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Why Minecraft: Education Edition is Microsoft's most important video game

Xbox lays out its vision to transform the education system globally

I have two younger brothers.

All three of us began our working lives as video game testers at the same company.

I always loved the writing, so I found my way from there into journalism. My middle brother discovered a knack for management, so ended up pursuing a career in business development. Meanwhile my youngest sibling was fascinated by the science and coding of games. He's just found his first programming job at a major studio.

It's the latter Dring that has had the most challenging of the career paths. Not only is computer science a difficult subject to master, you're simply not taught it at school. I learned writing at a young age (as most of us did), but my brother had to teach himself the basics of coding, and strolled into university with little prior understanding of what he was about to study.

In the UK, Computer Science has recently been worked into the school curriculum, which is good news for our industry. But it's hard to implement, because first you need to teach the teachers; they weren't taught programming at school, either.

That's why what Microsoft has been doing with Minecraft is so important. The Education Edition has been used in schools to teach a broad range of subjects, but with the introduction of Code Builder this month, it's now a means for teaching kids to code - even from as young as six years-old.

Deirdre Quarnstrom, Minecraft's head of education

"One of the top things we hear from educators is that they want to be able to use [Minecraft] for coding," says Deirdre Quarnstrom, head of education for Minecraft.

"They see the enthusiasm and engagement that they have with Minecraft, and coding is both top of mind as a critical skill, and something that feels inaccessible to educators who don't have the technical training in it. Sometimes the students even have a point-of-view that coding is boring. The idea is to solve those issues through Minecraft, which is an environment where students can feel comfortable and confident. So there has been a tonne of excitement around that.

"We were in Brussels last week for a Microsoft event, and there were two classes that had been using it for just two weeks, and the level of competency that they have with it was just amazing. They had taken it, they've learned it, and they were actually building a future environmentally-friendly version of their city using Code Builder."

Minecraft Education Edition now features a Code Builder

Learn-to-code software - such as Scratch, for instance - has been utilised in schools for some time. Quarnstrom says that Minecraft: Education Edition doesn't necessarily replace these services, but can actually augment them.

"You can connect Scratch into Minecraft, so you can take that Scratch world, and the sprites and commands that are available in that, and then it opens up and expands to all Minecraft commands and inventory items," she tells us. "You take that basic experience, which is a very good learn-to-code experience, and you expand it out to a full 3D Minecraft world, then all of a sudden they're using their imaginations and creativity, because the toolset they have is so much bigger."

James Protheroe, a Minecraft Education Edition mentor and an assistant headteacher agrees: "It is all about making that link. I know from my own use of Scratch, and coding with the children, it is difficult sometimes to get that wow factor. But when you connect that to the 3D environment within Minecraft, and see the impact of the coding that they have actually done, it is just amazing. It has such an impact."

"If we can take a generation of Minecraft players and encourage them to become content creators and software engineers, that would be amazing"

Deirdre Quarnstrom

And of course, this coding education will hopefully (at least from Microsoft's perspective) create a new generation of programmers and game designers.

"Absolutely," begins Quarnstrom. "If we can take a generation of Minecraft players and encourage them to become content creators and software engineers, that would be amazing. We think about Code Builder as a means to the end. The activity of coding is not the thing you are investing in, the thing you are investing in is to become a game developer.

"We launched Minecraft Hour of Code Tutorial programmes two years ago. We did two of those, and they've had over 59m play sessions. That to me is unbelievable. It introduces students and helps teachers with the process of: 'What is a command? What is a variable? What is a function? What is an event? And how does that work?' They can go as slowly or as quickly as they want. That provides a great introduction.

"The challenge is that it is visual programming language, so you are kind of limited over what you can do there. With Code Builder you can switch from a visual programming language to javascript, and then back. So it provides that next step. It has typically been a pretty big gap from a visual block-based programming language, to actually writing code in a more professional environment. So we are excited to see how this encourages players."

Minecraft Education Edition is being used at both Primary and Secondary School level

Much like a lot of things in Minecraft, the original idea for an Education Edition came from the community.

"Since early on, Mojang saw that Minecraft was an amazing environment for teaching and learning," Quarnstrom continues. "People were going into an open world, with no instructions and no rules, and figuring out how to do things. They were teaching each other, creating videos and tutorials. Teachers saw that too - it was teachers who started to see that this was an amazing toolset that inspires creativity. Two teachers actually created a mod for the original Java edition of Minecraft, called Mincraft EDU. They developed this passionate following of early adopters. These were educators who were bringing technology into the classroom and investing in game-based learning.

"About two years ago, when Mojang and Minecraft became part of Microsoft, I said I wanted to work on this education opportunity. I went over to Stockholm and sat down with the team and to find out their vision for education". They said they wanted to change the world." So I was like, ok that is overwhelming and maybe a bit naive. But we talked about it in that initial conversation, and discussed the fact that the next generation of world leaders are growing up playing games. They are playing Minecraft, learning about consequences and rules of society and how people work together. So it is incredibly powerful.

"Everyday since then, I have become more passionate about it. Generally educators will enter into it with some scepticism and anxiety. They are anxious about it because, generally, the students know more than they do. Every single student in that class is generally more comfortable in a gaming environment than the teacher is. School administrators have some concerns, but when we show them some examples of classes using Minecraft, they come out, almost universally, wanting to learn more about it, wanting to bottle it, package it and take it into their classrooms."

Protheroe is a primary school teacher and he talks about how Minecraft in the classroom has encouraged communication, collaboration, problem-solving and also confidence.

"We brought it in specifically for one project a couple of years ago, and immediately you could see the potential it had for developing these skills," he explains. "We have our digital leaders within the school, and very soon they were training staff on using the controls. So really it is pupils who were leading and supporting the teachers. I feel that working with the students in this way helps me unlock the potential of what they can do. Because of the demand, we've invited people in to show people what we're doing in school. So the children said: "We have people coming in to see us work, maybe we could go out into their schools." So they set up as an enterprise business, and they go out to work with the students and the teacher in their own classrooms. It is very much an introduction to work, but from a child's point-of-view."

It's not just for primary school, though. Microsoft is keen to point out this is for all ages.

Minecraft Education Edition is being used in schools from over 100 different countries

Quarnstrom explains: "We see really interesting applications across primary and secondary school. Often in primary school, people will use it to introduce technology and the concept of digital citizenship. We learn very young in the playground that if we push one of our friends there are consequences to that. People get hurt. But in a virtual environment, sometimes those lessons aren't as obvious. So educators are using Minecraft really effectively to teach, reinforce and encourage that concept of digital citizenship and responsibility in an online environment. They're also teaching how to move around with a mouse and keyboard and navigate a 3D environment. And we usually see Minecraft brought in for specific subjects. It can be really effective for students with different learning styles, maybe they're more visual learners."

The big challenge now is to encourage more teachers to come on-board. Protheroe was convinced by his students to use the game, and now he's one of 60 Minecraft mentors who are going around speaking to educators. Quarnstrom says this is key as teachers prefer to speak with their peers. "They speak the same language," she says. "They understand the needs of the classroom." There are now 30,000 educators who have created profiles on the Minecraft community site, with schools in 100 countries (including the likes of Tanzania) using the title.

Minecraft: Education Edition is not free. It costs $5 per user per year, although there are offers available for bulk licences. It may not sound like a lot, and on the face of it it isn't, but the pressures on school budgets have never been higher. Every penny counts and so even if we were to believe every word of Quarnstrom and Protheroe's pitch, it's not an easy decision to make.

"From an Xbox and Minecraft point-of-view, this work in education lends credibility to gaming"

Deirdre Quarnstrom

Furthermore, you can understand if there's a bit of scepticism around Microsoft's intentions here. Is this really a desire to help education, or more a commercial and marketing exercise?

"For me, I had spent three years as Chief of Staff for Phil Spencer and the Xbox business," Quarnstrom concludes. "I played games when I was younger, but I hadn't really played games for a long time. When I went into Xbox, I was amazed by all the things that went into games. The art and science, the narrative design, the creative process... the technical innovation. That doesn't get enough credibility for what that contributes to society. So I developed this much deeper passion for gaming. However, so many of the games that were popular were first person shooters or mature games. So when Minecraft came along, I saw that this was something that was open for anybody, with any learning or play style. It is this very accessible level-playing field for people. We see girls and boys playing almost equally on Minecraft, and you just don't see that with most other games.

"I had a lot of passion for that. There is amazing technology and empowering tools that exist in gaming, and how do we bring that to make learning more accessible.

"From Microsoft's point-of-view, it has always invested in education through philanthropic efforts. Minecraft is one of the biggest supporters of with the Hour of Code campaign. So it is absolutely very mission aligned with supporting that. As a private sector employer, we are obviously interested in making sure that the next generation has the skills that will be able to innovate and create the next software or service that helps change the world.

"From an Xbox and Minecraft point-of-view, this work in education lends credibility to gaming. Some people might think that gaming is a waste of time still. Through my experience, through what James uses in the classroom, we know this is credible."

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who