Friday, August 19, 2016

Learning with Minetest Part 1: Rolling out Minetest in Pre-Primary

This blog post is part of a series of posts exploring the concept of using the Minetest game as a learning platform in a primary school. Click below to access the other posts:

Learning with Minetest Part 1: Rolling out Minetest in Pre-Primary
Learning with Minetest Part 2: Activities and Aims
Learning with Minetest Part 3: Impact on the Students

As a person who is an educator and has also played Minecraft, it's been obvious to me that the idea of mixing the two concepts together would be hugely successful. A 3D world focused on building is a very suitable game-space to develop many areas of learning. The creation of MinecraftEDU, which has recently been bought and re-released by Microsoft/Mojang, seemed inevitable. The US dollar price-tag for MinecraftEDU wasn't ideal, though I have always been interested in the possibility of bringing Minecraft into my computer lab.

Last week, I stumbled across Minetest. Minetest is a free, open source game which takes it's inspiration heavily from Minecraft. Minecraft itself was first inspired by a game called Infiniminer, we are the sum of our influences, etc. Nobody involved with Minetest makes a profit, the entire game framework is designed so that anyone can create mods for the game and the community shares the development. I wrote a proposal for my school administration which outlines the differences between the two games, which is available here.

Minecraft versus Minetest

In brief, when I brought Minecraft in to test in the lab it behaved sluggishly. The IT technicians had been concerned about setting it up on LAN as they had run into issues before. Modding Minecraft was a tricky thing as it had never been designed for modding. As I mentioned, the fact that it was a paid product also put a damper on the possibility of using it for learning.

Minetest was surprisingly easily for me to set up, in comparison. Even though there is less documentation out there for Minetest (they do have a wiki), I managed to get a server running in very little time at all. The student computers have the IP address saved so that when the server is running on my teacher station they can just enter their username and press Connect. Minetest performs incredibly smoothly, especially compared to Minecraft. A few days after finding it, I still marvel when I open up a world and there's so little lag.

Day 0 - Setting Up

After installing Minetest on a couple of machines to test the local server idea, I invited a dozen kids in to see how the concept would work. It was an after-school hour of utter joy, for them and for me. I was soon shown how much I need to learn about how hosting a server works, but it was also immediately clear how much potential Minetest could have. Something that proved crucial was modifying the config file so that the public lobby of servers was disabled for our students. I want them to only use Minetest locally, that way it is safer, we aren't bogged down by external mods, and they will be less distracted from the learning objectives. I learned how to do that here.

Day 1 - Grade R gets a sneak peek

Today I ran my first few classes through Minetest. I had wanted more time to prepare, but one of the Grade R teachers had mentioned that I had got 'Minecraft' working in the computer lab and the first class was beside itself with excitement. I decided to dive in with explaining how the W key was used for moving forwards, the spacebar for jumping, and the mouse for looking around. Many children had never used the keyboard and mouse in this way so it was a learning curve for them. As I hadn't thought to establish a strict ruleset to enforce digital citizenship, I used the golden rule of treating each other kindly. Next time I will definitely start with a rules and consequences discussion as I have seen on many Minecraft teaching blogs out there.

Helping our friend dig out a block.
The Grade R (age 5-6) children responded really well to the experiment. All of the children were soon able to navigate around the landscape, jump over obstacles and follow their friends around the map. Some children were comfortable with beginning to dig and place blocks, which will be the foundations of the building we will do later. All of the children wanted to play again, immediately asking me if we were going to play in their next lesson. This afternoon, a parent came to find me to tell me that her son had already explained about Minetest and how much fun he had in Computers today. It's always great to hear that my ideas are helping students become enthusiastic about their learning.

Exploring our desert world.
Next on the agenda is introducing Minetest to each of my classes, beginning each one with a discussion about the rules. I'm expecting something along the following lines:
  • Use your real name to log in.
  • Leave other people's buildings alone.
  • Treat each other kindly.
I will be using the huge realm of information that has been written for using Minecraft in an educational context, many of the lessons and guides can easily be applied to the Minetest environment even though it isn't as sophisticated. I also want to get my classroom teachers in for a Minetest lesson so that they can let go of their reservations about using such a popular game for learning. If we can harness the platforms that the children are naturally drawn to for the power of good, then I think we'll have done something great.

H finds a warthog.

In the next part of this series, I will be discussing how I went about setting up Minetest for my various classes. This includes the worlds that I used and the activities that I planned. Click below to access part 2:

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