Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Minecraft Possibilities Part 3

It’s always about choices, isn’t it?  Choices are wonderful and dangerous.  They complicate things, and for a Minecraft newbie like myself, they introduce risk.  The first big choice involved with using Minecraft in instruction is choosing a server platform.  The vanilla server (from the Minecraft folks) was never an option; it just isn’t extensible enough to create an usable place for students.  From what I have seen, the options boil down to CraftBukkit, a Minecraft server with an enthusiastic community of developer support, and MinecraftEdu, a server fork developed specifically for education.  This particular choice reminds me of the difference between using a service like Edublogs and installing your own Wordpress server.  With your own server you can do anything, but you can also break your installation and make things really complicated.  Edublogs can be restrictive, but the learning curve is shorter and the knowledge that things will “just work” is comforting and important.  
I decided to install the Bukkit Server for my home LAN because it was free and I was impressed by the available plug in options.  There are actually too many, and this is further complicated by differences in plugin quality and version compatibility.  I used a combination of “Top Plugin” lists to sort through the choices and come up with four that would meet my goals:

  • Multiverse - This plugin allows a server to host multiple worlds.  I envision a “creative” server where students can build without worrying about things like hunger and monsters.  That said, these are the aspects that make “survival” servers so much fun.  A simulated community would want to be built on a survival server, I think, and multiverse allows both of these things to happen.
  • Minecraft Essentials - Essentials provides too much to list.  The command list provides an opportunity to control the in-game environment and moderate the players.  It also creates a permissioning system which would be necessary to create levels of users, perhaps introducing an opportunity to involve students across the grades.
  • World Edit - This is a super powerful plugin to modify the landscape and build structures.  It has a hefty learning curve, but introduces some opportunities to teach geometry.  As always, YouTube was quite helpful (I found it interesting, though not surprising, that most Minecraft "How-To" videos are produced by kids.)  
  • Towny - This plugin creates a simulated community environment.  Towny does heaps of useful things, including granting students a plot on which they can build and providing a foundation for government.  There are mechanisms for economy, elections, taxes, towns and city states.
While installing the server and plugins weren’t too difficult, using the system as an admin takes some work.  I think I’ll wind up printing out the dozens of commands which work from the command line within the game.  This complexity does add a barrier and makes me realize why the Minecraft Edu server exits.
Minecraft Edu includes nice in game interfaces and many special features for classroom use.  I think some of the features, like the special blocks, can be reproduced with Bukkit mods but Minecraft Edu is so much simpler to use.  While I haven’t played with it yet, it appears as though the admin functions all have an interface, no command line needed.  For that alone I think the Edu server is worth exploring.  There are trade-offs. The plugins that work with Bukkit will not work with Minecraft Edu and the opportunity to create rich and immersive digital environments provided by plugins like Towny are lost.  
As a teacher, I think the simplicity of Minecraft Edu for instruction is important.  But to get everything I want would require setting up two servers and I’m not sure I can pull that off.  I am leaning towards starting with a Bukkit server because I am most likely piloting the game in a school club.  I won’t necessarily need the structure of the Edu server and I would want to have conversations about the community with club members, then build the world accordingly.  I think the flexibility of Bukkit server would lend itself better to these needs.   I should disclose that I also have experience with installing two Wordpress servers.  Both of which are broken (in fairness, my last blog was taken down by Russian hackers) and I now find myself writing a third blog using Blogger.  Hmmm.