A Different Sense of Space in Mineclass

A student perspective on our classroom. Screenshot by Vlad Bowen.

In previous posts about our Mineclass I’ve commented on the many moments where students feel comfortable building and intervening in the our virtual world in ways that are very different from the way they act in the physical world. From the very first days of class unknown students took it upon themselves to build things, add things and make changes in-world without comment or permission. Students built a podium, added a blackboard and planted flowers in our cave classroom. On my birthday, a student or students placed birthday cakes on the floor of the classroom and spelled greetings on the ground outside. Yesterday, when I commented that we only had torches to light our classroom, someone added a light to the ceiling during class.

These spontaneous additions to our world are interesting, because they are a stark contrast to student behaviors in the physical world. For many years there has been a running commentary among some faculty at my university who have observed the regular occurrence of students who will arrive to sit in a dark classroom and remain there together in the dark with no student bothering(?), willing(?), or thinking to(?) even turn on the classroom lights. In the before-times when classes were all in physical classrooms I would often arrive to a classroom of students sitting silently in the dark, faces bathed in the soft glow of mobile phones, waiting for me to flip the switch.

So, then, why the spontaneous building, adding, and modifications of our Minecraft world? Yesterday I began class by sharing these observations and asking the students what they thought. The conversation happened in fits and starts—and I wasn’t entirely sure at first if the students didn’t think I was upset with them. I repeatedly reassured them that I wasn’t upset, but curious why some of them felt so willing to be assertive in Mineclass in ways that are different than the physical world.

Gradually as the conversation picked up some momentum explanations emerged that suggest interesting ideas about the sense of space in Mineclass. One student described that they add flowers in places because it makes things look prettier. Another student, who added the blackboard to the classroom, said that they thought the cave classroom needed one so that it seemed more like a classroom and less like just a Minecraft cave. The birthday cakes could be made without cost.

On the topic of the birthday cakes: I had specifically asked the class to clean up the birthday greetings, as my birthday had passed. A few days ago, however, I noticed a sign near the cakes that asked the class not to destroy them. I asked the student why they felt comfortable not doing as I had asked and, in fact, had even erected signage to keep other students from doing as I had asked. The student responded that they didn’t want them removed because they looked nice and added to the history of our world.

As the students explained why they did these things, I pointed out that they were not offering me explanations as to how it was that they came to feel that they could do these things—engage in behaviors—that in an actual classroom space would be unlikely to happen. Where did they get the idea it was OK and feel so comfortable doing things like that?

The class offered some interesting takes: Things added in Mineclass don’t get removed. When I set up the class I intentionally told the students there were no rules and that we would figure things out as we go along. I also didn’t lock down the world and have allowed people to build and experiment freely. When students added things they were reasonably sure that I wouldn’t remove them. When things get built, for the most part they remain persistent from class to class. Large or small each is an investment in the place we are building.

This persistence of things—the collective built history of our world—stands in stark contrast to the spaces of the physical campus. The physical spaces of the actual campus are policed in such a way that they are not made into places by students or faculty. Classrooms are maintained as neutral spaces where multiple classes meet. Public spaces are monitored and scrubbed of the idiosyncratic meanings of everyday practices. Perhaps we can say they are made temporarily usable but not comfortably inhabitable.

Here I can’t help but think of the work of Michel De Certeau who writes that haunted spaces are the only places that humans can live in. By haunted deCerteau doesn’t mean filled with those Hollywood-style ghosts—he means that humans need spaces with meanings, histories and stories that adhere to them in place and that give them meaning. Stories in places make those spaces meaningful, knowable and therefore inhabitable.

Talking with the folks in class yesterday about their behaviors in Mineclass I heard some of them say that they feel a different relationship to the space of our virtual world. It is a place that they can inhabit through making because they are pretty certain that the changes they make won’t be policed away by a heavy hand.

These observations lead to some tentative conclusions. First, this adds a new dimension to the idea of presence. Presence isn’t just being in a place together, along the lines of my initial comments about meeting in Minecraft, but: An important part of presence may be the ability to manipulate that space—to inhabit it in a way that it comes alive as a human space through being able to do things there.

This also suggests a second, and I think more interesting proposition about our digital world vis-à-vis the actual campus learning spaces: The virtual offers a different relationship to space that is in some ways potentially more inhabitable and therefore more hospitable than the policed spaces of the actual.

Interestingly, this conversation happened on a day where I was experimenting with an entirely different yet familiar space—one that was a reproduction of a campus classroom. Last weekend I finished building a reproduction of one of our large campus lecture halls, Drew Science 118. One of the first things I did was lead the students into the reproduction of the classroom and ask them how the virtual classroom felt when compared to a physical classroom. Was it a big contrast to meeting in our cave classroom or outside in the “open air” of Mineclass? Later, I realized that one of the first things I asked them to do was not destroy or modify the classroom that I had spent so much time trying to accurately replicate. Interestingly the virtual space of the classroom came with a rule derived from the actual classroom. Perhaps next class I’ll ask them to modify the lecture hall to distinguish it from the actual lecture hall, and make it virtually theirs!

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