A North Carolina District-University Partnership Encourages Minecraft Educational Activities

This North Carolina district is working with the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation to learn how to expand technology use in the classroom.

by Jessica Williams, Times-News, Burlington, N.C. / January 6, 2017 0

(TNS) — ELON, N.C. — Jennifer Oakley's third-grade math class is spending the day playing videogames.

The game is Minecraft, and Oakley has turned it into a lesson on area and perimeter with the help of iPads, Chromebooks and Google Docs, but the Altamahaw-Ossipee students see it more as a fun break.

"They know more about Minecraft than I do, and they know that they know more about Minecraft than I do," Oakley joked. "But I'm just kind of monitoring to make sure they're doing the math that goes with it."

After reading an article comparing Minecraft to LEGOs, Oakley asked the students to write persuasive essays and create short presentations on why they should be able to use Minecraft in the classroom.

Now, grouped in pairs, the students are designing houses using the 3-D world-building iPad application, and creating floorplans in a shared Google Doc to measure the area and perimeter of the houses and everything in them.

Robin Finberg, executive director of Curriculum and Professional Development for ABSS, says Minecraft has become a useful educational tool over the past year, and not only for elementary schools.

Hawfields Middle School has its own widely popular Minecraft club, and kick-started a summer camp dedicated to using the game for educational purposes last summer.

"I think it's engaging in a sense that they already know what it's about, and they like the way that Minecraft has that three-dimensionality, and the ability to be creative and innovative, and have their own worlds, and build them up and knock them down, but then to be able to take those same kind of skills and apply it to math I think is a way to get them excited," Finberg said.

The students use the technology with ease, but Oakley, an 18-year teacher, is still learning.

She's in the first year of the two-year ABSS Tech Apprentice program, which has partnered with the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State University's College of Education to provide teachers with lessons on how technology can be used in the classroom through face-to-face meetings, coaching and classroom support, and online modules.

"I'm learning so much. I mean there's a whole technology world out there that I do not know," Oakley said. "For instance, today we did a formative assessment that the kids could do on the computer that I would have never thought about doing. I would have grabbed a paper and pencil and said, 'Here you go,' but now they're able to do it and watch themselves on the screen and compare with other kids."

Technology takes a lot of the pressure off of teachers faced with large class sizes.

For example, the Minecraft activity is one stop on an online treasure map that includes assessments to measure how the kids are learning. If students score high on the assessment, they can take a more challenging path on the treasure map with different activities than another child who might not grasp the material at the same level.

It's that kind of teaching style that the district hopes to expand with the one-to-one computing initiative, which aims to provide each student with a laptop so he or she can access digital materials and textbooks that are tailored to learning needs.

"Whenever you have an environment that is one to one, it allows the teachers to more effectively differentiate, so they have the ability to make sure each child is able to work at their own independent level," Finberg said.

While the dream is to duplicate Oakley's Minecraft lesson in each ABSS classroom, Finberg says the cost of iPads and Chromebooks is a huge hurdle. For now, they are taking it one classroom and one videogame at a time.

"The size of our district and funding is always a challenge, but if we're really going to personalize learning for our kids, I don't know how else to do it without having access to technology," she said.

©2017 Times-News (Burlington, N.C.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.