LOUISVILLE, Ky — Non-traditional instruction can wear on students and teachers alike, especially considering how long they’ve been away from physical classrooms.
One computer program, Minecraft, was seemingly built for this moment.
On the surface, Minecraft appears like it was created at the dawn of video games themselves. The graphic quality is intentionally, objectively horrible; with eight-bit characters walking through blocky eight-bit worlds. But the object of the game is to create whatever one's mind can imagine, so, the blocks hold endless possibilities and the worlds expand, limited only by imagination.
Microsoft, the game's parent company, designed an education edition of Minecraft in 2016. Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) technical lead for digital innovation Jim Unger said he has been using it at JCPS since 2017, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the district's 101,000 students were forced home and given Chromebooks, Unger ramped up Minecraft's use.
"We got over 13,000 individual, active users in December; which is kind of a short month education-wise," Unger said. "We are the world leader for education usage for Minecraft."
Microsoft would not confirm Unger's claim of world Minecraft domination in the classroom, but a spokesperson wrote a statement to Spectrum News 1 reading, "We work closely with JCPS to incorporate Minecraft: Education Edition into its classrooms, both in-person and virtually."
But students and teachers we spoke with shared Unger's appreciation for the program.
"It’s like your own virtual world, and it helps you understand NTI more if you get to know your virtual world," said Maya, a sixth-grader.
The education edition provides journals for writing answers and thoughts, animated people who ask users questions, and Unger said students can even recreate battle scenes from the Civil War, adding that students become eager to look up the recorded history before forming the ranks.
"I’ve had teachers – I teach technology – and they’ll come by the classroom and go, 'Is this where the kids get to play games,'" recounted Arlene Fuller. "And I have said, 'They’re not playing games!..' We do the math, we do the science, they do the writing, and they also apply social studies because they learn the history."
During our conversation with the group, we were repeatedly told they also take advantage of the game's original intended purpose: genuine human interaction, even if it is through a screen.
It's the best that can be done this school year.