A tutorial designed in collaboration with Microsoft and Code.org will seek to use the immensely popular sandbox game Minecraft to teach children the fundamentals of coding. Hosted on a computer science education website, the programme will be available for free with 14 levels for children to navigate through as part of the company’s Hour of Code series. It will utilise Minecraft’s interactive open-world formula to harness the children’s love for the game and channel it into an introduction to the basic principles of computer science.
Throughout the game, the complicated language of code is broken down into a series of actions decided by the children on their character’s behalf. Users click and drag on blocks to create programming commands, adding for example ‘move forward’ and ‘turn left’ together, before ‘running’ the commands to make their character carry out an action. According to co-founder Hati Partovi, the tutorial will ensure that children learn the very basics of computer programming whilst encouraging them to persevere.
“The goal … is to teach you that this is something that you can do and it’s more fun than you think”, she explains: “Frankly, it’s to hook you to want to learn more.”
Minecraft’s vast and uninhibited open world lends itself well to the aims of the project. The potential for numerous generated scenarios will help teach students programming skills that have been hard to demonstrate in previous, more linear, game landscapes. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella also believes the collaboration to be especially important with regards to getting young girls involved in computer sciences.
“The reason I love Minecraft is because it’s a game that brings boys and girls [together]”, he stated following the project’s announcement, because children can play as either ‘Steve’ or ‘Alex’, his female counterpart. Minecraft’s platform also opens the tutorial to a more mature audience, owing to the game’s popularity amongst older generations.
Code.org was founded in 2013 to encourage the participation of a greater number of women and children of colour in computer sciences. It also hopes to bridge the gap between the need to teach children how to code and schools’ capabilities to do so. As Code.org’s largest endorser, Microsoft has long stood behind the cause, and in a video hosted on the organisation’s website additional supporters include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and will.I.am.
The drive to introduce computer programming into schools was rewarded in the UK last year when education secretary Michael Gove announced the replacement of traditional ICT with a new ‘computing’ course in the curriculum. Whilst the move is considered a victory to long-term advocators, it remains hindered by a shortage of primary and secondary school teachers versed in the profession. For this reason, organisations such as Code.org and Computing at School are seeking to establish a network of supplies and support not only for pupils but also for the schools looking to utilise them.
Whether or not the programmes will succeed in boosting long term participation from children in computer programming is to be debated; the complexities of the science can only be masked behind game-play for so long. Additionally, such programmes tend to serve only the already wired and affluent families: “When you’re a kid whose main point of access to the net is your mom’s smartphone, and your only broadband is at your school or library, it’s tough to make it through … a course on your own”, writes Mimi Ito. Navigating the tutorial requires an already established level of computer literacy that some children may not have been able to acquire.
Yet despite its limitations, Code.org’s campaign is a step in the right direction. In combination with the wider teaching of computer programming in schools, hope holds that the tutorials will serve their purposes in piquing children’s interests in coding and promoting the continuation of the science to a higher academic level.