Minecraft attracts long lines at ISTE conference

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PHILADELPHIA — There were hundreds of vendors at ISTE showing off their latest educational technology products, but one creation stood out for the long lines it attracted: Minecraft.

The popular game, owned by Microsoft, was making its first appearance at the annual edtech trade show, officials said. Teachers could try it out firsthand during four demo sessions each day at the conference. But space was limited to just 50 educators a session and dozens of teachers, eager to see how the game might be used in the classroom, were turned away.

“People were visibly angry,” said Kate Gallo Reilly, product manager at E-Line Media, which helps teach Minecraft to educators.

That didn’t dissuade Eileen Diehl, a computer lab specialist at Pequenakonck schools in North Salem, New York, who said she tried to get into the demo sessions twice and hoped for a stroke of luck her third time.

“I want to bring it back to my school and say, ‘We need to be doing this,’” she said while waiting on another long line. “The kids love this, girls and boys equally seem to be passionate about it. It’s not just something that seems to attract guys.”

She said the wild popularity of the game at the conference, which attracted more than 20,000 teachers, administrators and vendors, piqued her interest even more.

“That further encouraged me to say, ‘Yes, this is a good thing,’” she said.

A reporter got one of the coveted demo seats, with Reilly as a much-needed guide.

She showed her pupils how to move around in the virtual world that kids can create, navigating with a wooden block for a hand, turning keys, moving forward and back, and jumping up and down.

“It’s a lot like driving in a car with a new driver,” she said. “It can take a little while even for kids to learn how to navigate in this space.”

Minecraft is an expansive space “where you can make anything out of everything,” she explained. “The basic function of mining and crafting” — like simply moving around — “underlies the most complex things in Minecraft,” she added.

Many participants, when they first start playing, complain of motion sickness because the characters have jerky movements and navigate quickly through different 3-D scenarios.

The game exploded in classrooms after Joel Levin started MinecraftEDU in 2011. It’s now in about 6,000 schools around the world, according to Deirdre Quarnstrom, program manager of Minecraft at Microsoft.

“Teachers find when they bring Minecraft into an activity, the kids start from a point of being very engaged,” she said in an interview. “Sometimes kids are helping them create lessons.”

She said the company decided to show the game at ISTE for the first time to raise awareness for teachers about how they can use it in their classrooms.

“The two questions we get are, ‘what is it and what do I do with it?’” she said. “We wanted to get people immersed in the experience so they have some of the vocabulary and some understanding of what it is so it’s not such a scary and unknown thing. It gives them some credibility when they go back to their schools.”

She said she wasn’t surprised by the long lines so much as the willingness of teachers to get test out the game.

“I’m most happy about people coming in and going somewhere where they’re uncomfortable,” she said.

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