BBB Presents: MinecraftEdu’s Santeri Koivisto on gaming and education

Perhaps you’ve heard of Minecraft. The video game invented by the folks at Mojang, in Sweden, as a digital rendition of Legos? The one that Microsoft bought for $2.5 billion — roughly the cost of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover mission — in 2014?

It’s rather popular. That same year, Minecraft surpassed 100 million registered users, and “Minecraft” was the second-most searched term on YouTube (check out this video from Brain Bar Budapest media partner Wired if you’re into insane Minecraft statistics).

Meet Santeri Koivisto at Brain Bar Budapest. Get your ticket today.

These days, there are more than 100 million registered Minecraft users and maybe 160,000 Minecraft servers globally, including 700-plus servers right here in Hungary (the United States, with about 35,000 of them, narrowly leads Germany for server supremacy). Denmark (~500 servers) was so into the game that the folks at the Danish Geodata Agency recreated the entire country on a 1:1 scale with a trillion blocks.

Perhaps you’ve heard of MinecraftEdu, too. It’s Minecraft, but modified for use in classrooms. Mojang officially supports it, and it’s now being used to enhance subject areas as diverse as STEM, language, history and art in 15,000 classrooms in 40 countries around the world. Santeri Koivisto — teacher, MinecraftEdu co-creator and TeacherGaming LLC cofounder and CEO — will be sharing his insights into the future of education at Brain Bar Budapest. He took to the keyboard to answer a few questions in the meantime.

Q: What inspired you and colleagues to modify Minecraft as an educational tool?

A: We were all teachers or Minecraft players and tried the game in our own classes. It was a huge hit amongst the students, but what was special is that fellow teachers also came to us and wanted to learn more about what we were doing. That was a big signal for us that there’s something more in this game.

The future of mathematics education may be in the blocks.

Q: Is this, in its own way, fighting fire with fire? That is, if kids are playing games anyway and have positive associations with gaming, why not have gaming be a part of childhood development as opposed to a distraction from it?

Q: I think games are the biggest parenting challenge of today. When there’s something you can’t get rid of, the only way forward is to go deeper. The feedback we have been receiving from homes is, “Thank god schools are finally doing something about my child being so nuts about games.” There are such positive things coming out of games that it would be foolish to let all of that slip through our fingers. But it’s clear that, like every other media, games have their pitfalls. We are not suggesting kids in school play 25 hours a week; more like 2–3 hours, to connect games to different topics and have meaningful interaction between various media and contexts.

Q: What’s an example of how MinecraftEdu incorporates lessons into the games?

Let’s imagine a history project. Students first study about Roman housing at home, and then they come and build a domus on a plot assigned by the teacher. If math is integrated, the teacher can provide a “building permit” students need to follow — say a hundred square meters. The students get a green light from their teacher for the building and then they execute it based on the historical information.

After the first phase, they start investigating other structures, like prefect posts, theatres, forums, etc., and then form groups to build those common structures. Finally, they prepare a presentation on their domus’s features and common buildings with the group.

Q: Are there particular sorts of curriculum, if that’s the right word, that seem to be better for game-based learning? One in which it’s probably not reasonable?

Well, we’ve seen examples from all subjects, but projects and phenomena-based learning are the best “methods.” It’s hard to build in very detailed information. The game is more like a digital classroom for experiments, demonstrations and inspiration.

Q: MinecraftEdu isn’t your only game. Can you describe what else you have cooking?

We’re creating a portfolio / store for indie game publishing for the school market. We’re also building our first in-house game under our spinoff 5 More Minutes. And we are building a learning analytics engine technology for visualizing and understanding the learning inside a game.

Q: Has there been any indication about the effectiveness of game-based learning versus traditional means in terms of retention?

Every method has its uses. Games are not highly effective for large batches of detailed information, but great for understanding mechanics, relations and procedures. Games and the “traditional” stuff can work hand in hand.

Q: Where is this all going? In 20 years, will kids go through “school” (perhaps at home in their pajamas?) wearing VR headsets?

Well, I hope we are still humans at that point, and that we still enjoy social interaction. I’m sure technological platforms will take on more roles on the content side — meaning that kids will be learning all kinds of skills and knowledge through digital stuff. But teachers are focusing more on “raising a child” by building collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking skills as well as facilitating creativity. So if you are a teacher who just goes through books and lectures your kids and calls it “learning,” you might be in trouble. But if you are an active facilitator who uses all kinds of content, you’ll most likely be awesome in 20 years, too.

We try to create tools that help teachers teach hard and unfamiliar topics with media they are not that experienced on, games.

Interview by Todd Neff