbits, booby trapped buildings, railways powered on redstone, and other such whimsical structures. We stayed safely in creative mode for about 3 weeks, and in week 4 (in the 5-week session) when we logged in, we suddenly found the server had changed. It had mountains and forests and rivers and monsters, which discovered us almost as soon as we arrived there, so we learned a lot about respawning (coming back empty handed after dying in the game) and consequently, how to prevent that.
But we also learned another important thing about gamified environments. We survived in survival mode because Jeff and others had prepared safe houses for us, so we could go out and explore in the daytime, when monsters are less threatening, and get indoors at night when they tended to prowl. When I retreated to one of Jeff's houses, he was sometimes home, so he would take me mining with him. He showed me coal seams and other places we could get resources, and he mentored me on what to do with them. We ended our 5-week session on that positive note. I was feeling good about the game with the help of others more knowledgeable in the game itself.
This narrative has a personal side to it, because another point I have made in previous presentations is that I started this community in order to learn about Minecraft. I had been interested in the game for a long time but had not found a way to play it in multiplayer mode, most communities of students being closed to old gray-heads like myself. I got the idea to start the EVO session in order to attract experts to teach me and other noobies like me. So in our first year, I learned the game basics. But in my first year, apart from a small structure I constructed with the help of my son, who had joined me one day in creative mode, I hardly ever built anything. I was very busy organizing the session and the online events we would hold for it, but I did not have time to learn to craft proficiently, nor to create structures similar to those that were going up all around me. I tend to be slow on uptake. Like a child who never speaks until one day the floodgates open in surprisingly imaginative discourse, I am a slow absorber of creative genius, before I can set out on my own.
Also after the first successful session in 2015, I didn't go back on the server much in the interim before the next one. I went to the TESOL Conference in Toronto and met Jeff Kuhn (he reminded me we had already met :-) and renewed my acquaintance with Aaron Schwarz (at the time, chair of the CALL Interest Section; I had been the first chair of that interest section 30 years before that). I hung out in brew pubs with the Ohio University crowd and by the end of that had their assurances that we would have a second year of EVO Minecraft MOOC, and they would once more host the server. That was great news.
So the next year we trotted out the same proposal and syllabus as before, but this year I moved a lot of the syllabus to a wiki at where I thought some of the explanations of how the session was designed could be better broken down and managed. The previous year we had worked from a google doc syllabus page, and in 2016 a lot of those syllabus items were still there but now pointed to the wiki. Design-wise, I was trying to get the Google+ Community landing page to be a one-stop "game board" where everything anyone needed to know about the session (in effect, a course, as in the 'C' in 'MOOC') would be accessible in links from the G+C game board. It seemed to work. We had a lot of new people in the session, they pretty much figured out what to do, and got on with it.
The session was badge-oriented, which is to say that about a third of the two dozen people who were truly participating were tracking their progress through the badge system. I've explained that thoroughly elsewhere, but what this means, is that they were following the syllabus and ticking off the benchmarks. The game board worked in that they were not asking a lot of questions, and they were building in our creative server and posting pictures in blogs, and otherwise documenting what they were doing. So we were seeing that we were effectively reaching our participants, or at least a small but creatively engaged number of them.
But we also were attracting experts. One of  these was Mircea Patrascu, who used scripts to create fascinating structures in creative mode, most notably entire towns with subway stations and tunnels with underground tracks leading to other parts of our server. At one end of this metro network was a structure with logic gates where if you answered three questions by setting three levers correctly, a door opened and you were admitted to a huge hangar with a roller coaster inside. You sat on the mine cart and pressed a button and off you went on the ride of your life, up and down and around. The structure was incredible, and Mircea recorded the ride on YouTube

Other people joined us and showed us around their networks. In fact, I was spending most of my time in the 2016 session organizing, recording, and archiving their events, Among those:
Midway through our session, when we had gone by then into survival mode, we were joined by another talented expert Linda Gielen, who made a video explaining some of the things she was building on our server.

She and Rose Bard, another of our new moderators for that year, primarily developed our server so that there was an elaborate safe house there, and also a spawning point admin building with an accompanying tutorial area set up by Aaron Schwartz which taught newcomers how to craft using sticks and cobblestone, two easily acquired resources in Minecraft. There was also a warp chamber which you could step into to transform into another world, I believe it was back to our creative world (need to check on that). Linda and Rose set up maps, and storage boxes for everyone at the admin building. We needed only place a sign on one to claim it.

Another tutorial wall from the Longhouse spawn point in EVOMC17, from Jeff Kuhn's photos
I don't think I even managed that in 2016. All my time was taken in organization. I resolved that the following year, I would spend less time organizing and more time playing. It was my turn to gamify.
Another interesting thing happened in the time between EVOMC16 and EVOMC17. Rose suggested that it would be good for us to practice on the server, and Mircea rose to the occasion by creating blog posts in the voice of ersatz explorer “MP”, who had discovered a temple in some desert biome, a story which no one believed except that he had returned to his hometown to pay off all his old drinking debts using a large diamond that he had with him,
MP included some photos in his blog post which a bunch of us used to align ourselves in the biome and eventually find his temples. We did this in the course of several sessions partly documented here:

In conducting these quests, we further learned about the pleasure of meeting online in this vitual space, as well as the benefits in supporting one another in our mutual learning journeys.
This event created another milestone, tangible affirmation that our G+C had formed a community. Although some work was going on between EVOMC16 and EVOMC17 to prepare the server for the 2017 session, this was the first time of which I’m aware that community members, albeit moderators in this case, met on the server for such sustained practice and pleasure when EVO was not in session. As we make our way through EVOMC17 we see more evidence that we are a community of practice with connections to one another that extend beyond EVO.
Since our inception, we have themed our 5 weeks on Dave Cormier’s 5 steps to coping with MOOCs; namely, orient, declare, network, cluster, and focus. Time after time we see our pattern of activity fall around this model, and we’ve labeled each of our weeks accordingly in our syllabus and wiki documents.

The first time we ran the session, when we had no precedent or track record, we saw our syllabus as providing structure to the course (i.e. session :-). When we did the course the second time in 2016, I remember posting to the G+C each week something to the effect that “now we are in week 3, the week we will focus on our networking.”

In that year, I noted in a submission to The Proceedings of the 22nd TESOL Arabia Conference 2016 in Jan 2017
“The missions, checklists of things to do on a weekly basis, are pretty straightforward. They must be, as participants seem to find them and do them without asking too many questions, and when they do ask and the moderators respond, the response seems to get them on task.”

In this third rendition, there has been very little mention of our syllabus goals, but things are simply falling into place in the pattern that Cormier described. This year there has been, apart from recycling and improving on extensive documentation, very little direction on the part of moderators, and few questions on the part of participants. The scale of participation has been similar to what it was in the past, but there has been little evidence of people asking how to play MC in the Google+ Community, and some evidence of people going into the game and figuring things out from scratch, of course with help and guidance from proficient players already in the game. In other words, there has been little demand for directives from participants in EVOMC17 not in the game, whereas a lot of learning appears to be taking place in the game.
The community that has gathered in the game has been a facilitator of this development, but another factor is adults who enter the game with their kids and develop proficiency with impetus and guidance from their children. Marijana Smolčec, one of our first co-moderators, as a good example of this (and her son Filip became yet another co-moderator and was well respected for his expertise and childlike spontaneity). Rose Bard, who became a co-moderator in 2016, is often accompanied in MC by her son Emmanuel, and a new member, Jane Chien, appears to be drawn there with her son Mattie. Another of our co-moderators, Mircea Patrascu, is an expert in MC who uses it to teach coding to children, and he often works with the help of his son Vlad.
This is from a report I filed with the EVO Coordination team
We have 296 in the Google Community, 23 who filled in the registration form for this year, 15 from that number who have actually been on our server, but a number of others who have been on the server from previous years in our community or have been whitelisted there without having filled in the form (e.g. some community members are there with their kids, always welcome :-). We have a solid core of around two dozen committed, active, and awsome creators in-world. These latter are modeling and learning amazing stuff with one another.
Prompting lead  coordinator Mbarek Akadder to respond in email
Hi Vance,
What makes EVOMC so awesome and  special  is the participation of kids with their parents! It  looks  more like  a family gathering than a session!
We are also attracting people from other communities.
  • Jo Kay from Jokaydia
  • David Dodgson from British Council has rejoined us
  • Steve Jenkinson from the Google+ Community Minecraft in Education, with over 5000 members
  • Beth O'Connell and Kimball Harrison from VSTE, Virginia Society for Technology in Education
People are venturing out. Jeff has gone on an epic trek. Jane has discovered by chance our old world from 2016, and Rose showed us a way back to the new one. Aaron has been updating the server in the background, making possible our multiple words in creative and survival modes simultaneously
How can we as a community envisage the end of this? Most EVO sessions do end. Our members have formed addictions and bonds and challenges that will keep us going in world long into 2017. This remains to be seen. Like one of Jeff’s treks, EVO MC MOOC is off on an adventure, a quest without a foreseeable end. More dispatches follow.

Jeff Kuhn and I collaborated on this slide show for our joint presentation,
which was seeded by the blog post you are currently reading.


Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate, 4(5). Reprinted with permission of the publisher; available:

Friday, January 27, 2017

Experiencing Gamification through Minecraft

It's been many months since I've blogged here but I've been having the itch to get back to it.

EVO Minecraft MOOC has taken on dimensions that are eye-opening as far as revealing what gamification is and what it does.

We start here with an anecdote. I just left the world of Minecraft (having succumbed to spiders in the dark in the wild tiaga), but the journey was incredible.

I had logged on to the server two hours earlier. I arrived at the place I had left the night before, the one at the end of this video.

I pressed TAB to see who was in-world with me. Maha was there as well as Jane and Mattie. Maha is from Egypt, and Jane is Mattie's mother. She and Mattie are from Taiwan. They play with us frequently.

I asked where everyone was and mentioned I was at the village that Dakota had walled off to protect its citizens from mobs (explosive creepers and mindlessly lethal zombies that attack the villagers at night). In return for his protection, the villagers allowed him to trade with him. He was raising sugar cane at a farm inside the village and from cane you can make paper. Many of the villagers were librarians and would exchange emeralds for paper. So the village was a source of emeralds, which could be used to obtain other valuable objects which other villagers might have in exchange for the emeralds.

Jane said that she and Mattie would like to see the village. We had all got there the night before by using the warp command. Warp lets you appear at a designated point but when you get there by magic you don't know where you are in relation to where you have been, and I couldn't remember the exact warp word, except that it had two capital letters (but it's in the video above, somewhere). Maha, elsewhere on the server, was reading our texts and told us what the command was, so Maggie used it to teleport to where she thought I was.

We later found that Maha had looked up the destination from a /warplist on the server and had given Jane the wrong destination. On arrival at her new destination, Jane said she was at Rose's house there, but there was no Rose's house where I was. So I decided to warp myself to her location and there we both were.

Rose appeared coincidentally online just then and she quickly figured out that we had warped to her old house on the server space we had developed the year before. She joined us and we started looking around. For Jane it was a brand new world. For me, it was nostalgic to visit places from last year, still intact, though it took me a few minutes to re-orient.

Rose didn't want to remain there because she thought we should be focused on developing the world from this year's rendition of EVOMC17, so she suggested we warp back to our world. I asked if we could just head that way, and in which direction. Rose said it was far away, but she offered to lead us there.

There was a rail system connecting the two worlds beknownst only to few on our server. It emanated from stations in the old world that had been built the previous year, but to use it we needed to have mine carts. We found that among us, only Mattie had enough iron ore to craft them, so with his resources we quickly came up with the carts. What followed was an amazing ride south and east that I'm going to video one of these days.

I'll put that video here.

Regarding gamification, this was it. Rose had to explain to Jane and Mattie how to operate the carts. Their behavior is such that if someone stops on the tracks the next cart back hits it and then reverses out of control. There is no control because the system is powered by redstone to propel the carts forward, or if they strike another cart, backwards, with no brakes until you reach a station. One problem is that as we came to stations on our way forward we didn't know at first to hold down the W key to avoid stopping, so we'd reach one and stop there. Then the next cart to appear from behind hit the cart that had stopped there, and then headed backwards, hitting the cart behind it, and when the next cart appeared, chaos ensued, and so on,as we lurched backward and forwards along the first stretches of track. 

When we managed to all come to a stop (each of us out of sight of the others) and coordinate a way forward, we reached a part of the journey where there were no stations, but barriers which would stop the carts literally in their tracks, but if another cart came along, it would plow into any cart still on the tracks and reverse. So we had to get out of our carts and destroy them quickly before the next cart arrived, to prevent the boomerang effect (destoying an object makes it available for retrieval, which is how we could then collect and reuse the carts to continue our journey).

So these carts had to be collected and replaced on the track on the opposite side of the barrier as follows. You needed two carts. You put one on the redstone rail on the track. You put another on a rail mechanism above so that it would fall inside the first cart, so you have two carts nestled one inside the other. You then get into the cart and press a button on the barrier, and your cart shoots off to the east. Again, if you meet an obstacle, like a cart on the track, you hit it and ricochet back to where you came from, where you have to dismount, destroy your carts, collect them, run them back through the mechanism to reposition them properly, get inside, push the button, and head off again. 

Getting 4 people to move down the tracks in this way was a complicated process (not unlike getting a team of players to overcome obstacles in moving a ball down a field). It was pure gamification. Rose had to explain to us what to do. We had to do it and deal with consequences of any departure from the only procedure that would ultimately work. Imagine doing this with foreign language learners. It required focus and perseverance. It was challenging and great fun.

Eventually we neared our final destination, which was the rail terminus back in our current EVOMC17 world. For a long time the rails had gone seemingly forever over water and now we were approaching the tiaga with its snow covered trees and layered terrain, like stacks of brownies with white icing on top. Near the end I hit a cart on the tracks and started going backwards. I was wondering if I should dismount in transit (would I fall in the ocean and drown?). Someone came running along the tracks and caught up with me. Snicker-snack the mine carts were all destroyed, including the one I was riding in. I was left standing on the tracks.

I started running to the east as the skies turned orange, signalling sunset. Better to arrive in daytime as monsters come out at night. Rose had mentioned we would be arriving at a dangerous place. so she had gone ahead as she was the most proficient with a sword. After a few minutes the tracks sloped steeply downwards and I saw my companions at the bottom, waiting for me. It was almost dusk. 

Rose had told us in text that in real life she needed to get back to something, so we were in a hurry to continue the journey from the terminus to the safety of the world we had built and lit up. That was where our safe houses were, where we could get inside and close the doors behind us. But that world was also distant enough to prevent people exploring the new world from stumbling on the rail line leading to the old too easily. Rose had helped design this, so she knew the way back.

Rose led our small group of avatars up and over the tiaga. Spiders appeared which we set upon with swords, but Jane was eliminated and respawned back at her own house, no way to return to us since teleport wasn't working :-). 

I tried to keep up with Mattie and Rose but was in the dim light I got caught in water and couldn't see how to get out of it. I tried heading forward and jumping simultaneously to extract myself and eventually did, but by then had lost the others. But Rose had come back for me, so we resumed our jumping up the icy terrain. Arrows suddenly appeared from nowhere. I never saw the skeleton that fired them but managed to elude it. But by now I had lost track of my friends and my direction of travel. Night time ain't no time to be out in the wilderness in Minecraft, and I was doomed. My screen reddened and I was informed that I had been taken down by a fire-eyed spider. I was invited to respawn. I accepted the invitation and found myself standing safely next to the last bed I had slept in.

From that position I was able to contact the others. Rose and Mattie were still making their way to their virtual home, in the dark, protected only by swords and by Rose's knowledge of where they were.  I couldn't wait to see if they survived it. Two hours had gone by quickly, and I had to log off.

Back in my real world, I felt the urge to blog it; hence, what you have just finished reading.

Meanwhile, here's Jane Chien's perspective:

The photo on the left shows the mechanism where you place mine cart #2 so it falls into #1 already on the tracks