Roughly one-and-three-quarters days later, I realized my mistake. Yes, my kids were able to put their vast expanses of free time to good use and learn new things. But the time it took me to prepare material and guide them through it was overwhelming. So I was more than a little excited when the news hit that Microsoft was releasing free educational content wrapped up in every grade-school kid’s favorite video game, Minecraft. Here was the promised land — a way to have children learn without complete parent micromanagement. But could it live up to the hype?
Introducing the Education Collection
Four years ago, Microsoft spun off a Minecraft education version aimed at teachers and schools. In the years since, some of those features have slowly seeped back into the mainstream builds. Minecraft’s new educational worlds are just the latest example.
Starting now, the in-game Minecraft Marketplace has a new section called the Education Collection. Visit that page, and you’ll see 12 very different worlds that are based on content from the education edition. All of these worlds are free to download until the end of June. But once you download them, they remain yours forever.
There’s one catch. This content is only available in the Bedrock edition of Minecraft, not the older Java-based edition. That means Windows 10 users have access, but macOS users are sadly out of luck.
It might not be immediately obvious, but the Education Collection has an overwhelming amount of content. Most of the worlds are richly detailed and need more than a day to explore. Many have built-in games and activities that take much longer. And if your kids are at the build-break-kill level of Minecraft interaction, they’ll need help getting started.
In other words, you won’t be able to just drop these worlds in your child’s lap and expect them to conquer new vistas of learning. You’ll need at least a bit of preparation and follow-up. And you’ll probably want to focus on one world at a time.
Learning by exploring
The first step is to orient yourself with the different types of Minecraft worlds in the Education Collection. The easiest to understand are exploration-based worlds. The concept of these worlds is that you wander around a virtual environment making discoveries. The simplest example is the world called The Human Eye, which features a model of an eye scaled to gargantuan proportions. You walk inside like you’re entering Grand Central Station and look around. As you explore, you’ll find different plaques that label important structures. It’s like a virtual museum of your body.
If your goal is to get the maximum learning out of this experience, it’s worth giving your child some background reading or an introductory video about how eyes work before turning them loose in the Human Eye world. If your goal is simply to get a half-hour free for a Zoom meeting with colleagues, you’re already golden.
There are a few more explore-and-learn worlds to try out. Visit Mount Olympus to learn about Greek mythology. Tour Washington, D.C., landmarks while the coronavirus has you confined to your home. (Yes, kids are just as likely to ignore the important monuments in virtual life as they are on a real tour.) But the best way to geek out is by taking a walk through an incredibly faithful model of the International Space Station. If you’ve ever watched a YouTube video of the ISS, you’ve probably seen how directions flip as astronauts navigate from one section to another. (Turn a corner, and all of a sudden you’re walking up the wall Matrix style.) The Minecraft version of the ISS preserves this mind-bending quality perfectly, and as you move around, you’ll quickly lose track of whether you’re going forward, to the side, or up and down. (You’ll also find it difficult to position your Minecraft avatar perfectly so you can fit through the narrow passageways. More than once, I resorted to hacking a path through a tricky corner.)
Unlike the Human Eye, the ISS world doesn’t present very much written information. If your goal is education, start by checking out the real thing on YouTube, then let your kids explore it (and break it) in Minecraft.
Puzzles, games, and coding
Many of Minecraft’s educational worlds get more ambitious by introducing stories and puzzles. Some of them have role-playing games. For example, the Marine Biologist world invites you to pretend you’re a marine biologist for the day. You pick up an animal-identifying scanner at your research station, board a submarine, and pilot through a richly detailed aquatic environment that’s full of ocean life. In this sort of world, the learning is like decoration, with bits of it scattered here and there. Mastering the game mechanics — finding out who to talk to and which switches to press and getting your inventory stocked with underwater equipment — takes up most of the time. It’s up to you whether you see this sort of Minecraft experience as a reward at the end of an existing marine biology unit or just a kid-friendly game.
Other worlds introduce more sophisticated logic games. One of the most innovative (and complex) examples is Logic0, where you build a program-like series of instructions by assembling blocks on a play surface. These blocks then guide a robot through a course (a process shown in this video). Succeed, and you unlock a new, harder level.
Microsoft describes Logic0 as a kid-friendly world for learning to code. I find it slightly infuriating. Compared to a visual or text-based programming language, you need to invest a lot of extra effort moving around the code room, shuffling blocks into the right places, pressing buttons, and finding a good vantage point to watch your program execute. If you want to use Minecraft to introduce coding, I much prefer the free Microsoft MakeCode tool, which lets you use a block-based programming language to hack any Minecraft world. But that’s not to say that Logic0 can’t be a magical experience for the right kid.
The bottom line is this: Whether you see Minecraft as a valuable learning tool, a virtuous distraction, or a complement to more formal lessons, there’s great value in the game’s free Education Collection. If you’ve already got Minecraft in your home, there’s no need to wait — grab these worlds while they’re still free.