Deirdre Quarnstrom was chief of staff at Microsoft’s Xbox division working on the company’s acquisition of Minecraft in 2014 when she noticed that teachers around the world were adapting Minecraft’s build-your-own-world gaming format to create imaginative new ways of teaching.
“Where Minecraft is different from other video games is that the player community very early on started hacking and changing and customizing it, making it their own,” Quarnstrom says. “In its early history there were some teachers who were gamers who saw all this potential for bringing it into the classroom.”
Minecraft is a worldwide sensation. Quarnstrom says some version of the game was played in every country on earth in 2020, including Antarctica. It is essentially a virtual version of LEGO, in which players break and place building blocks to make things. With Sweden’s Mojang Studios, which created the best-selling game, Quarnstrom started a program to tailor Minecraft for mainstream education. Her timing was great. When the pandemic hit and remote learning became a priority, more teachers embraced the potential for an accessible format that promotes creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving in an immersive environment.
Minecraft: Education Edition now reaches millions of students and educators around the world each month. Quarnstrom previously led teams responsible for Minecraft’s China business, Minecraft Education, and Minecraft Hour of Code, which has reached more than 200 million sessions.
In April 2021, Microsoft named her vice president of Education Experiences, a position from which she’s been taking the lessons she learned adapting video game technology to remote learning into a wider variety of applications.
Was there a flashpoint when Minecraft evolved from a game into an educational tool?
It was very organic. There was a teacher in Finland and a teacher from New York City who developed the concept for a new product built on Minecraft. They saw the potential to bring the immersive, open world, digital environment into the classroom. They created their own modules to make the game more applicable to a teaching and learning environment. For example, the computer science add-on ComputerCraft brought coding into the learning environment in a very accessible way. They created a way for a teacher to host a server so they could have multiple students playing in the same virtual world. I saw this early grassroots work and thought, “What an amazing opportunity to make a difference by bringing what I’ve learned about video games into education.”
How has the pandemic and remote learning affected the use and sales of the education version of Minecraft?
Families suddenly had kids at home, and in many cases the parents were trying to figure out how to support their kids’ education while they were working, and how to maintain social connections because everyone was feeling isolated. Minecraft is a natural connection point, so we packaged up our education resources and offered those to families. We also created the Minecraft Education Collection, which is in the Minecraft Marketplace where you normally would go to buy content worlds or decorative items using virtual currency. Players downloaded 50 million free worlds from the Education Collection in the first month.
Does a gaming environment have advantages over other virtual classroom approaches?
Games are well-architected for bringing people together in a virtual group setting. Multiplayer gaming technology has existed for decades, and schools were trying to figure out how to adapt some of the other technologies to connect teachers and students remotely. Minecraft gives you the opportunity, during class time, to say “Let’s all go visit Washington, D.C.” and you can have 20 to 25 students all doing that activity. It provides a real feeling that you are together.
Any disadvantages to that kind of engagement?
One concern is the amount of time this generation is interacting with screens. That’s a real and valid concern. But research suggests there’s a difference between screen time and creative time. It’s pure consumption versus making or producing something. Minecraft fits into that category of creative time. There’s a true sense of accomplishment that comes with building something in a virtual environment. I tell parents to ask their kids what they’re doing when they’re online. There’s a whole creative world that may not be obvious from watching someone interact with a tablet or a phone. The environments we’ve provided for learning use game design principles to challenge the player to achieve certain milestones. Learners are applying critical thinking and problem-solving skills while developing mastery of educational concepts.
Are some subjects better taught this way than others?
How does that kind of learning account for a student’s specific skills?
Say a teacher is having students study American history by building the settlement of Jamestown in Minecraft. That’s a great activity that brings together geography and history, but also brings each student’s skills to life. You might have a student who’s more of a planner, or one who likes to work independently, or someone who wants to be the project manager of the group. Those are the kind of skills that teachers highlight as something they get from Minecraft. They’re 21st-century skills — leadership, communication, collaboration, and advanced problem solving. It’s difficult to design lessons around those skills in a traditional classroom. In Minecraft they emerge quite naturally.
Do you see that playing out with your own kids?
My younger daughter has dyslexia and ADHD, and she’s a nontraditional learner. Reading and writing are more challenging for her. It’s hard for her to switch focus from a chalkboard to look down at a paper and back up to the teacher in the traditional classroom. But she loves video games and YouTube, and those are great places for her to learn. She’s very much engaged by exploring and creative discovery and that sort of self-directed learning process that happens when you’re in an open-world gaming environment.
Is there one specific user-created success story that stands out for you?
Students were building their university campuses in Minecraft during the pandemic. Students from UC Berkeley built a campus and did their commencement ceremony in Minecraft. They had their chancellor and vice chancellor speak using Minecraft avatars. They even built some of their favorite local restaurants, including their favorite boba tea places. Some universities are hosting tours and orientations for new students in these Minecraft campuses! So here were these students living at home in their childhood bedrooms, but they’re connected to their university and their classmates.
What is a recent initiative you are tackling in your new position?
We’re looking at how we can support the whole education ecosystem so educators, school leaders, and families can transition from what was solely remote learning [during COVID] to some hybrid model of part-time teaching and learning remotely, part-time in person. That was already happening in education, and I’m thinking about how we can support that evolution and help close equity gaps that we’ve seen increase during the pandemic. In 2021 we announced Reading Progress, which uses what students got more used to in the past year with more integrated digital technology. Students record themselves reading a passage assigned by their teacher to assess fluency. Reading Progress provides feedback both to the student and to the teacher about pacing and pronunciation. It highlights words the student struggles to pronounce and marks where a student pauses or corrects themself. Educators report that students are actually asking for more reading practice and they’re seeing gains in literacy in their classes.
Are there skills you learned in the Stanford Executive Program that have been especially helpful in this new role?
The network and the global connections I made at SEP continue to be so valuable. There are a few people I talked to for advice as I was considering a job transition. I’ve brought inspiration from [Stanford GSB lecturer] Dan Klein’s creativity workshop into the remote work environment, taking some of that improv mindset and asking how we can apply that in the remote work environment. This has been key to helping my team feel connected and inspired on our journey to empower every learner and every educator around the world.
Photos by Dan Lao