For the last five years, the wildly popular, free-to-play game Minecraft has been used in classrooms worldwide to enrich content ranging from English to engineering – and now Microsoft has announced a beta testing program for the game’s next education-focused edition that will add more functionality and possibilities for the UK’s teachers.

Minecraft: Education Edition combines the game’s 3D world in which players build structures, gather resources and craft items with tools teachers can use to deliver curriculum in-game and manage their students’ learning experience. Beta testing for educators will open in May, and Minecraft: Education Edition is set to be released in June.

The new Education Edition is the latest evolution in Minecraft’s unique relationship with the education community. When Minecraft first debuted in 2011, game developer Mojang encouraged teachers to experiment with how the open-ended game could be used in classrooms. Minecraft proved immediately popular in the UK, with PC Gamer naming it ‘Game of the Year’ in the UK upon its release. Within the first two years, Minecraft was being used in dozens of countries and languages.

In November of 2014, software giant Microsoft acquired the game from Mojang in a $2.5 billion (USD) deal. Since then, Microsoft has put special attention toward increasing features for educators and students while building on the work of the MinecraftEDU community. MinecraftEDU was developed by TeacherGaming LLC in Finland and has been acquired by Microsoft and integrated into the new version of Minecraft for the classroom.

After acquiring the game, Microsoft quickly launched an online portal for teachers, students and school districts to access resources to better integrate Minecraft in the classroom. Minecraft: Education Edition looks to build on that success by supporting a child’s home play and integrating all of it into an accessible portfolio.

MinecraftEDU’s new features include allowing students to download and play the game at home for free to encourage the effectiveness of in-class play.

Adam Clarke, a freelance Minecraft content producer from the UK known in-game as “Wizard Keen,” says that, “Minecraft is going to help people figure out a collaborative, digital future that they would’ve never imaged otherwise.”

That collaborative effort is already broad, with Microsoft boasting over 100 million Minecraft players worldwide. Minecraft’s education community is particularly strong in the United Kingdom, with the University of Hull developing a modification called ‘Molcraft’ that teaches young students the basics of molecular biology through gameplay.

The British Museum has also joined the craze, inviting players to help build the entire museum – both interior and exterior – in virtual fashion, which they refer to as ‘Museumcraft.’

Teachers who wish to use Minecraft: Education Edition will have a vast library of curricular resources including lesson plans – and they won’t be left to figure it all out alone. The Minecraft Mentors program will connect them with experienced teachers who can guide them through learning the game and integrating it both in their curricula and pedagogy.

In Microsoft’s official statement on the release of Minecraft: Education Edition, Mojang COO Vu Bui said that, “We’ve seen that Minecraft transcends the differences in teaching and learning styles and education systems around the world. It’s an open space where people can come together and build a lesson around nearly anything.”

Teachers worldwide are using Minecraft not just to augment their own lessons, but to connect their students with some of the world’s most pressing problems. In 2012, Mojang created the Block By Block project in a partnership with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) to help citizens and students design public spaces and structures that could be applied to town and city-building. The project aims to have improved 300 public spaces by the end of this year by implementing Minecraft-based designs in the real world.

The most unique feature of the Minecraft: Education Edition rollout gives students the ability to use an in-game camera to document their progress. Screenshots can help students build portfolios of their work with exports to Microsoft’s OneDrive.

Simon Baddeley, who teaches English in Wakefield, England, touts the camera feature as a game-changer that will allow students to use Minecraft more broadly:

“As an English teacher using Minecraft for storytelling, one of my main challenges was how to evidence student learning and projects outside of the game. The new camera and portfolio tools are going to be great features, allowing students to be able to export these shots directly from the students’ portfolio into a specified OneDrive folder is a major step forward and allows much easier integration with other applications.”

Minecraft: Education Edition will initially be available in 41 countries and 11 languages, but collaboration and development in the education community is likely to boost both numbers in the near future.

The game is also continuously enriched by the addition of new items and options that open up possibilities for a range of student projects. One of the newest items to appear is redstone, which is a rare natural resource that can be mined underground or in caves. Redstone allows players to build complex devices that fuel civil engineering, from operating bridges to moving water. Redstone also serves as a wire conduit for power that is an integral part of making circuits that can operate doors and lights.

Teachers, parents and school leaders can access a trove of resources through the MinecraftEDU Wiki website, which includes guides on getting started with Minecraft and implementing the game into classroom activities. The open-participation website explains how to use MinecraftEDU’s classroom management tools to tailor in-game activities to specific learning modules, administer student access and limits, and take advantage of custom building block options that teachers can use to develop their own content.

PBS Digital’s Idea Channel posited that Minecraft is the “ultimate educational tool”:

“As video games continue their search for legitimacy as forms of entertainment, artwork, containers for narratives and now educational tools, Minecraft’s use in the classroom is a pretty important step. A hugely popular game used for entertainment by a small, but growing number of teachers to show that game-based learning is, in fact, worth its weight in obsidian.”

And with Microsoft’s newest classroom-focused suite, they may be right.

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