Some weeks ago, our school received an invitation to participate in an international collaborative project called “My country, your country”, organised by the Asia-Europe Classroom Network, under the direct support of the Asia-Europe Foundation.
In “My Country, Your Country”, students from schools around the world will create their country geographically through Minecraft. The objective is to offer students an interactive and fun way to study the geography of the ASEM member countries. By setting up public servers, the students will be able to communicate over the platforms themselves, where they can also visit each others worlds. In addition, the students can document their workflow and post screenshots of their creations on Facebook and blogs.
Some of the objectives of this project include to know the landscape of ASEM countries, foster collaboration among the students and exchange and share information on technology through various discussions. Expected outcomes include the creation of a digital landscape map and images, as well as the understanding of spacial orientation and landscape image. With this contribution, the project expects to build understanding among the participants and minimise stereotypes.
The project was received with great excitement here at PaRK Internarional School, because it fitted perfectly to this year’s curricular objectives, as well as inside the CT curriculum that the school introduced in the beginning of this school year, in order to better accompany the iPad 1:1 program of the school. With the reception of the project and the decision to move forward with it, we decided that the actual activity would take place on a weekly base during the “My Time” afternoon, a day of the week where the students of the 5th and 6th grade are divided in groups and participate in various project-based activities prepared by their classroom teachers. For this particular activity, 20 students were pre-selected to participate and a classroom was made available for the duration of the whole project. Since every student from the 5th and 6th has an iPad at their disposal, and all of them already have Minecraft installed on their devices, fulfilling this prerequisite was very easy.
With the physical space arranged, timetable fixed and students selected, we were ready to move to the next phase: setting up a Minecraft server in an iPad 1 to 1 environment.
There exists many different ways to create and host a Minecraft server, all with their advantages and disadvantages. Minecraft Realms is a cheap and simple way to set up a Minecraft server for multiple users to join in and create together, and it is also run by Mojang, the creators of Minecraft. Unfortunately, it only supports PCs, as well as buying the game itself for every device that is running it. This solution was immediately dismissed because, as mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons we decided to move forward with this project is the fact that all students have an iPad at their disposal with Minecraft Pocket Edition already installed. This requirement called for a server solution that could support Minecraft PE on mobile devices, and probably the most widely used is Netherbox. Netherbox provides support to both desktop and pocket editions of the game, with the only disadvantage being the pricing plans and limit of players for each one. Which brings us to PocketMine, a free Minecraft PE server hosting software for mobile devices that comes with plugins support (plugins will be discussed later on), a solid community of forum users and no player limit, making it the perfect solution for our project. The catch: manual installation and configuration.
There are many other solutions out there specifically designed for Minecraft PE, but none of them come close to the features and tools offered by PocketMine. For example, one of the simplest ways to host a Minecraft server is included with the game itself. Whenever a user creates a world in Minecraft PE with the option to “Broadcast to LAN” turned on, any player can join in as long as both players are in the same Wi-fi network. However, this option has a limit of five simultaneous players only, offers no plugins support and the world is only saved on the host iPad, meaning if the person that created the game in the first place is not available, then the other players cannot access the world. Instant MCPE is a website that automatically creates a Minecraft PE server by simply clicking on the grass block found in the site, free of charge. It provides the user with an IP address that can be typed inside Minecraft PE to enter a “survival mode” world that can host up to ten players (more about “survival mode” in the following paragraphs). This server, however, is destroyed after twenty four hours or one hour of inactivity. Lastly, Multiplayer for Minecraft PE is a payed, iOS-only app that users can install in their devices in order to create or access Minecraft PE servers. This method is considered to be the easiest of them all (excluding the “Broadcast to LAN” option), but as the ones before it also does not offer any support for plugins.
We decided to go with PocketMine for a number of reasons. PocketMine is available for PC and Mac, as well as Linux and Android, which in turn was perfect for us since we had a Mac mini at our disposal to host the server. Servers tend to occupy more and more memory and resources the more users are accessing it, so a desktop computer is essential to keep the server stable and running. Also very important to keep in mind, PocketMine is an open source software, meaning anyone with the right knowledge can contribute to the update and maintenance of the software. This, however, can cause some confusion as to which is the latest and most stable version to use when setting up a server. We discovered, buy trial and error process, that the newest version is always posted on the front page of the PocketMine forums site (version 1.6 at the time of writing) and not at the official PocketMine website. Instructions on how to install the software can be found at the forum post and the website. As for instructions for setting up the server itself, they can be found here or here.
With the server installed and running on the computer, it was time to configure it to our needs and objectives for the project. The first thing we had to decide was that the type of world our students would work on. Minecraft PE offers to types of gameplay, survival and creative. In survival mode, a world is randomly generated by the game itself, including animals, monsters, mountains and caves, while users have a limited number of resources in order to build and stay alive. In creative mode, the world can either be randomly generated or completely flat, with users having access to all the tools and resources of the game, as well as flying. To create something as complex and rich as a country, we decided creative was the way to go, thus allowing our students to start from scratch and build in an open and obstacle-free environment, just like a white canvas. In addition, some functions of the game itself were disabled, such as animals, monsters and PvP, no only to keep students focused to their tasks and make building easier, but also to keep the server as lightweight as possible and avoid lag issues. Next step, we had to ensure the security and backup of the world from unwanted and unexpected situations. The whole server was moved to a Dropbox folder, in order to make sure that a backup of the whole system is constantly being created. We also activated the whitelist option and created unique usernames for all our participants so that only them can access the server whenever is needed. Because of the fact that users can join the server only when both device and computer are on the same Wi-fi network, any other device on the same network that runs Minecraft PC can access the server, in the same way that “Broadcast to LAN” works. To avoid any unnecessary acts of “griefing” and protect the work of our students, we created a whitelist to limit that access to only this group of students.
PockeMine comes with a set of build-in commands and tools that help the teacher monitor, edit and control most of the settings of the world in-game. These commands are exclusively available for the world’s OP (or Operator, in this case the teacher) and can be enhanced and enriched with the installation of plugins. In general, plugins are add-ons to the server that can change the way the game behaves, add new functions or help OPs with the maintenance of the world. For this project we understood that it was essential to have a robust command tool that could allow students to travel fast from one part of the world to the other, and this is done possible with the use of a plugin called EssentialsTP. With the help of this plugin, the OP can set warp points in specific places on the world map that users can then use at portals to teleport from one location to the other. We also added a second plugin to the server called Slapper, that allows for the spawning of any type of animal from the game, which will eventually populate specific areas of the world as we see fit.
With the whitelist activated and plugins in place we were ready to access our server and begin constructing Portugal!