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New Media professor enriches virtual learning experience with Minecraft

Alexandra Bal, associate professor at the RTA School of Media, builds community among New Media students and explores new teaching methods with Minecraft
August 18, 2020

A leading researcher and innovator in education, Dr. Alexandra Bal has a distinguished career in media production, including multimedia educational software development, corporate digital imaging, 3D animation, and experimental film and video. Dr. Bal holds a Ph.D. in information and communication sciences from Paris University. She is also an associate researcher at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris where she focuses on the socio-economy of virtual education; seeking to understand the societal and economic impact of informal DIY and social media cultures on children and formal education.

At FCAD, Dr. Bal teaches the first-year New Media course, Creative Processes. In this introductory course, students explore concept development through processes such as research, brainstorming, rapid prototyping and iterative design. For the upcoming semester, Dr. Bal will use the popular Mojang Studios video game, Minecraft, and virtual platform, Discord, as a space for students to connect, ideate and collaborate.

A screen capture of Alex Bal, associate professor at the RTA School of Media posing in front of a virtual scene from Minecraft Education. Alex wears a navy and white striped shirt and smiles softly as she looks to the left at two Minecraft characters looking back at her.  The Minecraft scene is composed of railroads and green foliage with a blue to orange sunset in the background. The two characters are made up of pixels and stand side by side to the right of Alex.

Alex Bal, Associate Professor at the RTA School of Media

Minecraft: Education Edition

Minecraft: Education Edition

Source: Minecraft

An interview with Alex Bal

Tell us more about the Creative Processes course. 

The New Media program uses arts education to foster innovative thinking and is grounded in maker culture pedagogies. This means that a lot of our pedagogical methodologies focus on learning by making, developing the capacity for creative problem solving and modelling empathetic values in making. The program focuses on the fusion between Technology/Art in many platforms, such as 3D Printed Materials, Robotics, Electronics, Virtual/AR/VR,  and Audio/Visual computational work.

Our students live by the following manifesto: “We question beyond the nature of our reality. We search for a better answer — a different future. We are dreamers, thinkers and believers.”

The Creative Processes course was designed to introduce first-year students to the culture of their program and to get them to set their imagination free, which is actually very difficult. It means letting go of fear; fear of a grade, of rejection, of being wrong or not good enough. The course’s pedagogical model eliminates as many barriers to success as possible.

How are you incorporating Minecraft into the curriculum?

We will use it during orientation, for special events and for classes. Creative Processes is a first-year course and a big part of its mandate is to introduce students to the New Media community at FCAD. Minecraft has been around for over a decade and houses an incredibly large community of experiential learners and teachers. This will help us build our community. 

When the COVID crisis began, the new media maker space became virtual through the digital platform Discord. Minecraft is a platform many of our students already use to socialize, and gamers often use it in tangent with Discord. We decided to build a social environment in one of our students’ digital habitats. The space is a highly collaborative environment, and it is normal for people to help each other. 

Minecraft will facilitate connection and collaboration outside of instructional time. Upper year students will mentor first-years, and together we will build a virtual version of our maker space and over time our school if all goes well. Since we can not be together physically, we need an environment that simulates a space and allows us to build and make together. 

In what ways will this revolutionize the curriculum?

Using our students’ established digital culture and modes of communication will engage them meaningfully in a virtual space and get them to show the digital facet of their identity. Students are so different when they interact through their digital platforms. For example, during our 4th-year end-of-year Zoom party, one of our very shy students came as his VR avatar; his digital performer took over and he became very animated. It was lovely to experience this side of him. I want to leverage the psychological component of social digital culture. 

Minecraft is a sandbox and we will be able to model the experimental and explorative processes we want our students to celebrate. I am not a Minecraft user, per se, so they will witness my own approach to being motivated by curiosity, taking chances, trying new things out without being afraid nor ashamed of failing, and having fun while exploring new experiences. These are all core values we want our students to have. 

It also flattens the teacher-student power dynamics. I am not a Minecraft expert, some of the students will be. For some students, this may unlock the door to their creative voice by making the teacher less central to the learning experience. 

What new opportunities to expand their learning will this offer students?

Our students are going to learn how to develop virtual professional practices. Many companies such as Twitter, Google and many others see the benefits of letting people work from home. Knowing how to work remotely is going to be a very big advantage.

Many of our students have grown up in gaming, social media and other forms of digital media. Letting them increasingly include these communication tools and culture in their education is preparing them for the new working environments they will build.

Students will either learn or hone digital communication and practices that can be applied to any field. They will develop the capacity to build virtual communities and learn what works and doesn’t work. 

How will today’s need for virtual teaching impact teaching practice, beyond COVID-19?

We are all going through a period of major change, and change is hard. This is very stressful as there are a lot of unknowns. But faculty members are discovering new educational modalities. Once we have developed our own methodologies, figured out what works for our courses, and think of courses as learning experiences instead of as the distribution of content and information, we will develop new ways to incorporate these new tools in our teaching, when it makes sense to do so. This could greatly enrich our pedagogical palettes.

While many of our studios and production-oriented courses will remain in physical spaces, I can see some of us increasingly moving courses to either hybrid models or fully online courses. 

We need pedagogical models that prepare students for the uncertain and turbulent future they will face.  We know that the sustainability of our future depends on our ability to become resilient and adaptable, but also empathetic, curious and loving, both in terms of self-love, love towards others and for the planet. Is it possible to teach how to slow down and deeply listen to the knowledge embedded in our genes, bodies, emotions and habitats, and to focus on wellbeing instead of busyness? In a way, for many of us, COVID was a sort of busyness detox, we ended up alone, facing ourselves and families in new, and not always comfortable, ways. For many that discomfort eventually gave way to a slower, deeper, more reflective and connected version of ourselves. Perhaps these experiences can inform a different approach to teaching and learning.  

Beyond COVID-19, we need to explore how we, as educators, can harness the power of experiential and informal education afforded by networks to be more genuine ourselves and develop more grounded relationships with our students. Being more genuine helps develop trusting relationships, within which students can discover who they are safely and develop a version of themselves that can weather societal storms and evolve constructively. How can we prepare students and ourselves to embrace change as an opportunity, not to be feared, and to accept the difficult challenge of rebuilding that awaits all of us?

"The future of creativity is ..." 

Infinite.

FCAD at Ryerson University

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