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:

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