How it started
Early in 2017 a few very enthusiastic elementary students introduced me to a video game building programme called Roblox Studio. They demonstrated how easy it was to download the software onto our library desktop computers and to begin building worlds. They insisted that it was not only about playing video games but about creating and sharing original games. So, cautiously, we gave it a go at recess and lunch breaks. The only guidelines we settled on were: 1. Use a “(re)design <> play ” cycle (rather than just endless play sessions), and 2. We needed to find ways to give the increasing number of interested students fair access and a chance to experience Roblox Studio for themselves. Beyond this, the usual behaviour agreements in the school were sufficient guidelines. So, with a programme completely unfamiliar to myself, these 2 basic agreements, and a small group of avid Roblox Studio creators, a wave of Roblox Studio enthusiasts joined a growing vibrant community of practice that has not waned for a moment in the last 2 years.
How it continued
As I gradually began to see the immense learning opportunities bound up in the Roblox Studio community there was no need to promote it amongst students. Instead, to learn about the platform myself I observed and supervised students to see what would emerge. I reasoned that if it was a genuinely relevant platform, if it was age appropriate, if it offered pathways for students to extend their skills and if it was fun, it would be sustainable. Many programmes and apps come and go promising to offer great learning for kids but fail to engage in the long term. Also, due to the demands of the busy library environment at our school, if Roblox Studio required extensive training, support and technical skill to maintain, it would not be an activity that we could sustain. So I helped to make computers available and supervised the students as we would in any other play setting. I watched how they interacted, what they learned, what they created, how they shared their knowledge, what caught their attention, what was interesting to them, and what they enjoyed playing in Roblox Studio. I observed what they enjoyed creating, what was easiest for them to do, what the more advanced designers were building and coding, what were the common technical glitches and how these technical glitches were overcome. I kept note of any child safety concerns on the platform, I researched what age students could be to use Roblox Studio effectively and what opportunities for learning were there. Needless to say, the kids taught me a lot.
We quickly found that the 4 desktop iMacs were not sufficient for the growing number of enthusiasts so at lunch and recess times I began borrowing laptops from around the school to provide greater access for students. Adding 6 devices for a total of 10 helped to provide enough devices for students to have a turn every second or third day. Interest and demand has only grown over the last 2 years despite the many technical glitches evident in running Roblox Studio and the frustration of having so many students with so few devices. This in no way dampened enthusiasm since students would crowd around one computer in deep and energetic discussion about what could or should be built into a game.
The biggest challenge has been how to manage the very high levels of excitement the students have. Excited students would sometimes have trouble holding back the urge to take over from a novice student or from pushing other students aside. This enthusiasm has proven to be a great asset as students have been learning that a group that disintegrates into bickering and fighting is not sustainable and not fun for anyone. A key learning opportunity for this group has been building an understanding over time that we need to find ways to work together.
The learning opportunities for this group have been immense and interest in Roblox Studio has grown with students from Year 2 (7 years old) to Year 6 (11 years) joining the eager group of designers. I did initially make the extra computers available at break time but the logistics of getting enough computers ready was to difficult to sustain and the recess break did not allow enough time (10 minutes) for students to set up, log in, create and save their work. Instead, at recess times we set up one laptop connected via Apple TV to a large screen to give more advanced student designers the opportunity to give short masterclasses on different aspects of Roblox Studio. These have been very popular with eager crowds itching to try out new ideas for themselves at lunchtime.
Another spinoff has been the creation of an after-school activity we call “The Enthusiasts”. While students can engage with a variety of interests (writing, drawing, website design, journalism, and reading), many students enrolled because they wanted to continue using Roblox Studio or Scratch. Scratch has also been very popular during break-times also using the same ‘play<>create’ cycle. “The Enthusiasts” group began with approximately 12 students in the first term this school year but once word got out that students could use Roblox Studio, this group quickly grew to an upper limit of 19 in the first session. The second session filled quickly and has now expanded in the 3rd session to an upper limit of 28 students with addition of more computers and an extra teacher required to meet the demand.
All access to Roblox Studio has been provided in the elementary library during student open play times – during recess, lunch or after school – so this is an activity that has grown entirely in response to student choice and energy. No promotion was necessary, only curation. Providing access and supporting group norms is all that has been required. The student interest and desire to create has been enough for students to push their skills further.
No product goals or specifications or criteria or benchmarks have been used. These have emerged as a natural consequence of the activity of the students. Students create, build and want to save their work so they can return later to build on what they have done already. They share their achievements amongst each other creating, in essence, their own design specifications and goals that are continually modified as their skills and knowledge build. Observing the worlds other students have built or being introduced to new features by other students has led them back to their designs to modify their approach. Therefore, the learning outcomes specific to Roblox Studio are constantly evolving.
A sustaining feature of Roblox Studio has been that complete novice students as young as 7 years old can begin creating in much the same way as they would in a playground sandpit (or sandbox). This makes Roblox Studio very accessible for students (and adults and novice librarians) who have no prior knowledge of this tool. This very low entry barrier provides an easy onramp for students who have an initial inkling of interest. Once on the platform, students have endless opportunities to build, create, code and play.
Both boys and girls have shown interest although it has taken an concerted effort to ensure girls feel confident enough to give it a try. Crowds of enthusiastic boys can deter girls and individual students from approaching so making space for all students to gain access has been a priority. Girls currently make up approximately 30% of all users in our library although this varies daily. Students of all ages between 7 – 11 have found access points to gradually develop advanced skills in Roblox game design and coding. As a result, the energy around Roblox Studio in the library has never dropped, only grown.
How it ends
There is no end in sight. The opportunities for building a community of practice around Roblox Studio that powers learning for students is too good to pass up. The potential for continuing to support a strong community of practice is ongoing and continues to allow powerful learning for students to emerge. I still do not see any need to create specific design goals or product outcomes since students generate these as a natural consequence of being a part of this community and in response to their own learning. Formative assessment of their access, use, collaboration and actions demonstrates clear progression in their skills, hopes, enthusiasm, designs, collaborative skills, mentoring skills and most importantly, their desire to continually push themselves further is overwhelming.
I plan to create opportunities for student-led master classes to reinforce the potential for students to develop their skills. Again, the content of these can be left up to the students although I do help them think through possible options and ways they could make these sessions relevant to their peers. I will also look for opportunities to highlight student games that are published on Roblox. Playing online Roblox games is currently blocked at our school however they can play these games at home if they wish to. Playing other student’s games takes the collaborative aspects Roblox to another level of design iteration. Gaining user feedback and improving designs based on feedback is an authentic way for developers to build their knowledge and skills.
At this stage, I don’t plan to add more structure to what we are already doing since student learning is strikingly evident, enthusiasm is high, students are driving their own experience and they are having fun. My main aims are to continue to build the community of practice, provide ongoing access with the addition of more computers to the library, and to respond to the collective increase in student skill and knowledge.
I also hope that students can find ways to connect their learning to the curriculum and classroom learning. The informal connections are already present even if most students are not currently consciously aware of it. Mathematics, reading and writing are all deeply embedded in Roblox however students simply describe their experience as one of “playing Roblox”. In actuality they are designing, creating, collaborating, communicating, self-regulating, and learning proportion, geometry, shape, pattern, measurement, distance, procedure, logic and much more at every turn. I do not wish to overburden the Roblox experience by making this explicit for students however there would be ways to make the connection between the curriculum and their experiences in the Roblox community in natural and emergent ways. Having a classroom teacher participate in our next term after school activity should help to give us ideas about how we can make these connections more visible.
The wave of student enthusiasm leading to a strong student driven and diverse learning community has no end in sight. Follow our journey by searching Twitter for “@MLCNIST #RobloxStudio”.