Breakout Discussion Groups in Minecraft

For the past few weeks I have been thinking about ways to standardize group discussions in Mineclass, yet not lose the spatial/creative component that is so special about working in Minecraft. When the semester first started I created breakout groups in Zoom audio and just asked students run off to some random place in-world to cooperatively construct a space and have their discussions. An unexpected side effect of that decision, however, has been that as groups have continued to use and build on the same location, the sites became more associated with those groups—becoming more “private.” There is also a certain level of unruly and chaotic building that, while exciting and novel is also a bit visually distracting.

Since part of the Mineclass experiment is to see where it goes, I am reluctant to heavily police our class space by establishing too many rules. (That is, after all, one of the things students report as an exciting difference with the physical campus!) Yet I’ve also begun considering the advantages of having formal group discussion areas. What would it be like for student groups to meet in specific sites intentionally built for the whole class as formal community or public discussion spaces? What I have had in mind are sites that would be fixed in a way that they can be reused by different groups, and yet flexible so that each group can also add constructions to them as part of their discussion time. Doing this might also give us an opportunity to track how the location changes over time as different groups use it—to document digital site formation.

In Mineclass the landscape and environment have been constructed by the game’s algorithms and nearly all of the objects have been built by members of our class. As a result, most of the things we interact with in-world are objects that are unique only to the space of Mineclass. There are, however, at least two constructions that have explicit ties to the actual world: my virtual construction of two of our university buildings, Old Main and Drew Science. These two virtual buildings point to their physical counterparts on the physical campus—indexically anchoring our work in Mineclass and reminding us of our shared connection to the actual university. While members of our class have been building at will across the landscape of our world, the two virtual campus buildings and the space around them have not been modified in any substantial way that deviates from their actually existing counterparts. In this sense, they serve as a kind of formal public space.

So, in thinking about how to design fixed, formal breakout groups, I decided to link them to the virtual campus buildings. Yet, the last thing I wanted to do was just build more virtual classrooms in one of the virtual buildings so students could meet there. I wanted to have students start on campus—leveraging the formal indexical relationship it has to the physical campus—but then regularly go somewhere else.

I decided that the class should meet in front of our central campus building, Old Main, where the university connection is the strongest, and then have them transport themselves to a unique place in the world for their discussions. So I spent an evening scouting out seven remote areas in Mineclass—an island, a seashore, a forest, a mountaintop, a deep crevasse, a cave, and an undersea cavern—and in each site I built a campfire and a chalkboard. I watched a few videos on how to use special blocks in Minecraft for Education that can deny actions so that students could not alter these few basic features. I then connected each of the remote discussion areas to the plaza in front of Old Main with simple transport buttons.

My idea was that the class would meet in our regular Minecraft classroom and that then I would lead them out into Old Main mall, break them into groups and then have them transport themselves to the different locations for their conversations after which they would return to Old Main and subsequently to the classroom for summary discussion. The blackboards fixed at each discussion site would be places where I would prepare specific quotes from the text that would partially structure conversations, or other tasks for the groups to do. Since Minecraft chalkboards take simple text input, prepping for class just consisted of preparing the material in a standard text editor and then zipping to each discussion site to cut and paste the material onto the boards.

I had everything in place to try the new discussion sites for Thursday’s class and my initial impression is that everything worked flawlessly. I broke the students into discussion groups, gave them instructions and one-by-one they transported from the Old Main mall to their discussion sites. In addition to providing instructions to guide discussion, I also gave them a building task. I asked them to spend some time adding to the discussion sites in ways that would make them more comfortable or interesting for different discussion groups in future classes. In other words, I wanted them to construct for others, to build the discussion areas as a shared public space.

As the students set to work, I dropped in to each site to observe and say hello—each time moving my avatar in Minecraft and then switching into the discussion group on Zoom for audio. It was pretty fun to arrive in each place and see the students’ avatars huddled around a virtual chalkboard reading quotes and prompts related to our current book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin by Sareeta Amrute.

After the students spent time discussing they did a bit of building and then when the discussion time was up I called them back to our classroom for group reports and discussion. Unfortunately we ran out of time before we finished all of the groups and I never had time to dig deeply into their experiences at the sites. I did, however, hear initial comments from many of them that the sites worked well for their intended purpose. I’ll share more on this in future posts.



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