(Bloomberg Businessweek) — When Ruth C. Kinney Elementary in Islip Terrace, N.Y., went into lockdown in March, librarian Bianca Rivera feared she wouldn’t be able to connect with students who’d typically come in for activities. But she soon thought of a place where she might find them: the virtual worlds of Roblox, a website where kids chat, play games, and learn new skills. Several times a week, Rivera and dozens of 8- to 11-year-olds logged on to play games such as Piggy But It’s 100 Players (the point is to fend off a petulant porker) and Adopt Me! (they care for virtual pets). Rivera fretted that parents would rebel against yet more time spent online, but they were grateful, and this fall she’s planning to use Roblox to teach animation. “It was a way to talk to the kids,” she says. “It just helped us connect and stay together.”
With the pandemic continuing to rage and many schools likely to remain closed or operate on reduced schedules, more teachers are turning to Roblox and Minecraft, a rival offering from Microsoft Corp. Yes, they’re computer games, but they’re also serious learning tools, teachers and education theorists say. Roblox offers millions of games, some designed to surreptitiously teach the three R’s. In Minecraft, players construct and explore virtual worlds out of blocks that look something like Legos. Within those environments, they can engage in more than 600 learning sessions, with activities such as visiting a low-def version of Florence, Italy; hanging out in a “decimal/fraction garden”; or honing language skills while exploring a shipwreck. “Being able to connect a classroom of 20 to 25 students remotely—gaming works really well,” says Deirdre Quarnstrom, the Microsoft executive who oversees a school-focused edition of Minecraft, which lets teachers limit who’s playing and what the kids do.
Both platforms have been used for years in classes, after-school clubs, and summer camps built around computer-oriented content. In the Covid era, they’re being adapted to teach everything from physics to politics. Roblox Corp. says it now has 150 million monthly active users, up from 100 million a year ago. And use of the school version of Minecraft, which costs as much as $5 per student per year, more than doubled this spring and summer. Research firm Loup Ventures predicts Roblox will see sales of $1 billion this year, double what it made in 2019, and Minecraft will generate more than $600 million, up at least a quarter. “Teachers are saying now is a good time to integrate those tools,” says Brett Shelton, head of the department of educational technology at Boise State University in Idaho.
Video workshops that Roblox released during lockdown on using the games to teach remotely have racked up more than 1 million views. And the company is creating content to better understand digital safety, such as the appropriate response to cyberbullying and a scavenger hunt where students search a city for questionable or potentially harmful information.
One of the biggest sources for Roblox content is players themselves. The site’s games are mostly developed by teens and young adults, who get a quarter of the revenue from selling their creations on the platform. Authors of those games are on track to bank more than $250 million this year—double what they did in 2019—as Roblox aims to ensure a steady pipeline of new offerings. “We did a lot of work at the beginning of Covid to make sure we packaged up beginner classes to make it super simple for kids to make games,” says Roblox Chief Business Officer Craig Donato. “They can totally do this by themselves.”
Some educators caution against overreliance on gaming. Both Roblox and the mainstream version of Minecraft are open social platforms, so parents and teachers must keep their guard up to protect students from predators, says Tanner Higgin, a director at Common Sense Media, which reviews educational software. And millions of students lack the devices or internet access needed for remote learning. “Minecraft, Roblox—they have all this massive potential,” Higgin says. “But they have the same potential pitfalls as anything else on the internet.”
Still, schools are embracing the concept. In Atlanta, where kids have been given computers or tablets and will study online until at least October, the school district has almost 12,000 licenses for the education version of Minecraft, up from 5,000 a year ago. More than half the teachers have used the game, and students have created activities such as a virtual amusement park and a biome, says Felisa Ford, a digital-learning specialist at Atlanta Public Schools. “You name it, we’re doing it in Minecraft,” Ford says. “We don’t want static lessons. Everything is about active engagement.”
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