Block by Block: Building the Potential of Minecraft and More

May 18, 2015


Building the potential of Minecraft and more: One Spartan’s global journey

By Lauren Ebelt

“It is that one-of-a-kind educational tool that comes along rarely and disrupts everything,” Colin Gallagher said about the game that has helped shape his career as an expert in educational technology.

But there is more to Gallagher than just one game: he is also a course designer, instructor, YouTube guru, teacher, coach and writer. And his legacy as an innovator—and as a Spartan—has only just begun.

Redesigning assessment

Gallagher is originally from Ireland and currently living and teaching in Singapore.

He graduated in 2012 with a master’s in Educational Technology without ever stepping foot onto the Michigan State University campus, calling it the “best academic choice of his life.” From thousands of miles away (about 9,300 of them, in fact), he embedded himself into his online studies and the culture of MSU. After his graduation, he came back as an adjunct instructor and course designer.


Colin Gallagher coding with Grade 3 students

He is one of the masterminds behind CEP 813: Electronic Assessment for Teaching and Learning, an MSU online course relaunched in fall 2014 for master’s and graduate certificate students. Gallagher co-designed and guest instructed the course, meant to assess how digital spaces and game theory support learning, specifically using Minecraft as an example.

Minecraft is a game that has not only changed the ways educators look at how online spaces and communities can foster learning—it is also a major building block in Gallagher’s career.

Minecraft, at its core, is about breaking and placing blocks. It has sold over 19 million copies worldwide. The educational version of the game, MinecraftEdu, is used by more than 5,000 educational establishments around the globe.

“Fundamentally, Minecraft can let the education world realize that learning can take place in realms that are totally alien to us. Our students are in these places every day at home learning things we cannot fathom or even begin to assess,” said Gallagher, an Apple Distinguished Educator and Google Certified Teacher.

“Digital spaces like Minecraft can instill in our students lifelong skills in communicating and collaborating effectively with people all over the world, regardless of race, religion or gender.”

Michelle Schira Hagerman, an academic specialist in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education, led the CEP 813 course redesign and taught it this fall with graduate student Sandra Sawaya. She invited Gallagher to help with the project.

“We looked at how Minecraft can be used as assessment for learning. Students also assessed its learning affordances, a process we think about as assessment as learning,” she said. “This course gives education professionals the opportunity to think of [digital spaces] more broadly to support learning.”

Students in the course interacted within the world of Minecraft, completing modules such as “Designing Formative Assessment in Digital Contexts” along the way.

Gallagher’s work with Minecraft doesn’t stop there: he is creator of the Minechat video series on YouTube, which is dedicated to using Minecraft in educational spaces, with personal accounts from educators. He has also traveled the world for Minecraft talks and conferences, and is heralded as an expert on the game’s educational capabilities—one of the many reasons he wrote a book about it. “Minecraft in the Classroom: Ideas, Inspiration and Student Projects for Teachers” was published by PeachPit Press in 2014.

A global impact

Then there’s the world outside of Minecraft for Gallagher—literally.

He has traveled extensively in pursuit of his studies and the use of digital technology in the classroom. Over the years, Gallagher has been everywhere: from Germany to China, from Ethiopia to his current home in Singapore, where he teaches at the ISS International School.

In each of these global locations, Gallagher took on a new opportunity. In Germany, he landed a job in technology support at the International School of Düsseldorf for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students. In Ethiopia, he spoke at the Learning 2.014 Africa conference on the topic, “Five Things About Being a Technology Coach,” and also ran a Minecraft workshop there.

Gallagher is passionate about integrating technology in classrooms.

“Every adult is surrounded by technology, and I have been amazed and aghast by educators that don’t take the positive aspects of technology from their lives into their classrooms,” he said.

Digital spaces, like Minecraft, don’t have to be used solely in our spare time or on our smartphones, Gallagher believes. They have a place in the classroom, too. One of his goals with his research, teaching and speaking engagements is to encourage teachers to better utilize the opportunities technology provides.

“Technology integration in the classroom has to start at teacher training colleges and universities from day one. It has to,” he said. “If technology tools and platforms are embedded as essential daily factors of teacher training, then when teachers jump into working full time, they must see the advantage of having their students do the same.”

Beginning from day one is a recurring theme in Gallagher’s work. His latest interests are on design literacy for youth—and how themes of fundamental design could be implemented early on in elementary school.

Instead of giving students a project like “create a PowerPoint,” Gallagher thinks educators should teach them how to make good, effective and memorable projects and not let them just “have at it.”

The next steps

The ever-busy thinker and doer, Gallagher isn’t sitting still. In 2015 alone, he’ll be attending conferences (in the Philippines and England) for Minecraft. He’s examining how the video game Kerbal Space Program can help students learn about past and current space exploration. He’s also getting contacted for quotes in articles, reflecting on his blog and continuing to spearhead Minechat on YouTube.

There may also be a return to MSU. The framework of the programs and how they wrap theory into practice are again calling his name as he mulls over a return to the green and white for a Ph.D.

If there’s one thing Spartans will do, it is create an extraordinary impact. Gallagher has begun his work at transforming the way educators think about technology, and the sky’s the limit as to what he’ll do (and where he’ll go) next.