Thursday, December 24, 2015

Dreams, inspiration, and challenge: Writing in voice to articulate a way forward for EVO Minecraft MOOC 2016

This is a night-before-Christmas brain spew of some ideas I’ve had going forward in the two weeks before my co-moderators and I start on a second rendition of EVO Minecraft MOOC.

EVO stands for Electronic Village Online. EVO sessions have been held each year in January and February since 2001 (for more information, see


What do you do when you're so passionate about something you can't sleep? You need to write about it but it's so complicated, you don't know where to begin. What do you do?

In my professional work last year, I worked out techniques to utilize the potential of speaking into the computer as a way of brainstorming student writing and providing feedback on it (Stevens, 2015). I've just discovered an additional affordance for my own work flow. Now I can wake up from a dream and actually write it down (more correctly, dictate it into Google Docs). I'm talking about the kind of dream where you invent something, where you solve an impenetrable riddle, where there's something on your mind that's so profound that you just have to write it down. But by the time you find a pen and paper you're in a completely different modality from when you were dreaming, so of course the idea has passed long before you can write it down. However, if you can speak what’s on your mind, and record that, your modality is not so far removed, and you stand a chance of preserving your insight.

So, harnessing my discoveries about writing by speaking into your computer, I woke from a dream this morning with synapses going off in all different directions wondering how I was going to get it down on paper … but actually we don't need paper these days, I can use silicon to get out of my head what I wanted to say, what I'd been thinking about. So I grabbed my iPad and started talking to it, and that's with this blog post is about.

What a great way to brainstorm, just speak to your computer, dictate to it. Here goes:

I've been involved this past two months in rebooting EVO Minecraft MOOC for 2016, and a lot of my thought has been going into this. I have several collaborators in this effort, and one of the challenges is to get them as motivated as I am about the passion they already have for using Minecraft in their teaching situations, and to channel our collective passion into what will result in a great EVO session.

Last year when we ran the session, my co-moderators and I put together a kind of pilot project that turned out very well. The reason it turned out so well is that it became a game about what we were trying to inculcate, which was to engender a better understanding in teachers of the concept gamification.

I've been giving talks lately about the virtues of cMOOCs versus xMOOCs, and this always stimulates reactions from colleagues because there are as many approaches to helping people learn as there are people. As Ken Robinson (2009) explains in his book about following your element of passion, there are 8 billion multiple intelligences in the world, i.e. 8 billion ways to skin a cat. As owner of one of these 8 billion multiple intelligences, the approach to learning that appeals to me is a connectivist one, and my teaching and explaining to others how to teach involves modeling for them through example some ways they might do just that. When I couch my explanations of how I see this process in the framework of cMOOCs, the discussion invariably butts up against my colleagues’ approaches vis a vis their particular contexts. And since we all have different approaches honed to some extent by our different contexts, it turns out there are 8 billion ways the discussion can go.

Actually it's probably fewer than 8 billion ways because people tend to have common approaches they apply to similar contexts, so you find people who share your approach and work with them. This is what happens in EVO sessions. People with ideas find partners and propose EVO sessions, and design them according to how they envisage their approach to teaching and learning in the context they have in mind. And so from those 8 billion possible ways an an online course could possibly evolve, and given the small fraction of those 8 billion people involved in EVO, you end up with just a dozen EVO sessions, but still each is quite different from the other.

I've facilitated a few EVO sessions over the years. The first one was Webheads in Action in 2002 (, which adhered to connectivist principles two years before George Siemens wrote his seminal article introducing the term connectivism (Siemens, 2004). By then I had started facilitating a series of courses on multiliteracies, one iteration of which was yet another EVO session. But I had come to believe that in the context of EVO, where you had multiliterate participants who were self motivating and able to articulate their learning objectives, and who each represented one of those 8 billion ways you could possibly learn, the cMOOC approach was the one that resonated best with how I chose to facilitate interaction with participants and co-moderators in EVO with whom this approach also resonated. That's what happened with Webheads in Action, resulting in a community that has lasted to this day. So I could see where you could seed an idea on how to approach a topic as complex as how to get a community together to explore a variety of alternate approaches to teaching by coming together along connectivist precepts and negotiating the knowledge-base underpinning the discussion.

I applied this approach to my latest conundrum. This conundrum arose from a topic I had been following  that I found very difficult to address.This topic derived from a bit of Kool-Aid I had been tasting through edtech podcasts and through my personal learning network. It was about Minecraft and it's impact on learners and on the learning environment.

I think that for K-12 educators who work daily with young learners, young adults who are molding their approach to how they will be learning for the rest of their life, Minecraft has been a productive tool for forging critical thinking skills. But in my context, where the curriculum is more rigidly inflexible, I don’t find opportunities to learn how to play Minecraft and apply it to the contexts so closely managed top-down in which I was teaching. So though I had an interest in this topic, I had little opportunity to pursue it. And it wasn't just Minecraft, it was the whole concept of gamification, although it was easier in my teaching contexts to envisage how to gamify them as opposed to specifically introducing the particular game of Minecraft. So what I wanted to learn was how to adapt the concept of Minecraft to my context; that is to say, I was trying to learn about gamification, and had chosen Minecraft as one of the best means of realizing that. However, as with connectivism as we had explored it with Webheads in Action in 2002, this was not something you could write out in the syllabus and teach top down. Because the concepts involved are ineffable, they needed to be learned through experience firsthand.

So in essence I had something that I wanted to learn, which was how to apply gamification in my context, and the vehicle I wanted to use to learn about that was Minecraft, which seemed from all I was reading and hearing, to be an effective and revolutionary approach to gamification in learning. However, I encountered two big problems. I didn't really know anything about Minecraft because I had no community with which to try it out. And secondly, I was not able to formulate a practical notion about gamification without truly experiencing it myself in my own learning.

The EVO Minecraft MOOC session was my solution to both of these problems. My role was to articulate the rationale for creating the session in the first place, and to assemble a group of colleague teachers with similar conundrums, perhaps not exactly the same as mine, but conundrums for which such a session might help them resolve the chaos in their own learning doubts, on the path to resolving that chaos.


So I started on this path in late 2014 by proposing a 2015 EVO Minecraft MOOC session to which I attracted other colleagues. My first inspiration was Marijana Smolčec, a teacher from Croatia whose 11 year-old son had learned fluent English through playing the game of Minecraft in his own community and developing videos and putting them on YouTube and interacting in English with other players of Minecraft worldwide. The development of his English skills through his involvement in this community was remarkable. This prompted us to write an article together where we researched what other teachers were doing with Minecraft (Smolčec and Smolčec, 2014) and through our research we met Jeff Kuhn and invited him to join Marijana and Filip and I in helping co-moderate an EVO session.

In 2015 we basically created an EVO session in the shape of a game, which is to say, we just started playing it. That is, Jeff set up a playing field in the form of a Minecraft server and we started kicking the ball around on that server. Through the mechanism of EVO where we could propose a session and have it accepted, and then after the call for participation work with whomever turns up, we found other players who seemed to enjoy meeting us on our playing field and learning whatever they could through playing the game. According to the name of our EVO session, you might think the purpose of the game was to learn Minecraft, but it was more than that. The purpose of the real game was to learn how to implement gamification in our own contexts, which we achieved through playing Minecraft with each other. Minecraft is a good vehicle for that  as it is a well-developed and fun game to play, but it was not the real focus of our play any more than if we were meeting business colleagues on the golf course only to play golf. For some people, it’s not so much about golf as it is about business. So we met on the Minecraft playing field and there we conducted the business of learning how to apply gamification in our teaching situations.

This turned out to be so much fun that we decided to do it again in 2016, only by this time we had attracted a small community around what we were doing so we asked some of the more assiduous players in the first round to join us in co-moderating the second.


Now in designing the second round we have some additional challenges. We could play the game the way we did in 2015 and simply set up the playing field and play as we did before. This would work, but we've added to the mix now more people with more expertise in Minecraft, and also we original players have developed a little more expertise than we started out with last year. We want to help rank beginners to come up to our level, but at the same time we want to develop our own expertise and raise everybody into the level beyond that. So taking this set of moderators, and taking on board the awareness that we are on a virtual golf course – we're doing this in our spare time, it's something we like to do, but it's not work per se – the challenge is to get people to design aspects of the session that will accomplish that last goal, taking the game to a higher level of expertise. I guess this is any coach’s dilemma.

For the first round of play in 2015, we tried to be minimalist in our choice of tools, which basically utilized a Google+ community at where people could enroll and share expertise with one another through posting their experiences, photos, and discoveries in playing Minecraft, what they were reading about Minecraft in education, and so on, and augment this with a syllabus created in Google Docs. By definition, a syllabus is a document that explains what you're trying to do and how you're going to do it. This syllabus in a Google doc had a table of contents so that participants could conveniently move or navigate in the document from week to week, and here we laid out what people should do one week to the next, and why.

This document explains how the course is organized on Dave Cormier's five stages of coping with MOOCs (Cormier, 2010). It was a five week course so it was convenient to theme each week on one of the stages.

Week 1 - Orientation

The first week or the first stage in Cormier's five stages of coping with MOOCs is orientation. This is what typically happens in any EVO online course, which this year starts officially on January 10. But what actually happens is it starts slowly on January 10. It's like a heavy train that starts rolling on January 10 and the passengers are jumping on board as it's lumbering through the station. It eventually picks up speed but passengers keep getting on at different stops and for this particular train those stops could be as late as the second or third week in the course, or even fourth.

Since this is a course that accepts people who want to learn at any stage, passengers are welcome aboard the train at anytime. We facilitate their learning but we don't control it, and once there on the train they will meet other passengers there and figure out what's going on according to what they themselves want to learn. In fact we might have people on the 2016 train who joined us in at some point in 2015, and they would be simply resuming their learning journeys with us, and welcoming other passengers as they get on the train anywhere along the route. It doesn't matter to us, we are all in it for our own learning.

So in our first week of orientation, expectations are not high, but these expectations are expressed in the form of nine missions; that is there are nine things to do from the outset, starting with enroll in the Google+ community and introduce yourself there, and then (it gets tricky) capture the link to your introduction (ok, not that tricky, a single screen shot shows how, Then you fill in a Google form and in the Google form you write your name and where you're from and paste the link to your introduction. So if people get that far they've already accomplished the first three missions in the 2016 syllabus.

After that they have to buy the game, and what that means is, you buy a lifetime username and password for the game. The software itself is free and lets you log on to any game that's running, but only one unique user can play on any one computer at a time. The server software is also free so the company Mojang, which was recently acquired by Microsoft, churns out software for free and sells access to that software through usernames which once purchased can get you or students using those names onto a server to play whatever version of the game they have downloaded (there are versions for PC and for iPad and mobile devices).

So you enroll in the community and you buy the game and you register your username so that we can whitelist you our server and then you have to request to join a Google sheet. The reason you need to join the sheet is so that you can earn badges by writing in your missions accomplished there (i.e. the ones just listed). So for this first week, once you've got this far, you’ve accomplished most of the missions, but now you have to record them in the Google sheet. The Google sheet is made public by allowing anyone with its link to view it and that sheet becomes the evidence for the badge to be awarded. It is important to record evidence of achievement in an open space because a badge with no evidence is simply an image anyone can put on a web page or blog. But for a badge to have credibility, you have to be able to click on the badge and be taken to the clear evidence of how the badge was earned. We award badges through Credly, the criteria for earning the badges are clearly spelled out, and by clicking on the badge awarded you see evidence of what each person did to earn that badge.

Of course, going for badges is optional. Anyone can participate in the course for whatever reason; for one’s own learning for example. But badges are an important aspect of gamification and are a strong motivator for some people. Those who want badges will have to provide evidence as requested. You can see what this looks like in the evidence from last year’s 2015 session here:

Week 2 - Declare

In practice we might be doing this well into Week 2, which is the declaration stage in Cormier's conception of coping in MOOCs. In the first stage we oriented in the MOOC but now we start identifying who we are and why we are there and what our expectations are. One important component of this declaration is to specify a main journal or blog or e-portfolio (essentially a perhaps annotated list of links to where your postings are) tracking your learning journey in association with the course, however you wish to do it. One of the missions from Week 1 was to give us the online address or URL of this blog or journal so that anyone can see how each participant is responding to the curriculum.

Of course it's impractical and harks back to Web 1.0 to expect moderators, let alone 100 participants, to be checking each other's blogs to see if there's new content there, but fortunately we can use a Web 2.0 tagging system to be alerted to when posts are made. We accomplish this by establishing a hashtag at the outset of the course #evomc16 and asking people to tweet the permalinks of their posts using this hashtag to alert us to their updated content. Or they can post to our Google+ community using that same hashtag, or to Facebook or any number of places that allow hashtags (be sure to put the # sign at the front of the tag; this will make the hashtag appear bold). Then we employ a tool called Tagboard to aggregate all posts people have made with that tag so that we can see who's sharing knowledge about #evomc16 with us. Tagboard aggregates tags from Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Instagram, and perhaps other social network sites as well (I’m unable to determine exactly where it draws its data from the Tagboard web site or various review sites). In other words, Tagboard makes it possible to do tag searches across several social network platforms in one search. Here is a Tagboard search on #evomc16:

The mission for this week will be to create a blog post or journal entry and tag it so that it shows up in our Tagboard. So there are two missions actually, to create an artifact and tag it #evomc16 and get it to appear on the Tagboard, which will serve as evidence for the mission accomplished for Week 2.

We expect that it will take a couple of weeks for people to come on board with this system, to orient and declare themselves in the MOOC, and tag posts in social network sites. But of course this is only part of what they'll be doing during these first weeks. By then we hope to have met in Minecraft a few times and also to have held some live sessions. We are already developing a schedule for the live sessions where each week one of our moderators hosts a topic on Minecraft. The schedule will appear in the syllabus and is incorporated into the Learning2gether calendar at

For our in-world meetings we use the scheduling tool Doodle ( which helps us to arrange times when participants are most likely to be available to be in-world in Minecraft. When we go in-world we want to be able to talk to each other, so we use a VoIP tool to facilitate that. Last year in 2015 we used Skype, but we found that it was difficult to organize Skype group chats on the fly, although Skype group chats have the advantage of being text chats as well which carry-on asynchronously in between the live voice events. But the difficulty of organizing the sharing of Skype IDs and organizing live voice hook-ups at the time you need them has got us considering alternative tools we might use.

This year we are thinking to use Blackboard Collaborate as our voice tool because anyone can go there without having the password and speak in the same space at the same time without someone having to organize getting the Skype ids of newcomers and inviting them into the Skype voice chat. Blackboard have changed the installation procedure for Collaborate which has caused complications in practice, but once each user has correctly installed the new system it works fine after that. So we will try BbC this year and for a synchronous group dialogue in between live sessions we can start a text (also voice-enabled) Hangout through our Google+ community and keep that going for five weeks. In case you are wondering why not simply use Google as our VoIP, it’s because, as with Skype, participants have to be added to the call, which we can do only as they provide their Skype or Google accounts. With BbC anyone can get themselves into our chat space on providing a name as the only credential. We moderators tested this in November and it seemed that it would work (though one moderator who helped test this had difficulties; but he did not persist and likely we can resolve his problem).

Week 3 - Network

In Week 3 we start to focus on the wider world of Minecraft users. Last year we used a Coursera Minecraft MOOC as our Week 3 network event. This year there is no such course so I'm thinking to suggest the Minecraft in Education Google+ community in the third week,, because it has a thriving community of over 4000 members and its owner Colin Gallagher also produces a podcast called Minecraft Minechat which has over 30 episodes all video recorded in a YouTube playlist, Other communities we might explore are Bron Stuckey’s The Minecraft Experience,, and the Minecraft Edu Community,

One suggested mission for Week 3 is for participants to explore these communities and to create a blog post or journal entry reporting on any aspect of this exploration and tag it so that it shows up in our Tagboard. Again the appearance of the post on the Tagboard will serve as evidence for the mission accomplished for that week.

Week 4 - Cluster

Meanwhile participants will be meeting with us online and be playing the game and learning how to transition from creative to survival mode. Minecraft has two modes: creative and survival. We start out in the creative sandbox mode where all resources are available and no one dies. It's the best mode for beginners to learn where to find resources and how to craft with them and how all the parts go together that will help them survive when we switch the game to survival mode. We will probably do this in the third or certainly by the fourth week as we did last year.

At this stage the game will become challenging. Deaths will inevitably occur at the hands of zombies and creepers, followed by rejuvenation and renewed learning under stress, which makes the game fun and challenging and most importantly teaches the benefits of cooperation among gamers. I think that this is the main lesson to learn through playing the game, and what you can't understand without playing the game. And that is how useful it is to have other players around to help you to deal with the world in a way that you all survive in it by working together and supporting one another, and by modeling and mentoring for one another. This is where you really learn how gamification works in learning in practice.

So a suggested mission for this week is to create a blog post relating to that transition and again get it to appear on our Tagboard.

Week 5 - Focus

Our syllabus is written for where participants in the game introduce themselves, orient, declare, network, cluster, and focus.This is basically how the session ran in 2015 but now I’d like to focus on how we can improve it for 2016. In 2015 we learned that the foregoing plan works (even without much planned for Week 5, where participants need time for winding down, task completion, and reflection), and we could even run the session like that for this year.

But what I would like to see this year is for there to be more directed learning resulting in focus on badges for discrete aspects of that learning. We could be introducing these in any week, but certainly by Week 4, in the cluster phase of coping with MOOCs, meaning that participants with similar interests, if they haven’t done this already, might start clustering around aspects of the topic that interests them.

For example, one of our moderators had the idea to award a badge for Redstone. Redstone is a material you can mine that has energy that can be harnessed to engineer machines in Minecraft. So the badge might be awarded to someone who learned how to mine Redstone and then build a simple machine using it. Other moderators have expressed interest in helping players create videos in Minecraft, and so on.

To build badges into the system we have to be specific about what we want participants to do and what the learning outcomes are and then award badges based on evidence indicating that those awarded badges have carried out the steps. That evidence should be online so that the badge awarded through Credly is linked to that evidence when the badge is clicked on. I would like to see several badges created in this way; which is to say that we design criteria for earning the badge and ideally provide some training on how to accomplish the tasks which will allow participants to earn the badge.

A way forward

I don't know what can be reasonably accomplished in the time we have before January 10 (just two weeks from now) but any game can be designed it so that there can be flexibility based on prior play and this leads us to another of Dave Cormier's concepts, the Community as Curriculum (Cormier, 2008). The idea here is that the responsibility of course facilitators is to set out the course of learning but then when you see what the community wants to learn you adapt the syllabus as you go along. So in this game it's perfectly permissible to be in Week 3 and see that some of your participants want to learn, for example, how to set up a beacon to identify a shelter when it's getting dark (not a good time to not be able to locate your shelter in MInecraft). So a badge could be created on the fly to meet the need that developed in the course of participants interacting in the session. In fact, the facilitator need not be the badge designer; or put another way, players in this game might occasionally take on some roles of facilitators, such as creating badges documenting learning things not originally envisaged in the syllabus. Others could then earn the badge by learning and accomplishing the same thing. In this instantiation of the community as curriculum approach, community members might articulate learning goals through designing badges that would allow individuals to learn what they wanted, teach each other in the course of playing the game, and finally generate their own awards in the form of badges which would have the same value as any proposed by moderators.

So how to organize this? One way might be to manage it through creating a third level of tools for our session. Right now I am creating a ground floor or zero level by articulating in a blog post what was on my mind when I woke up this morning, and spoke it into my iPad so that after a lot of revision at the keyboard I could produce an essay that others could read and see what I came up with in my sleep last night. That's the ground floor, just the overarching idea meant to provide cohesion to the other pieces of the puzzle we are using to play the game.

Two levels of this scheme have already been put in place. The first level is the Google+ community where people enroll and come together and interact. The second level is the syllabus Google doc where we set up in prose format the overall structure of the course and how we document it's missions accomplished. The third level I'm now thinking about, the idea that I woke up this morning and decided to write down while it was still on my mind, is to create a bare-bones wiki with five pages, one for each week in our syllabus. The wiki refers back to the syllabus document but does not contain all the verbiage found there, or here for that matter. The wiki is a week-by-week checklist. In the wiki we specify what should be done in any given week and individual moderator or teams of moderators take charge of wiki pages they wish to develop.

I hope this will overcome a problem with the syllabus document, where everyone has been asked to look at the whole document and comment where they think they can add value. Few have contributed to the Google doc syllabus. A better approach I think is for those with ideas on how to improve certain aspects of the syllabus to focus just on that week, take ownership, and develop steps that will implement their ideas on their individual wiki pages.

So in the time it takes for a normal person to read this ramble, I'll try to set up some wiki pages that will specify what people should do in each week. I think the first couple of weeks are well worked out, which would take us to January 24, but after that if we're going to improve on what we did in 2015 we would need specific content directed at earning badges. And I think if we break it down on a week-by-week basis like this it should be manageable for individual moderators to simply focus on where they want to introduce their ideas into the syllabus.


So this morning – I actually did wake up with these ideas percolating in my head – I have tried to set out what I've been learning the last year not only about Minecraft, but about composing online using voice. This has been fun. It's allowed me in less than an hour to create a comprehensive articulation of where I think we should go from here and how we might get there (plus a few more hours to clean it up and clarify it, but that’s the writing process!). And incidentally it's the first time I've actually tried to brainstorm something of this nature using the voice tools on iPad in Google docs, something I've been encouraging my students and my colleagues to do with their students. It’s nice to be on holiday and have time to do this on the day before Christmas.


Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate, 4(5). Reprinted with permission of the publisher and retrieved from

Cormier, D. (2010). Success in a MOOC. YouTube. Retrieved from

Robinson, K. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York: Viking Penguin.

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. elearnspace. Was until recently available: Reproduced:

Smolčec, M. and Smolčec, F. (2014). Using Minecraft for Learning English, with an introduction by Vance Stevens. TESL-EJ 18, 2:1-15. Available: and

Stevens, V. (2015). Finding Your Voice: Teaching Writing Using Tablets with Voice Capability. TESL-EJ 19, 3 (pp.1-11). Available: HTML version,

No comments: