Minecraft to launch education edition
An "education edition" of Minecraft is to be launched by Microsoft.
The product will offer teachers new ways to use the world-building video game in a range of subjects.
Microsoft paid $2.5bn (£1.8bn) for Mojang, Minecraft's Swedish creator, in 2014. And late last year, it bought the four-year-old MinecraftEdu version of the game from Finland-based independent developer TeacherGaming.
It is now promising to add features, but schools may face extra costs.
It says more than 7,000 classrooms around the world already use Minecraft in some form.
"Teachers are using Minecraft to do so many things, including teaching maths, science, religion and poetry," Anthony Salcito, Microsoft's vice-president of worldwide education, told the BBC.
"Once we make the tools easier for schools to get access to and employ, I think you'll see that number [of classrooms] grow quite quickly."
MinecraftEdu already allows teachers to modify content in the game and use a shared library of education-themed assets.
Microsoft is promising to improve the experience by:
- allowing characters created by the children to retain their characteristics between sessions
- letting pupils take "photos" of their progress via an in-game camera, and then store them in an online book alongside their own notes. These can then act as tutorials for other children or be used by the teacher to score their progress
- permitting children to download software that will allow them to continue playing the educational version of Minecraft outside school without having to buy their own copy of the game
To access the service, children and teachers each need their own Office 365 ID, which can also be used to provide access to the Microsoft's cloud-based productivity software.
Microsoft says this will help teachers minimise the number of online accounts they need to manage.
But it may also help the company promote its word processing, email, and file-sharing apps over rival services from Google and others.
Microsoft intends to charge an annual fee of $5 (£3.50) for each teacher and child.
That could prove more expensive than the current basic set-up, where schools pay a one-off fee of $14 multiplied by the maximum number of people they want to be able to log in at once, plus an additional $41 for server software.
"We believe we are bringing added value," said Deirdre Quarnstrom, director of Minecraft education.
"On top of having a persistent identity, they will also have access to the most current version of the game.
"MinecraftEdu, along with other Minecraft mods, was one to two releases behind by nature of the development process.
"We are also replacing the need for schools to have and maintain separate server hardware."
The new features were welcomed by Leigh Wolmarans, the head teacher of Lings Primary School in Northampton.
His school already uses MinecraftEdu to teach pupils about A Midsummer Night's Dream by asking them to create a performance of Shakespeare's play within the game.
However, he said other teachers should be aware the software had its limitations.
"Technology can lead to exceptional learning, but it has to be used in conjunction with other tools," he said.
"If all you are doing is sitting them down and leaving them to experience Shakespeare through Minecraft, you would be doing something wrong.
"Dance, art, drama and music remain the best ways to teach kids.
"But technology can add to that as an additional tool."
Microsoft said it would allow teachers to start "beta-testing" Minecraft's education edition at some point "in the summer" without charge, ahead of its formal rollout.