MinecraftEdu Co-Founder Counts on Lessons Learned in New Plans for Education Games

Associate Editor

Washington

After selling MinecraftEdu to Microsoft last year, Finnish serial entrepreneur Santeri Koivisto decided to stay in the digital games-for-education business.

Koivisto shared some behind-the-scenes details about that sale, and his plans to continue acquiring licenses for popular games that can be used in schools around the world, at the kick-off of the Education Business Forum here Tuesday.

“The biggest success of MinecraftEdu was the splash it created overall of using games in education,” said Koivisto, who with Joel Levin, a New York teacher he connected with online, brought the virtual Lego-like sandbox game to schools. In Minecraft, players use simple 3-D digital blocks to build and explore almost anything they can imagine, and teachers have used it for a range of objectives, from helping 1st graders understand city planning to giving high schoolers new ways to explore physics.

Now, Koivisto is expanding TeacherGaming Desk, the platform he co-owns, by revisiting the approach he used to adapt MinecraftEdu.

“Our niche is that when there’s a made-for-fun game that already has an audience of 1 million plus players—and some have 10 million plus—we know it delivers engagement in the classroom,” said Koivisto, who brought Minecraft to Finnish schools where he was substitute teaching at the time. “If we can connect it to the curriculum, then let’s pull it into our platform.”

Eventually, he hopes to offer up to 90 games to educators around the world.

It was by combining his love for gaming with his job as a substitute teacher that Koivisto originally came up with the idea of trying Minecraft in the classroom. After playing at least 100 hours of the game on his own, he decided to see how it might work with students in classes he was teaching.

So he contacted the CEO of Mojang, a Swedish company that developed Minecraft, about whether he could use the game for a science fair workshop in Finland. Based on the popularity of that workshop, Koivisto obtained the license to use Minecraft in education from Mojang.

But his work was exclusively in Finnish. When he saw the enthusiasm around Manhattan teacher Joel Levin’s blog about using Minecraft with students in the U.S., Koivisto connected with Levin and the two became partners in selling MinecraftEdu. Over five years, they developed and grew the business to thousands of classrooms in 40 countries.

Turning Down Microsoft Offers

In the fall of 2014, Microsoft announced that it was buying the developer of Minecraft, Mojang, for a reported $2.5 billion. But MinecraftEdu was not part of the sale.

So the tech giant approached Koivisto and then-partner Levin, who rejected the first offer. “It was a gamble that they’d come back with a bigger one,” said Koivisto. While they considered the next offer, that was ultimately rejected, too.

“We went through a weird period where things were sort of moving forward,” said Koivisto. “We walked them through what we were doing, but said we weren’t going to accept the deal as it stood.”

When Microsoft showed it was ready to substantially increase its offer, Koivisto and Levin hired attorneys to negotiate the sale. It was clear that Microsoft “wanted to keep the community safe and sound and together,” said Koivisto, who said the acquisition was an asset purchase but did not disclose details.

Keeping a Student Focus

Giving teachers what they want educationally in gaming, while giving students what will be engaging, can be tricky.

Koivisto shared two examples of times that he, as a former educator, turned down requests by educators to modify MinecraftEdu.

In one case, many teachers asked that the company add a multiple-choice block to the game. It would reward students in some way when they got the right answer, such as opening a door that otherwise would stay locked.  “I called Finland and said, ‘Please remove all code that creates [the option for] a multiple choice block,” said Koivisto. That did not reflect the principle behind the game.

In another case, teachers asked for a way to stop students from “griefing,” a form of cyberbullying that occurs frequently in MinecraftEdu and other multi-player games. A student might find a way to destroy another student’s creation, for instance.

“It happened pretty much in every class, during the first two lessons,” Koivisto said. The results can be a dramatic outburst in young students, for instance. “One [player] is crying, one is laughing and there is a ‘house’ burning.” Koivisto said. At this point, he believes technology should take a backseat to teacher intervention.

“That’s the most teachable moment for digital citizens,” he said. When teachers used it that way, opening a conversation about this behavior, “the problem disappeared,” he said.

Lessons Koivisto learned from working with MinecraftEdu have inspired developments in his TeacherGaming Desk platform. “We have created a learning analytics engine that follows players while they are playing,” he said, providing information such as what skills they are demonstrating, how they are getting better, and how that knowledge links to the curriculum the teacher is following.

Teachers are currently trying games on this platform, and he is continuing to pursue deals for licenses with individual gaming companies. He expects an official roll-out of this offering to schools in early 2018.

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