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“Escaping” traditional technologies through a OneNote Escape Room

22 Jul 2019 | Dr Emma Thirkell At a time when one of the discussions among HE professionals is whether the use of technology can enrich and enhance teaching and learning, Senior Lecturer in HRM at the University of Central Lancashire, Dr Emma Thirkell shares her example from the Teaching and Learning Conference 2019 of how to make learning fun using a free Microsoft application.

It’s meant to be fun!

Introducing ‘fun’ into teaching can be difficult. Often what an academic believes is fun is not always exciting for students. There is also the question as to whether ‘fun’ can meaningfully contribute to the students’ learning, or whether we do it to appease students.

Technology is everywhere. We hear it via “Alexa”. We see students ‘snapping’ on their devices. We are told to use it more because it is “innovative”. The question remains as to whether technology can be used in an innovative, engaging, way in the HE classroom.

Escape Rooms are fun (so I hear, I’ve never taken part in one myself) and “en vogue” currently. Students may participate in them during Induction Week, or with their friends on a weekend. So, surely, we can take the concept of the Escape Room and integrate it in teaching in an innovative way?

If you didn’t already know (ask “Alexa” – she would tell you!) Escape Rooms are games that lock players in a room, and participants must seek clues and solve puzzles to escape before time runs out. Their interactive nature is said to challenge members and foster teamwork by encouraging participants to interact with one another and express themselves in ways they may be less likely to in other situations.

I translated that into a teaching and learning context using a platform Microsoft OneNote that has rooms (Sections) that contain puzzles (questions based on lecture content) which require answers (codes, or passwords) to enter the next room. Students work in groups to solve a series of puzzles based on the content of their lectures, held within ‘rooms’ on the App, to crack the code. The team who 'escape' the quickest win a small prize.

Testing student understanding

How does this, then, aid lecturers? While this is not a formal 'test', it does present an opportunity to assess students’ understanding of specific concepts within the ‘rooms’. In this sense, it could easily be used as a method of formative assessment. From a teaching perspective, the primary goals in developing an Escape Room are threefold:

  1. to test the students' understanding of lecture content;
  2. to offer the students a new digital skill that they, potentially, could use at work;
  3. to enrich their learning through technology.

During the 17-18 academic year I designed and developed a new approach for my MBA students by building an, aptly named, “HRM Escape Room”. Students work through a series of HR scenarios based on what we had learned on the module. Each ‘room’ has a real-life HR puzzle, and students work to apply the theory they have learned in class to crack the “code” to the next (password protected) room. The rationale was simple - fun, competitive and challenging to enable me to ascertain what the students might need extra support on.

I set the students up in small groups and asked them the week before to bring along one laptop per group. What was interesting was the level of competition between the teams once the game started progressing. Rivalry started to emerge, and when groups did not know the answer they worked collaboratively to review their notes and solve the puzzle. As their lecturer, this gave me a clear idea of what topics I needed to reinforce and revise at the end by reviewing which rooms they found challenging.

Ultimately, each group did "escape". Feedback captured at the time shows that students found the Escape Room "fun", "challenging", "a different way of learning" and “stressful, but in a fun way”.  The students did not realise that I was "testing" them, or that I was noting which concepts I needed to clarify and revise with them.

A future for OneNote Escape Rooms?

If we are to reflect on a recent survey by JISC (2018), it states that 61% of university lecturers feel that technology should be used more in classrooms. There is no doubt that there is a need for technology in helping to foster and grow a wide range of employability skills for our graduates. Digital skills are among some of the lowest possessed by UK graduates yet the highest sought after among employers. Bridging this gap is complex, but perhaps a OneNote Escape Room game is one small step towards introducing a new digital skill, and engaging students in 21st century HE teaching.

I would challenge academics to try to escape traditional technologies in their teaching and consider building an Escape Room for their students. I’d also recommend having a small prize at the end. As my student so eloquently put, “it could have been a free pen, for all I care; as soon as you said “prize” I was listening and in it to win it!”.


Dr Emma Thirkell is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at the Lancashire School of Business & Enterprise, and about to embark on a research project to explore and understand the impact of learning technologies on students’ learning and experience. You can find out more by following her on Twitter @EmmaThirkell

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