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Escape boxes: Bringing escape room experience into the classroom

Alice Veldkamp, Utrecht University Wouter R. van Joolingen, Utrecht University

Escape rooms can provide golden experiences for education. Problem-based, time-constrained, and requiring a team of active and collaborative participants, escape rooms offer an immersive environment for teachers to promote learning in their classroom. But how to create escape rooms on a classroom scale?

In our recently published article in the British Journal of Educational Technology, we present a way of adapting the core ideas of escape rooms to the circumstances common in schools (Veldkamp et al., 2020). Globally, escape rooms have inspired teachers to adapt the popular activity for education (Breakout EDU, 2018), and Sanchez & Plumettaz-Sieber (2019) have shown that teachers and pupils are enthusiastic about the educational potential of escape rooms. However, concerns have been raised about the limitations of educational settings and challenges for implementation in the classroom, such as upscaling the game from one team to a whole class (Fotaris & Mastoras, 2019).

In our article, we investigated the main differences in settings between recreational and educational escape rooms, leading to design criteria such as ‘fast and easy handling of materials’ and ‘to ensure active participation within teams’ (Veldkamp et al., 2020). Working together with secondary school students, who are the intended audience, students in science education and communication, and in collaboration with educational designers and engineers, the result was an escape box. This innovative solution aligns educational needs with the practical circumstances. For instance, for various subjects and educational goals, the boxes can be staged with different content-based puzzles.

The escape box (see figure 1) was developed in three design cycles and provides the ideal setting for collaboration, immersion and autonomy in the classroom. The boxes are hexagonal in shape, and the escape room tasks are placed on the sides. A (tablet) computer can be placed inside the box, with the touchscreen facing outward as digital support for presenting puzzles. This shape puts users in teams consisting of four to six students, face to face with each other and requires them to collaborate in the physical world.

Figure 1: Content experts testing an escape box and the content-based puzzles

The design of the puzzles requires combining information uncovered by different subgroups within a team. The immersion into the game context was fostered by the digitally driven narrative. Learners can be confronted and immersed in real-world situations, tasked with tackling socio-scientific issues such as plastic soup. The game develops through digital support implemented in the boxes, allowing the narrative to unfold together with the puzzles while checking the solutions given. This decreases the need for the teacher to provide support or hints, which fosters autonomy for the students. Due to the fact that students differ in understanding and reasoning, teacher support can of course not be ruled out completely.

The main feature of the escape box is its flexibility: it is both reusable for different content and needs limited time to set up in a classroom. The combination of physical and digital elements created a powerful hybrid learning space (Trentin, 2016), fostering learners’ transfer from the classroom context into the game context, active participation within teams and a feeling of autonomy. Unlike some types of educational games (Kinzie & Joseph, 2008), no gender differences were found on the game experience, with students reporting that the boxes and the puzzle design stimulated working together.

Based on our research results, we have the following advice for the development of educational (escape) games.

  • To co-create with the target audience. Gamers among them can add their expertise on game design, mechanics and narrative structure.
  • To start from scratch. Rather than copying recreational escape rooms, a design framework, educational boundary conditions and resulting design criteria will lead to a prototype more adequately meeting educational needs and likely being more innovative in design solutions.
  • Hybrid learning spaces can foster the learners’ transfer from the school context to the game context, preferably using real-world scenarios connecting with the course content.
  • To plan a series of tests with multiple perspectives of learner, gamer and educator is important in educational game design.

Although improvements can be made, escape boxes create immersive hybrid environments where learners are engaged in contextualised real-life problems, and can work together and learn for a world outside the classroom.

This blog is based on the article ‘Escape boxes: Bringing escape room experience into the classroom’ by Alice Veldkamp, Joke Daemen, Stijn Teekens, Stefan Koelewijn, Marie-Christine Knippels and Wouter R. van Joolingen, published in the British Journal of Educational Technology.


References

Breakout EDU. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.breakoutedu.com/

Fotaris, P., & Mastoras, T. (2019). Escape rooms for learning: A systematic review [conference paper].  13th European Conference on Game-Based Learning (ECGBL 2019), Denmark.

Kinzie, M. B., & Joseph, D. R. (2008). Gender differences in game activity preferences of middle school children: Implications for educational game design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 56(5–6), 643–663.

Sanchez, E., & Plumettaz-Sieber, M. (2019). Teaching and learning with escape games from debriefing to institutionalization of knowledge. International Conference on Games and Learning Alliance, 11385, 242–253. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-11548-7

Trentin, G. (2016). Always on education inside hybrid learning spaces. Educational Technology, 56(2), 31–37.

Veldkamp, A., Daemen, J., Teekens, S., Koelewijn, S., Knippels, M.C.P.J. & van Joolingen, W.R. (2020). Escape boxes: Bringing escape room experience into the classroom. British Journal of Educational Technology, 51(4), 1220–1239. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12935