Minecraft had been in medium range on my radar for a few months now, but a teacher project idea has pushed it into “go time.” Minecraft is definitely one of the hot discussion items of the last year or so and is still gaining steam for school development. Much of the classroom use is based on a variant of Minecraft called MinecraftEdu, meant specifically for classroom implementation. I spent most of a day researching and wrestling with the two variants, and trying to determine which was most appropriate for us. In the end, our decision came down to two large factors: the server options and student accounts.
Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other?
MinecraftEdu has a long way to go in its marketing to convincingly sell the difference between the two versions. While their wiki points to “features” which are supposed to help classroom management, it doesn’t delineate what those features are. It also advertises a lot of features which seem to be useful (plugins, WorldEdit, mods, etc.), but are in reality accessible to either Minecraft or MinecraftEdu. There are a few interesting additions to the Edu toolkit, including:
- Teleporting all users back to you when its time to gather a class together,
- Distributing “assignments” in the form of mass messages, and
- Special “Do Not Build” blocks to limit places where students can’t build.
After consulting our resident Minecraft guru (12th Grade Help Desk Intern), he confirmed that pretty much all of the special features of Edu could be implemented with additional plugins and mods to the core Minecraft program. The key sell of MinecraftEdu is that these features are pre-activated and much easier for an administrator to control. For the average teacher setting this up for their class, that ease of use and setup equals valuable time and energy, and shouldn’t be disregarded. It was less of a selling point for me, though.
To Serve, or Not to Serve
A key point for us was where to host the application itself. As we continue to shift our infrastructure to cloud-based and vendor-hosted services rather than locally-managed devices, hosting with one of a variety of commercial Minecraft hosts fits with our overall IT philosophy. Furthermore, if this is going to be tied to school activities, we want it to be accessible both at home and at school. If that sounds contradictory, a key tenet of our device program is that students should have access to their learning from anywhere, at any time. A recreational game (which some students did operate last year) is fine within the space of school walls, but when it becomes a project or class activity, students need to be able to connect to that at any time. Opening up an additional port in the firewall just for purposes of accessing the server requires a little more IT work and management than hosting remotely.
The catch is that we could not find a commercial host operating MinecraftEdu–only Minecraft. Therefore, if we wanted to use Edu, we would have to host internally and deal with the ramifications of setting up an externally-accessible server. While there are lots of vendors providing online hosting of Minecraft (AllGamer is the most prominent), it is possible to install MinecraftEdu on a remote host, although it’s not the cleanest process.
The Clinching Factor
At this point, I was leaning towards the core Minecraft package for two main reasons:
- Ease of procuring a externally-hosted vendor,
- Ability to recreate any useful options of MinecraftEdu by using mods and plugins, and
- More open environment closer aligned to our program philosophy.
The catch that turned us back towards MinecraftEdu was in the licensing: To provide Minecraft to students, we’d be buying accounts for individual students, which could be used for any Minecraft purposes: logging into school-provided servers as well as any other free play servers available outside of school control. This seemed to be a bit of an over-reach to us– the idea that we’d buy totally open versions of the game and give them to students for purposes which occasionally would be school-related just didn’t seem to fit within our program philosophy.
In contrast, buying MinecraftEdu doesn’t purchase software licenses– it purchases user licenses. Furthermore, the licenses are specified as “active user” licenses. In other words, the basic level of 25 licenses only relates to 25 simultaneously logged-in users. This is a huge advantage to deploying this different teachers or classes down the road– one class might use Minecraft for a project in March, while another can use the same licenses in June. We don’t have to deal with managing or limiting concurrently-installed software.
Much Ado About…?
In full disclosure, I’ve been working with our installation now for about two weeks. During installation, I came away with a different impression about the level of student restrictions within Minecraft Edu than I had coming in to the project– I simply turned off all of the restrictions in the installation process, and I think that we have a relatively equivalent level of “openness” in the Minecraft world than had we gone with a core installation. Once the students get totally immersed, we’ll have to see if we run up against “Why can’t we…”
In short, while I found precious little going in with which to compare the two versions of Minecraft side-by-side, I think we arrived at the correct conclusion in using Minecraft Edu even in light of our earlier concerns.