‘Game’ helps learners with coding, robotics

Henry

The digital game-based learning platform Minecraft Education can help learners improve their skills in coding and robotics, which will stand them in good stead when they enter the workplace of the future.

This is according to a new study at Stellenbosch University (SU).

“Minecraft Education and its virtual robot, the Agent, can improve learner engagement, support the development of learners’ skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) and offer them a positive, meaningful, enjoyable learning experience,” says Michael Vorster, a teacher from Cape Town who recently obtained his master’s degree in curriculum studies at SU.

“Coding and robotics are considered integral components of Voice education because of their potential to develop 21st century skills,” he adds.

Vorster focused on how Minecraft Education and the Agent can be integrated as a digital game-based tool to support the teaching and learning of coding and robotics in a gr. to support 7th class at an independent school in Cape Town. He wanted to find out how learners and their teacher experienced Minecraft in the classroom.

Vorster says the gr. 7 learners completed a Minecraft Virtual City project in their first term, where they had to work in pairs or groups of three learners within the same Minecraft world to develop an empty plot of their choice (residential, commercial or industrial). The groups worked together to create their virtual city in Minecraft while learning more about city planning. Their teacher created the map with the empty plots.

They also completed a Minecraft Agent coding module in the same year, which required them to follow a set of specific instructions to code their Agent so that it could perform specific actions such as creating a borehole, filling the borehole with water, as well as create an animal farm and build a greenhouse.

The Minecraft Agent coding module is linked to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.

According to Vorster, her observation of lessons, focus group discussions and interviews with learners, their teacher and an assistant showed that Minecraft Education has the potential to promote engagement, collaboration and creative problem-solving skills and prepare learners for future technological landscapes and careers.

“Minecraft Education and the Agent contribute significantly to emotional, cognitive and behavioral learner engagement by providing an engaging, interactive and enjoyable learning environment. These elements help encourage learners’ sustained interest in, motivation for and active participation in coding and robotics lessons.”

He says Minecraft offers enjoyable gameplay and appropriate challenges and allows for progress in learning coding and robotics skills. The hands-on, interactive nature of Minecraft Education encouraged creative problem-solving and collaboration among learners as part of their emotional and behavioral engagement as they completed tasks and overcame challenges.

“They worked together by helping each other correct or ‘debug’ their codes and celebrated together when they successfully completed a task during the Agent coding module.”

Vorster says that in previous coding modules, the learners would start to lose interest as soon as the coding and robotics activities became too challenging.

“However, with the use of Minecraft Education, they seemed to be able to stay engaged longer and with more persistence and began to demonstrate problem-solving skills to tackle more complex challenges during the coding and robotics lessons.

“A combination of Agent coding tasks and creative building tasks in Minecraft Education has the potential to ‘creatively engage’ and motivate many learners with the potential to achieve a state of ‘flow’ – to be fully immersed in the activity without being distracted or losing focus – by adjusting their skill level to the appropriate level of challenge.”

Vorster also emphasizes the crucial role of teachers in motivating, encouraging and guiding learners during the coding and robotics module. They facilitate learning activities, encouraging teamwork and helping learners navigate challenges within the various Minecraft tasks.

“Feedback from the learners indicated that the teachers’ input and involvement with them during a coding and robotics class had a direct influence on their cognitive and behavioral involvement in the tasks. A sense of belonging among learners, as well as support and encouragement from teachers, were considered two important aspects of emotional and behavioral involvement.”

Vorster says coding and robotics activities require learners to develop a set of instructions that a robot must execute.

“This set of instructions forms the code that the robot follows to carry out a task, for example to move in a specific direction. Learners often find that the robot does not perform the task they expected, resulting in them having to revisit their code to correct or ‘debug’ it.

“It is therefore important to keep learners engaged, especially when coding and robotics tasks become more challenging, otherwise learners may start to lose interest and give up on the task completely without finding a viable solution to the ‘virus’ or bug in their code. “

In order for Minecraft Education and the Agent to have the desired effect, according to Vorster, teachers must create assignments, tasks and activities that take into account learner autonomy, learner independence and a sense of achievement.

He admits that although more and more independent schools in South Africa have started to develop their own coding and robotics lessons as part of their Stem curriculum, many schools still cannot afford robotics kits. “This remains an obstacle in South Africa. Partnerships between the public and private sectors can offer a potential solution to this challenge.”

More about Minecraft

  • The original Minecraft game was officially released in 2011 and purchased by Microsoft in 2014.
  • The game immerses players in a virtual 3D world where they have to mine resources such as wood, stone and iron ore that come in the form of blocks.
  • Players can create new materials and tools to survive in the 3D world or to apply creativity and change the 3D world.
  • Minecraft Education was developed in 2016 by Microsoft.
  • Built-in educational features include the Agent, a camera, a portfolio, as well as a book and quill, which learners can use to create a digital portfolio of work to demonstrate their understanding and progress.
  • Minecraft Agent is embedded in Minecraft Education Edition.
  • The Minecraft Agent can be used to teach coding and robotics.
  • Minecraft Education can be downloaded from the Google Play Store: https://bit.ly/3TA1lyi