I missed the first session of MIT Massive because I was in Phoenix, AZ at the MRS 2016 Spring Meeting, a large materials science conference. I spent most of the conference listening to talks about solar energy and new results for multi-junction PV cells, but I was also introduced to one educational technology that really struck me. At MRS I met Dr. Walter Voit, the creator of PolyCraft World, which is a mod (essentially an extension of functionality) for Minecraft. Minecraft, for the uninitiated, is a wildly popular video game that lets players explore and build in a stylized, blocky world, which itself has been implemented in classrooms as part of structured curricula. Even outside the classroom, I would characterize Minecraft as a learning community: it has a huge community generated wiki and countless hours of YouTube videos recording the in-game creations of Minecraft players.
PolyCraft World adds additional materials and tools to the base Minecraft game, with a focus on chemistry and engineering. In Minecraft, players use materials like wood, stone, and iron, while in Polycraft World they also have the option to work with dozens of types of plastic, among other materials. Part of the educational value comes with the fact that working with the new materials is scientifically accurate: a chemical processing plant in PolyCraft World performs stoichiometrically balanced chemical reactions.
One of the more trailblazing plans Dr. Voit has for PolyCraft World is to teach some sections of intro organic chemistry at UT Dallas entirely through the game. Discussing this, the part I was most excited about was how much richer assessment could be in the software (e.g., build a reactor that can produce the desired chemical product, with a minimal footprint) than in a traditional pen and paper exam (e.g., identify the correct ratios of products and reactants in the following chemical equation). Reflecting back, now I’m also curious about how PolyCraft World bridges the space between the peer-directed learning of Minecraft and self-directed learning (if successful) of a game that can teach college-level organic chemistry. In Dan Meyer’s argument against personalized learning, he warns against the potential loss of synchronous learning, but I wonder if a system like this could provide some of the best of both worlds: scaffolding and motivation when the student wants to work on their own, but a global community of potential collaborators to undertake a grand project with when the student wants to work with others.