Connected Learning through Minecraft: An Interview with the Three Co-Founders of Connected Camps (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I featured a thoughtful post on Minecraft and its relationship to "transmedia learning," written by Barry Joseph, the Associate Director of Digital Learning at The American Museum of Natural History. Joseph's analysis generated enormous interest from my readers, and for good reason, since there has been growing educational activity around Minecraft over the past few years and we are reaching the point where we can speak with some confidence about the payoffs in terms of fostering a learning culture. Over the next few posts, I want to drill deeper into some of that research and share more about the ways Minecraft has become a key site for thinking about connected learning. Mimi Ito, Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Tara Brown are long time fellow travelers games and learning field and the movement for connected learning. This spring, they launched a new benefit corporation, Connected Camps, dedicated to building social and connected online learning environments for kids. Their startup’s first project, which is being produced in collaboration with Katie’s nonprofit, Institute of Play, is an online Minecraft summer camp. (For those interested, I have just finished a book length conversation with Mimi Ito and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics, due out from Polity later this year.)

I’ve asked them to share some of the background and thinking behind this new venture, and what prompted them to launch a tech startup.



You don’t often see a tech startup being launched by three women. How did that come about?

Tara: Connected Camps is the evolution of years of collective work around supporting kids in learning through their passionate interests. I founded the community focused nonprofit, LA Makerspace, where interest-driven learning and mentoring are key to its success. A few years ago I learned about Mimi's research on connected learning and how effective a model it is for kids to learn and it was very validating to find out that learning outside the classroom is just as important as inside the classroom. We decided to work on an online mentor matching project together based on StarCraft at UC Irvine Digital Media Learning Research Hub and that’s when I met Katie and all the amazing work that she does with kids and gaming. I think individually we each saw how interest in games based learning was growing and that there was a real opportunity to bring our expertise to an area that has a lot of passion behind it but was still a very open field for innovation and entrepreneurism.

In terms of us being women, that’s just an awesome benefit, it wasn’t forced. If you pay attention to startup news there are a lot of stories written about female founders and how they are still a minority and don’t get the support that they need from the startup community. What’s fortunate for the three of us is that we are already part of the communities that we are serving because of our individual expertise in the education and technology spaces and together we are a trifecta of tech, research and practice that you rarely see in any tech startup let alone an education focused tech startup.

Katie: The three of us have collaborated off and on over the years both through my work at Institute of Play and as a design researcher and professor focused on the space of games and learning. Mimi and I had worked on several connected learning case studies focused on LittleBigPlanet and Starcraft; I connected with Tara years ago around a project with a big fashion company that was looking to develop an online design curriculum and mentorship program. When interests are aligned and there is a shared goal around doing innovative work to support kids in developing their passions and interests around design and technology, collaboration in a natural outgrowth. Plus Mimi and Tara are two of the smartest, coolest, hardest-working people I know--who wouldn’t want to work with them! The fact that we’re all women in tech may seem unusual to some, but to us it is just normal. It is the work we love to do.

When Mimi and Tara started talking about scaling the Minecraft camp pilots they had been running, we started talking about how Institute of Play might become a core partner in the venture. There was a need for curriculum design and mentor training support for the camp, and the Institute was interested in expanding the work it had been doing with young people around Minecraft, design and coding. Once we looked into how the two organizations could collaborate, it just seemed to make a lot of sense.

Mimi: Tara and Katie have both had experience in the startup space since they’ve been part of starting new nonprofits and companies. This is my first startup, and I’m learning a ton from my two co-founders. The three of us all embrace a spirit of entrepreneurism that is characteristic of the startup and commercial sector, as well as an appreciation for the social and educational agendas that are most often associated with the public and nonprofit sector. This new startup is an effort to build something that leverages the strength of both of these orientations.

Katie and I are both non-traditional academics in that we’ve tied our work to collaborations with a wide range of commercial and nonprofit partners outside of the academy. So this project felt just right for us. I have a very clear memory of sitting down at a family dinner with Tara many years ago when she was considering leaving the tech world to get a doctorate so that she could pursue more of her interests in the research and social good side of things. I somehow managed to convince her to collaborate on some early design research that could serve education while also growing organically out of her strengths as a tech entrepreneur. And that was the start of this adventure.

Why did you choose to focus on Minecraft?

Katie: Minecraft was one of the first games the middle school students we were working with at Quest to Learn demanded be part of their curriculum. It started informally as a club—we helped the school set up a server and two Institute of Play game designers (Claudio Midolo and Brendon Trombley), who were embedded in the school as part of our work with teachers there, supported the kids who joined. Soon teachers in the school started stopping by the club, as the kids were talking non-stop about all the amazing things they were doing in the game.

Activities like building structures that required players to understand geometric concepts and physics; building interactive objects with switches and triggers that sounded a lot like computer programming. And then there were the stories of how the kids were collaborating and having to deal with interpersonal conflicts that came up as they were learning how to negotiate sharing a common space and resources on the multiplayer server. The teachers were intrigued—the student accounts sounded a lot like super engaged, good learning.

From there things grew. Some of the teachers started using Minecraft in their classrooms and soon the game was being used across a number of grades in the school. This story is not unique--many schools and educators from around the country have been using Minecraft with their students. When thinking about a core platform for Connected Camps, the fact that there was already buy-in from both kids and educators really helped. We know kids love the game. The fact that many educators do too, expanded the radius of possibility of what could be done with the camp and the impact it could have.

Tara: It’s hard to ignore the phenomenon of Minecraft. You have to be hiding under a rock to not notice almost every 10 year old in America talking about it. Even kids who don’t play Minecraft watch players on YouTube.

Last summer, my team at the Connected Learning Alliance ran an online camp pilot under Pursuitery. Our experiment was simple - we wanted to test whether kids would participate in a purely online summer camp. The camps included Scratch, a visual programming language out of MIT, Phonar Nation, a photography course developed by Jonathan Worth, Mozilla Webmaker, a platform to learn how to design webpages and remix media and Minecraft. We had different levels of engagement in each camp but the one camp that stood out the most in terms of engagement was Minecraft.

Minecraft had a lot of the tools we needed to communicate with the kids already built into the community and the game including the chat feature and It’s a game that appeals to a broad category of interests and skill levels — you can build, craft, program, socialize, learn survival skills and more. The parents of the campers were involved and assisted in resolving conflicts. Some of the kids from that pilot are still playing with each other today — they hail from Japan, Switzerland, Canada, the US and more. It’s really exciting to see how their friendship has developed and how they have created their own in-game challenges over this past year.

Mimi: The popularity of Minecraft represents an unprecedented opportunity for those of us who value interest-driven and production-centered learning. It’s the first time we have the most popular game of our time be centered on construction and design.

My dissertation work back in the late nineties at Stanford was a cultural history of “edutainment” software that emerged in the eighties. Most titles tracked along established genres and market segments, either focused on education and school subjects, or on entertainment which was mostly about exploration and fun. I was most intrigued, however by titles in what I called the “construction” category.

The Sims games were the commercially successful titles in this category, though there were other interesting titles out of Lucas Learning and the MIT Media Lab. What’s different about Minecraft today is it is the first time this kind of construction title has been a truly dominant player in the commercial marketplace. It’s also important that it has been embraced by teachers, parents, as well as kids. For the first time, I feel there is a massively scaled platform that we can build learning experiences around that truly spans the genres of entertainment and education.



The popularity of Minecraft means a lot of educators and summer camps have embraced it. What makes your effort different?

Tara: Our philosophy around how we approach learning involves kids feeling empowered to take the lead, but in order for that to happen we have found that you need a framework and a starting point so that there is some structure in ultimately what can look like chaos from the outside.

Challenges are a great way to spark the ignition and get the campers working towards a goal. Ours are open ended enough that we don’t constrain where their interests take them. For example, our first challenge is to build a base camp. It may sound simple, but in Minecraft everyone likes to have a place that is uniquely theirs and represents their in-game identity so this is where creativity and spatial skills are used. It’s also a great way to start learning digital citizenship and social skills - such as asking for help when you need it and not to encroach on other’s creations without permission - aka griefing!

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to moderate appropriately. There’s a balance between making sure everyone is having a fantastic time and interacting positively and allowing that learning to occur naturally in the community. We have opted to moderate through a combination of server plugins to mitigate griefing and other negative behavior and real camp counselors to provide positive examples.

Katie: To me, the biggest value add of Summer of Minecraft is the access the campers have to the cohort of high school mods and college counselors that staff our multiplayer servers. We recruited the mods and counselors based on their passion for the game, their expertise with it, and their interest and ability to support young people in leveling up in building, designing and coding. It is a unique model.

The counselor program provides volunteer opportunities for high school students, who receive service learning credit, and gives college students a paid opportunity to share their expertise with others in an environment they are crazy about. More importantly, the program gives the campers a set of role models to look to and learn from over the summer.

We know how powerful camp can be for kids when they “find their people”, making connections with both peers and mentors who share their passion and interests. And the presence of the mods and counselors ensures that the servers are moderated and safe, and that kids will always have someone to connect with when they are in need of support or a little inspiration.

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.