Fostering digital citizenship at scale: How Calgary is using Minecraft to re-envision downtown one block at a time

27 Oct 2022 Calgary Web banner


When scholars, teachers, staff, and administrators consider the effects of COVID-19 on education, they often focus on the level of engagement that students miss out on when they are not sitting next to each other during every school day. During remote instruction, many students were not just limited in their ability to travel to class, they were also restricted in their ability to get out and see the world. They were not able to take field trips, travel with their families, explore cities with their friends, or any of the other essential experiences that help formulate social and communal connections foundational to a student’s experience.

There also remained a need for students to connect with their peers and communities in ways that developed their habits and skills as digital citizens. To supplement these missed experiences and increase student engagement, Calgary leaned into Minecraft: Education Edition, to get students, educators, and the larger community engaged and connected.

Digital citizenship in a twenty-first century education

Today’s problems require interdisciplinary solutions, and that means students need interdisciplinary problem-solving skills. Digital citizenship requires students to effectively use their skills to communicate, motivate, and engage with global stakeholders in an increasingly online world. How do we provide students the opportunities to develop the skills they need for digital citizenship? And how do we do that at scale?

One answer to both questions is to embrace the world of gaming, and in particular, Minecraft: Education Edition. The third largest city in Canada, Calgary has shown the world the power of immersive gaming to both foster digital citizenship and to build connections between students and their communities. More than 12,000 students participated in the “Level Up, Calgary” challenge which invited all K-12 students to compete against their peers to re-envision and re-design the downtown core of Calgary. They used the immersive environment of Minecraft: Education Edition to engage with each other, seek out community partners, and ultimately participate in an urban planning process that is often left in the hands of a small group of adults. The “Level Up, Calgary” challenge revealed the true power of digital citizenship to inspire students to move beyond screens and help solve complex problems in their communities.

Amplifying student voices through the Minecraft immersive experience

Joanne Pitman is the Superintendent of School Improvement with the Calgary Board of Education. When she was approached with the initial idea for the “Level Up, Calgary“ challenge, she immediately saw the benefits for the students and broader community. Joanne remarked on the success of the program, “The synergy between creating something that was community based, led within schools, and connected to the stability of an effective quality partner in Microsoft meant that I knew this was going to be incredible.” Joanne explained that the original goal was simple: “Create the conditions for our students to push the instructional boundaries by engaging in and through Minecraft.”

After reviewing the full functionality of Minecraft: Education Edition, the stakeholders realized that there were tremendous opportunities to harness the power of an immersive environment to bolster student engagement, student voices, and ultimately, student participation in the local community. Michael Nelson, an Education Director for the Calgary Board of Education, worked on the “Level Up, Calgary” challenge. Michael immediately recognized the value in utilizing Minecraft: Education Edition, “I felt that my pedagogical brain could see how we could make this competition an authentic task highly connected to the community. One of the amazing opportunities that came with Minecraft: Education Edition was how this project opened up space both in the world at large and in the world inside Minecraft. It enabled students to think about all the intricacies of a city and to really think about big ideas around what a city could be.”

Students using Minecraft to Amplify their voices

Connecting to the broader community

Of course, it is one thing to ask students to think about their city, and another to have local community leaders embrace the prospect of 12,000 students re-envisioning and suggesting changes to the city’s design. Jason Cameron is responsible for creating and fostering connections in the downtown core of Calgary. The city of Calgary prioritized connection as one of its four central pillars, and Jason prioritizes connecting people, goods, information, and ideas. He admits that most of the time people focus on infrastructure pieces like transit, overpasses, roads, sidewalks, and mobility networks. The “Level Up, Calgary” challenge, however, provided students an opportunity to play an essential role in the future of downtown Calgary.

From Jason’s perspective, the students did a marvelous job of helping to rethink the downtown core at a time when COVID-19 had greatly diminished the number of people heading there. He highlighted creativity in a wide set of student initiatives, including a public art playground installation and the student’s idea to use city parking lots as basketball courts that was so incredible that the city has already invested in bringing it to fruition. Jason explained, “I think that visualization says a lot about our history, but it also speaks to where innovation and new ideas come from. A simple Minecraft screenshot is really a great way to get people's, and especially young people’s, hearts moving and their minds soaring about what the possibilities are for our downtown.” The excitement about the “Level Up, Calgary” challenge was infectious. City planners, architects, engineers, and the mayor all wanted to meet with students and talk through their ideas. “Our former mayor just was reaching out to me all the time asking ‘Hey, is my character ready yet?’ There was just excitement and gleefulness. It really made downtown playful.”

City leadership viewed the challenge as a unique way to engage young people expressing an interest in their city. At a deeper level, however, Jason and his colleagues quickly realized that the Minecraft: Education Edition immersive experience could play a pivotal role in the long-term recruitment and retention of young people to downtown Calgary. “Calgary is seen as a place where young people leave. And so engaging young people, having them play an important role, a participatory role, in the future of our city is a way that we hope to build lasting connections. It also helps us to understand the kinds of city that our young people want to live in. We don't always get that from architects, city planners, or even our community leaders.” From Jason’s perspective, the “Level Up, Calgary” challenge served as a 12,000 person focus group where everyone was excited to give their feedback on the future of downtown Calgary, standing in stark contrast to an average city planning meeting attended by adults with the time and resources to participate.

Connecting broader community

Digital citizenship and the challenge of twenty-first century education

Asking students to work together to solve problems in a digital immersive environment helps develop their skills as digital citizens. In the Minecraft: Education Edition world, students navigate constraints, negotiate conflict, and find innovative ways to collaborate both amongst themselves, and alongside community leadership. These are the skills essential for a twenty-first century approach to education.

Christopher Blais is a specialist within the teaching and learning technology team in the Calgary Board of Education. "The fact that students saw themselves as capable learners making a meaningful contribution to their city's future made all the difference. We observed them working with classmates on their own time outside of school, connecting online with their groups to extend the work beyond the given class time. We know they're intellectually engaged when they're willing to go that extra step, and we saw it across the board. There's the collaboration, there's the problem solving.”

Joanne explained that the immersive environment helps students gain the skills needed to excel at digital citizenship. “Digital citizenship is not this thing that we teach about with a lecture. It is something we must live, and we must embed. We have to get down to some of those core challenges where students have to experience what to do when their designs are ruined. What does that mean for how they bounce back and build relationships and restoration around that particular challenge? So, I would offer that Minecraft, the design of the pedagogy, and the actual challenge in and of itself dovetails to create an intentional focus to achieve digital citizenship.”

Translating agency into action and the future of twenty-first century education

When the “Level Up, Calgary” challenge came to an end, 86% of the teachers surveyed said they were ready to jump into another Minecraft: Education Edition challenge. From the student perspective, the survey data reveals an increase in student engagement, effort, and sense of purpose. Beyond the survey data, there are the actual changes to downtown Calgary that are ongoing as a direct result of student voices that are enhanced in the immersive environment.

Christopher explained how the real success of the project stems from translating student ideas into real world action, confirming for them the power of their agency, "The challenge empowered youth to see that they have legitimate perspectives and that their voice matters. Their prototypes in Minecraft are now translating into physical builds in downtown Calgary. We have a grade three student who designed climbable abstract public art, and the city has a site for her. It's happening. She's going to be able to climb on something that she envisioned in Minecraft. It's absolutely wild, but it's real.”

In Joanne’s summary view, COVID-19 created more isolation and despondence for students at a time of great economic uncertainty for downtown Calgary, “At a time when our city's publicity was situated all around an empty downtown core, students were able to take the Minecraft: Education Edition and breathe life into downtown with purpose through a tool that was accessible, available, and connected to quality partnership in Microsoft. The Minecraft challenge created confidence, excitement, and a willingness to go down this road in a way that perhaps previously we would've been reticent to try. When I think back to it now, we came up with this project in the midst of some pretty dark days when we were all very separated, and we wanted to disrupt that sense of isolation. Thanks to the “Level Up, Calgary” challenge, we did just that. We rekindled, and enhanced, that sense of community connection.”