I’ve definitely seen a lot of interest in Minecraft in education, but is there any evidence for its value as an educational environment?
Mimi: We are still in the early days of educators experimenting with Minecraft, so you aren’t going to see the kind of robust outcomes-centered work that are characteristic of more established subjects and methods. On top of this, the open-ended and malleable nature of Minecraft as an educational tool and environment works against standardized, content-centered programs that are easier to test and measure.
Educators have used Minecraft in such a wide variety of ways, ranging from teaching specific social science or math topics, to coding, to offering it as an open ended sandbox for play and problem solving. In fact, there is considerable debate within the educator community about the best uses of Minecraft. These debates mirror the longstanding schisms between content and skills centered approaches and more progressive, learner centered approaches in education. So the differences run much deeper than Minecraft itself.
What this means is that we can look to the existing evidence base for learning outcomes, even though the research on Minecraft specifically is still limited. As you probably gleaned, our Minecraft program sits in the social constructivist and learner-centered camp, and is grounded in the model of connected learning that has been developed over the past decade by a network of researchers, designers, and educators, many of whom have been associated with the MacArthur foundation funded Digital Media and Learning Initiative.
My earlier work as part of the Digital Youth Study and the current work of the Connected Learning Research Network, which I chair, has amassed a large body of evidence that has guided our approach. Henry, your work on participatory culture and new media literacy is also a cornerstone of this work.
In a nutshell, the research points to the profound impact of learning that is centered on collaborative creation, and is connected to young people’s genuine interests. When we give kids the opportunity to develop friendships and connect with experts while building and problem solving together, we have found time and time again that the experience is transformative. Not only do they retain specific content and skills better, but they also acquire higher-order skills like problem solving, teamwork, and literacy.
They also develop meaningful and lasting relationships that help them find their place in the world, and can be tied to concrete opportunities. For example, kids who were part of last summer’s servers have formed lasting friendships and stay in touch. And even though our summer camp hasn’t even started yet, we’ve already found job opportunities for some of our counselors.
These are just small examples of the much broader evidence base for how these kind of connected learning programs make a difference in kids’ lives. For anybody interested in learning more, the case studies of learning in youth affinity networks from our research network, or the resources at the Connected Learning Alliance provide a wealth of additional reading material!
All of your work in education so far has been in the research and non-profit sector. Why did you decide to cross over to the for profit sector? Have you gotten any criticism about running an educational program as a for-profit tech startup?
Katie: I was drawn to this project because of the unique model it afforded: a social venture (Connected Camps is a California-based benefit corporation) partnering with a non-profit, founded by people with deep experience in research and mission-driven startups. Any one of those sectors has inherent limitations but in combination there is a real possibility for innovation not only in content or product, but in sustainability models and the reach and impact the work can have.
Tara: My background is in building software platforms so my immediate thought is scale. When you run a locally based, mission focused nonprofit like the LA Makerspace, there are limitations. Working in the digital space, you don’t have those barriers and running as a for profit with a social mission offers Connected Camps the ability to raise the capital that we need to scale globally but keep us grounded in our mission to provide kids with the resources and support they need to learn and level up through their interests.
There are a lot of examples of organizations that start a non profit arm so they can focus on a mission that isn't profit driven. As a benefit corp we are starting at ground zero with this approach and we have received a lot of positive feedback from startups that are also socially driven and interested in the same model. I think that we are going to see more and more benefit corporations starting up, especially by socially focused Generation Z who go out of their way to purchase products and services from businesses that they know are helping to create a better world.
Mimi: Even in the few months since we’ve launched the new company, I’ve learned so much about what an entrepreneurial and startup mindset can bring to the table. As Tara mentions, locating the work in a for-profit has enabled us to tap different kinds of funding sources and vehicles.
Unlike a grant or a contract, an investment isn’t oriented to a pre-defined product or outcome, but is a bet on the success and sustainability of a team and company. It gives us more flexibility to iterate, test, and pivot when needed.There is a not-insignificant contingent of the tech sector who embraces progressive goals and and would like to improve education, but who are skeptical that traditional non-profit organizations and vehicles can achieve these aims. I see an opportunity for socially minded edtech ventures to tap into both the culture and capital of the tech sector.
A tech startup is relentless about focus on providing value to people and offering what can spread and eventually be sustainable. I’ve found it interesting how important the research and evidence-based orientation is, and that part feels both familiar and different. Connected Camps is evidence-driven in that it is grounded in decades of primary research and more recent design research. But what’s different from my work in the academy is that it is also evidence and market accountable. We can’t afford to develop offerings that people aren’t going to take up, and the marketplace provides immediate feedback if something isn’t understandable or valuable to the people we are seeking to serve.
The relentless focus on traction and sustainability can of course have its downside too, which is why Connected Camps is a b-corp and why Summer of Minecraft is a co-venture with a nonprofit. We are lucky to have tech investors and advisors who are committed to the social mission as well as the sustainability of the company.
I’m sure as our work gets more visibility, and hopefully more traction, we will need to navigate thorny tensions between the culture and values of the various communities we are bridging through this work. For example, we are working with public libraries and schools to provide opportunities for free for kids who don’t have the resources to play Minecraft from home, while also serving families through our paid subscriptions who have abundant tech resource and are used to paying much more for summer camps. This is about the tensions between nonprofit and for profit educational programs, as well as tensions between the commerce and the more community and volunteer-based orientations in participatory culture and gaming. For example, we have already gotten some pushback from people in the Minecraft world about charging for access to our servers.
The bottom line is that I feel every child deserves to have connected learning experiences, and online programs like ours provide a unique opportunity to spread these opportunities at a low cost to families in all walks of life. I feel we should use all of the resources, communities, and tools at our disposal to accomplish this, and that includes networked participatory culture, the traditional non-profit sector, corporations, as well as the tech startup scene. This latest venture is consistent with my prior work in being an effort to achieve the longstanding goals of progressive education with the tools of our times.
Mimi Ito, Ph.D., is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine. She also serves as Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and as Chair of the Connected Learning Research Network.
Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. She co-founded Institute of Play. She also led the team that founded Quest to Learn and helped found CICS ChicagoQuest.
Tara Brown is a technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded LA Makerspace. She is the Technology Director at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. She has contributed as an Artist-in-Residence at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and a Hacker-in-Residence at Sparkfun Electronics.