Review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated January 2020
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Bloxels EDU

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Game-making app focuses on pixel art and level design

Subjects & skills
Subjects
  • Arts

Skills
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1–7
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Pros: Easy to use and bright aesthetics.

Cons: Getting the Android app to work seemed really touchy, and using the camera to record the physical drawings might not work.

Bottom Line: If it works, the app is a powerful non-coding way to get students into game design, though the physical cubes are more of a gimmick than anything else.

Teachers can use the Bloxels EDU app as a good entryway into game design that focuses on pixel art and level design for platform-style games (such as Super Mario Bros.). Students can immediately start making levels and designing characters with the provided tools within the app. Teachers can start with the initial challenges that are provided on the Bloxels EDU website and then follow up with custom challenges for their students or move on to other game-making apps.

As with the original Bloxels, a lot of the scaffolding and customization would need to be provided by the teacher, and it seems the developers realized this and thus have provided a robust teacher portal backend for managing classrooms and students. Lessons on collaborative design could come out of using the app's community sharing features, too.

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Using the same physical components that came with Bloxels (discontinued), Bloxels EDU is a feature-rich app and teacher portal that supports many of the same aspects of game design as the original. The app part of the experience, while new and supporting more hardware systems (Android, iOS, and Chrome), still features quick, easy ways to start designing 2D platform-style games (think Super Mario Bros.) by allowing students to "draw" levels and characters using blocks on a grid, like a pixel art editor. These designs can be saved to a library and shared with other kids in a common classroom space or with the larger Bloxels community. In fact, online access is required for the app to function.

The app is powerful enough to provide a rich experience of creating and collaborating. All of it is supported by a backend website where teachers can set up classrooms and create individual student accounts, keeping track of progress and otherwise managing sets of students. Bloxels EDU seems focused on providing a lot of support for teachers, including at the school and district levels, with different purchasing options for different volumes of students. Also, many additional supplemental materials are available for purchase to help facilitate lessons using Bloxels EDU. For example, workbooks and sets of idea cards are available on their shopping website.

All this said, getting the app to work may be tricky. This reviewer was having a terrible time with the app, with frequent crashes that would necessitate launching the app again, which in turn would necessitate going through the time-consuming login process each time. Additionally, this reviewer never got the camera working in the new Bloxels EDU app, so testing whether the app captured the board better than with the original Bloxels app (which was quite finicky) was impossible. This might not actually be that big of a deal, because the physical cubes and board seem more of a bonus now and not actually necessary for classrooms to have a good experience with Bloxels EDU (provided the app works). This reviewer guesses that standard hardware in a classroom setting -- e.g., all the same Chromebooks or iPads -- would work well. Personal Android devices (in this case, a Pixel 2), maybe not so much -- and a quick perusal of the app's reviews on the Google Play Store confirms the crashing and other issues as common experiences.

The new Bloxels EDU app is a good entryway into pixel art and 2D platform-style game design ... when it works. Overall, the Bloxels EDU experience is much more streamlined than the original Bloxels. It's relatively easy to hop in and start creating levels or characters for a game or to check out the games that others have made. The many tutorials and lessons provided on the teacher website are good places to start and give students a progression of things to do.

Using the board is similar to how it was before: engaging but also time-consuming. It seems likely that students would tire of drawing with the board pretty quickly, preferring instead to just use the art editor within the app itself. This is probably for the best, as getting the app and camera to work seems to still be troublesome.

Within the app, creating a new level consists of drawing the terrain and marking where the coins and enemies are. Then it's possible to open a new screen to use the same drawing process to create the artwork for the terrain tiles and the various objects that were placed in the level. There's also a large library of user-submitted work that's fun to navigate and explore and then import to use locally.

Overall Rating

Engagement Would it motivate students and hold their interest? Is it visually appealing? Would it inspire teachers to try something new or change their instruction?

Students will have fun "drawing" blocks and then seeing them come alive as video games.

Pedagogy Does the tool help teachers promote a more student-centered experience? Will students gain conceptual understanding or think critically? Does it deepen teachers’ pedagogical thinking?

Lots of good tutorials or challenges to initially engage students, all managed by a teacher portal and community sharing tools.

Support Can students and teachers get assistance when they need it? Is it created with people of different abilities and backgrounds in mind? Is learning reinforced and extended beyond the digital experience?

The development team seems dedicated to providing help when needed, and educational materials exist to help teachers get started.


Common Sense Reviewer
Mark Chen Researcher

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