This year’s CultureTECH Festival again proved a highly successful and attracted many thousands of visitors to the numerous activities that ran across the week long event.
The brainchild of Mark Nagurski, CultureTECH was established in Spring 2012, it’s the largest technology and creative industries event in the North, runs one of the largest education outreach programmes and delivers a variety of innovation programmes across technology, the arts and social innovation.
To that end, a delegation of leading representatives from Microsoft with a particular emphasis on the game Minecraft visited some Derry schools last Friday. Since its invention in 2009 by Swedish video game developer Mojang Specifications, the growth in popularity of Minecraft has been truly global.
The creative and building aspects of Minecraft enable players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D procedurally generated world. Other activities in the game include exploration, resource gathering, crafting, and combat. Multiple gameplay modes are available, including survival modes where the player must acquire resources to build the world and maintain health, a creative mode where players have unlimited resources to build with and the ability to fly, and an adventure mode where players play custom maps created by other players.
Massively increasing global popularity for the game soon attracted interest from Microsoft and in November 2014, the coporation acquired Minecraft from its creators for $2.5 billion.
The ‘Journal’ caught up with representatives from Microsoft at St Mary’s School on Friday.
Vu Bui is the Chief Operating Officer for Mojang. Speaking to the ‘Journal’ he said: “I am one of the people who takes what is created on Minecraft and helps to figure out the things we can do with it in the real world.
“The game is one which is completely developer led and people who write the code also come up with what features will be in it. They create graphics for it, everything is done by them, then people like me find new ways to use it. When you are working on a video game you try to find the purpose of it. You try to find out other intrinsic values in it.
“Minecraft is great in education. We are using it in a block by block programme, where for example we take it and allow local residents to redesign their public spaces and then we build it. So, it is being used in real world applications that result in physical buildings.
“The fact there are so many ways that Minecraft can be used is what is keeping me excited about keeping working on it. And, coming to this school and seeing the students so engaged is great. I can see the teachers and the principal are so enthused and excited by it. And, that in itself is exciting. I can remember being a kid and you wanted to be able to impress your teachers and Minecraft is giving them a way to do that.”
Whilst it is obvious that the game has already become a huge force in education and crosses all academic disciplines in its potential application it is also true that it provides skills which are not perhaps so obvious but are perhaps just as important, if not more important than those already highlighted.
“People learn things that are a little less obvious but are maybe even more impressive,” said Vu.
“Skills in governance, society how to learn about resourcing and the scarcity of resources as well as a having a hierarchy and the distribution of power are also learned. People don’t even realise it but they are running a community. They are learning leadership skills and that’s the type of thing that inspires people,” he said.
Marie Lindsay, principal of St Mary’s College, told the ‘Journal’: “There are a range of skills that our young people need. The digital skills are what is happening now in the classroom and when you see all the technology and what children are creating you realise they are also learning other skills. They are learning from each other, they are collaborating as they use the technology.
“We cannot underestimate the power that this has. Technology is opening doors that hitherto would have been harder to open for them in the classroom. Their confidence is growing. You might have a reluctant or hesitant speaker able to do something wonderful using technology and all of a sudden they find a voice they may not have had in a traditional classroom setting. This skills are vital in the 21st century.”
One St Mary’s student, Erin Baird said: “It’s about using your imagination and constructing different buildings. I am building the school logo here. It applies to maths, history because we can recreate historical buildings, geography. I will keep using it in my years at St Mary’s.
Another student, Eimear O’Donnell was in the process of creating a virtual version of St Mary’s when she spoke to the ‘Journal’.
“I print off the proportions of the school then begin programming it. I find the right materials in an inventory and then place it. I am interesting in I.T. and engineering, so I find Minecraft very useful,” she said.
Director of Minecraft Education at Microsoft, Deirdre Quarnstorm also attended the event at St Mary’s.
“Meeting with teachers at different schools we come to learn what is working well and where we can help staff-how we can help the community of educators. The teachers that are using Minecraft are really pioneers and we want to be able to enable them more and get them the resources. We can then show parents for example what their children are actually learning from it,” said Deirdre.
Teachers and I.T. specialists often harness Minecraft for a specific purpose in disciplines such as history, maths or science. And, through this further skills such as collaboration, leadership as well as independence emerge.
Deirdre told the ‘Journal’: “It’s incredibly inspiring in the classroom. In every classroom I visit, I see something completely different. I see kids that may have been on the sideline coming through as leaders. It gives a child a voice in a classroom and for kids with learning disabilities it provides another way to communicate and another way to express themselves.”
It has also been the case that the game has created situations at times where the pupils in effect become the teachers. Teachers in the position where they are still learning the full scope of Minecraft are able to call upon more technically proficient pupils to find answers for both them and other students. Something which in turn creates further inclusion.
“We see here in the classroom in St Mary’s, for example, that students are constructing a virtual version of their school. If something goes wrong, they simply tear it down and start again. This is another valuable thing because its learning through failure,” said Deirdre.
Microsoft’s Education Manager in Northern Ireland, Tom Jackson said he could not help but be impressed by CultureTECH and the work being done in schools such as St Mary’s.
“I am blown away by it, to be honest. I knew about CultureTECH last year but the more I learn the more interested I have become. It is incredible what you are doing here in Derry. It’s always a challenge to try and commit but we want to become a bigger part of this. Now that the leadership team has been here and seen the scale of what is happening in post primary schools, I would say, watch this space. We have a mid and long term plan to work with Mark Nagurski and I’d say our involvement next year will be a different story to this year,” Tom added.