Microsoft Has No Research To Prove Minecraft’s Value In The Classroom

by Mike Futter on Jan 20, 2016 at 10:12 AM

Yesterday, Microsoft announced that it will be launching an education edition designed for classroom learning. The company acquired MinecraftEdu, a program that has been running since 2011. Given how long Minecraft has been used in the classroom, we were interested in learning more about how educators were evidencing its usefulness in teaching the curriculum.

MinecraftEdu is a specially designed version of Mojang’s popular sandbox game for use in the classroom and compatible with education-focused mods. It was developed and run (up until the Microsoft acquisition) by two individuals, with a network of approximately 7,000 classrooms in more than 40 countries. Approximately half of those classes are in the United States.

Minecraft's value as an entertainment experience is unquestioned. Millions of copies have been sold, and children (and adults) across the world have become enthralled by the possibilities it unlocks. However, the connective tissue between the creative experience and educational outcomes is a crucial piece of any tool brought into the classroom. The sooner Microsoft can begin putting data behind its claims, the easier time it will have bringing more teachers on board.

Following the announcement, we inquired about the work that has been done by educators using MinecraftEdu and how Microsoft envisions using the game in classroom settings. Specifically, after four years of operation, we wanted to know how teachers were evidencing their success.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s responses didn't directly answer our questions, and follow-up didn't yield additional data that would help us understand whether Minecraft is, in fact, a useful tool in the classroom. We asked for specifics on how Minecraft is used to teach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). A few early ideas appear on the Minecraft: Education Edition website; however, no information is available about examples of specific learning improvements using the game. 

“Much like the game Minecraft, Minecraft: Education Edition is designed to be a versatile and open platform that can be used to teach all types of subjects, from math and physics to history and language arts,” a Microsoft representative told us. “There is no limit to what students can learn in the game, and no limit to how the game can extend classroom learning. If you can build it, you can teach it. Minecraft players also develop skills in collaboration, problem solving, communication, digital citizenship, and much more.”

Unfortunately, this does not specifically answer questions about STEM teaching, meeting core standards, the specifics of how Minecraft is employed in the classroom, and concrete outcomes from using the game as a teaching tool. Digging deeper reveals a repository of downloads on MinecraftEdu’s website, but these are often thin on detail, missing lesson plans and targeted standards.

The website’s “world library” is a chronological list that offers filters, but no useful sorting options. There is a peer rating system in place, but content can't be sorted to make the best rise to the surface.

We also asked Microsoft for any evidence that the four years of MinecraftEdu in classrooms had any measurable impact (qualitative or quantitative) on student learning. Instead of pointing to specific data culled from the 7,000 classrooms in 40 countries, Microsoft cited one unlabeled study about the benefit of video games on brain elasticity. The company also pointed to two other, named studies about the impact of digital games on STEM learning.

Neither of these specifically identifies the efficacy of Minecraft as a STEM teaching tool. One study suggests that Minecraft in the classroom improves social skills, but a direct survey of educators disputes that notion. The study goes on to posit why the mismatch might occur, but does not acknowledge that it simply may be that games like Minecraft do not, in fact, improve this area.

“Educators have been and will continue to be an important part of the development of Minecraft: Education Edition and have shared many anecdotal examples of breakthroughs in their classrooms since introducing Minecraft,” the Microsoft representative tells us. “The University of Maine is also currently embarking on a study specific to the effectiveness of Minecraft in the classroom, but no Minecraft-specific studies have been completed to date.”

Minecraft: Education Edition will be available to districts that subscribe to Office 365. Microsoft is targeting a $5 annual fee per student and a release in summer 2016 in time for the beginning of the school year in the fall.


Our Take
As medical professionals remind us, “The plural of anecdote is not data.” Thankfully, Microsoft’s engagement of The University of Maine is a crucial step that will help close that gap. Before the company can pitch the education community on the value of one of its biggest properties in the classroom, it must be prepared to provide direct, research-based, and peer-reviewed outcomes for its use.

Microsoft is picking up a ball that has already been in play and fumbled down the field for four years by someone else. Minecraft: Education Edition, while building on the work of MinecraftEdu must be a new initiative and constructed from the ground up.

Nothing should be assumed, and the fact that teachers have been using Minecraft in the classroom should not be mistaken for proof that it is valuable to do so. It is far too early to celebrate Minecraft’s place in our education system. It’s up to Microsoft to give us reason to do so.

As a gamer, I've watched my son play Minecraft, and I've played with him. I see enormous potential in its tools for learning. But as a parent, without evidence that implementing Minecraft in the classroom will improve my son's performance, I simply couldn't endorse it. I hope Microsoft is able to change my mind.