Minecraft and Watson Team Up to Teach

In a sign of how gaming is about to transform the way we learn, a small team of high school students at Connally High School in Austin, Texas, hooked up an instance of Microsoft’s Minecraft video game to the IBM Watson artificial intelligence platform to teach medical students how viruses function.

Working with these students, teacher David Conover got his class to use a medical corpse created by Tufts University to transform Minecraft into a teaching tool that uses Watson running as a cloud service to answer students’ questions.

This gamification of learning has the potential to fundamentally change how complex information is taught across a broad range of e-learning environments.

A self-described serial entrepreneur, Conover says he found himself teaching video game design in the high school. To get the students interested in developing the application, he figured that a familiar Minecraft gaming construct would have the most appeal. So, over a summer, he worked with six students on a full-time basis to develop the application.

Conover says that the students spent every free moment they had volunteering to create the app. For teens who normally eschew anything to do with school, that project represented a major breakthrough.

Using Natural Language to Ask Questions

IBM got involved in this project when Conover and the students discovered the application programming interfaces (APIs) that IBM makes available on the Watson cloud service. Without much effort, the students made it possible to type a question using natural language in Minecraft that would be answered by Watson. That allows the application to easily augment the information the teens spent all summer inputting into the original app.

Conover says the students now plan to tap into the voice capabilities of Watson, and also to start building other gaming applications to teach other subjects. For example, they might cover topics such as the best ways to optimize traffic patterns in Austin or figuring out what would be involved in making a journey to Mars.

In the meantime, gamification is all the rage in education circles. That means it’s only a matter of time before this technology is applied to all forms of training—both in and out of the classroom.

The challenge now is figuring out exactly what gaming metaphor best fits the type of material being taught. Once that’s decided, cognitive computing platforms should provide all the data needed to drive that application in a place that is, quite literally, a simple API call away.