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Adding Escape Rooms to Your Online Course

A virtual version of the escape room concept is engaging students at Northampton Community College. Here's how the setup works.

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While escape games have found use in face-to-face classes, particularly with escape boxes in K-12, an online instructor in a Pennsylvania community college has figured out how to use the concepts for her online courses. Beth Ritter-Guth, associate dean of Online Learning & Educational Technology at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA, shared her approach during a session at OLC's Accelerate conference.

The escape box is a portable (and some would say, safer) version of the escape room concept. People work in teams on a timer to figure out clues that will enable them to hunt down keys in the space, open a series of locks and solve a mystery. In the school environment, innovative teachers have applied the gaming approach of offering clues and forcing students to figure out the answers to reinforce lesson content and boost engagement. Breakoutedu.com sells the complete boxes for $150 primarily into the K-12 market. Those include the physical components (such as the box itself and the locks) and access to some 1,500 games. Ritter-Guth has used that for faculty development in her college to give instructors a taste of what's possible.

In the past, enabling online students to do the same in their virtual classrooms hasn't been simple to accomplish. It required programming knowledge to set up the various scenarios and make them available online. However, according to Ritter-Guth, new — and free — tools have surfaced that now allow for the easy creation of games, simulations and experiences that can make the students' learning experiences pop. Students answer specific questions or solve specific mysteries to open digital versions of locks.

Now, Ritter-Guth has students work in teams or singly to set up their own escape box experiences for others to tackle. For a course she recently taught on American Realism, for example, she used four escape experiences: two she developed, and two others where students created them.

How to Create Your Escape Game

Ritter-Guth offered a quick rundown on how to approach the work of setting up an escape game.

1) Start with a plan based on what your goals are as an instructor or instructional designer. Then figure out a theme for the exercise. Sometimes the theme matches the lesson content; sometimes it doesn't. For instance, Ritter-Guth has found that the 1980s are a "fabulous" theme with her instructors because that's a period they are familiar with. She's also taught Chaucer using an escape concept; each team took a character and built their games around that.

2) Use images and text that are consistent with your theme. In a quick example to introduce the concept of the escape game to her session attendees (both in-person and virtual), she chose the theme of the Appalachian Trail and used clues, pictures and data pertinent to that topic.

3) Work backwards. Once you've selected a theme, figure out the last lock first — the one that will enable students to answer the final mystery — and move backward to the first lock they'll be tackling. For an hour-long event, she suggested three to four locks "with red herrings added in" to misguide students.

4) Test your game. It's the only way, said Ritter-Guth, that you'll know if you're missing anything, like a number lock. Have others test it too.

5) Make revisions. If you're teaching multiple sections of a course, create separate sets of locks with different clues and answers, Ritter-Guth advised, "because word spreads quickly."

Hints for Virtualizing the Experience

Just as with anything online, make sure your students get off on the right foot by helping them understand how the activity works. Students may not necessarily be familiar with the escape room idea. "If they've never done an escape room, it's hard to be successful," said Ritter-Guth. To accelerate that part of the learning, she starts off with a Flipgrid introduction (a Virtual Campus favorite at Northampton) and, for students' first escape experience, provides hints within the presentation that they can peek at if they need help in interpreting the clues. She waits until about a quarter of the way through the course schedule before bringing escape activities into play.

In the virtual courses, if there's a synchronous component to the class, students can use whatever online collaboration tool they're accustomed to and you can set a given timeframe. If it's asynchronous, it may be that your students will work through the puzzle by themselves in their own time.

To build the online escapes themselves, she recommended the use of Thinglink or Padlet. Both allow for collaborative development of interactive lessons. Google Forms has also been handy (and she recommended a YouTube video that explained how to use Google Forms for a digital breakout). While PowerPoint could be used too, she noted, "it's really funky."

Both Thinglink and Google Forms output can be read by a screen reader to enable students with visual impairments to participate. However, she acknowledged that it would still be a challenge for some students to do the work. In those cases, she would encourage them to work with her in building an escape room specifically for visually impaired students or to tackle another assignment.

If you decide to purchase escape boxes to understand how the physical versions work, Ritter-Guth advised against lending them out to students since "they don't come back right." They'll inevitably be missing pieces, she warned. Or, if you decide to lend them out, make sure to color code the resources "so that somebody knows what stuff goes right back into the right box."

escape room screen shot 

Escape This!

Want to try the same escape sampler exercise Northampton CC's Beth Ritter-Guth used with attendees during her recent OLC Accelerate session on the use of escape rooms for online courses?

Start here:
https://www.thinglink.com/scene/1253580661436973059

Enter your answers here:
https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSe-0QQQrsXJnOgxXiio_ItE0Kb3rBSJYSP_MoTRCV6xygqFhA/viewform

And, yes, OLC does rock.

If you're wondering how to give credit to students, Ritter-Guth uses leaderboard points or coins for those who work through the activity, which means "it's in their best interest not to tell others," she explained.

For those course activities where the students are creating the escape experience, she doesn't grade them on their technical prowess but on the story that they've put together — including the grammar and logic that's used, as well as the story's relevancy. When students are building their own escape experiences, she gives 25 points "for doing it" and 75 points for the writing.

Some part of the grade is also based on input provided by the other students in the class, who "have to play the game and give feedback on whether it was fun, whether they were successful and whether the game was logical."

Finally, Ritter-Guth declared that she's "ready and willing to test your games." As she said, "Just send them over."

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