Jul 13 2021

Educators Use Ed Tech to Create Virtual Escape Rooms for K–12 Students

These online puzzles teach students to persist with critical thinking, careful reading, teamwork and subject matter challenges, all while increasing engagement with class material.

Escape rooms require players to use critical thinking skills and teamwork to accomplish tasks and achieve their end goals. They can also teach core skills such as math, history and science using thematic components related to myriad relevant subjects. Because of this, they’re an incredibly valuable tool for teaching students, but they aren’t always easy to bring into the classroom.

Recently, however, educators have found a way around that problem and are creating virtual escape rooms using Google Sites. These assignments teach students the same skills as traditional escape rooms, if not more, and they can be accessed from students’ devices.

This makes collaboration between teams of students simple and allows the escape rooms to be played at home or in the classroom.

Engaging Students with Virtual Escape Rooms Gamifies Learning

Virtual escape rooms are actually closer to the origins of the escape room concept than many realize. The idea began with point-and-click video games in the early 2000s, most notably a game released in 2004 called Crimson Room.

Frequently cited as the first tangible escape room, the Japanese company Scrap Entertainment opened the Real Escape Game in 2007. It created a situation in which players had to solve a mystery and escape before time ran out. This sparked a surge in escape room popularity across Asia and Europe, and in 2012, Scrap Entertainment opened its first U.S.-based experience in San Francisco.

That grew to become more than 1,800 escape experiences from a variety of companies across the United States by 2017. It was around this time that Karly Moura says she began creating virtual escape rooms for students.

Moura, a teacher on special assignment and computer science teacher at Sun Terrace Elementary STEM Magnet School in California, found a lot of success when using virtual escape rooms to teach or reinforce concepts for students.

“Kids just get really excited, and you could sneak anything in there: math, an article, quizzes,” she says. “And then the teachers were super pumped to try it. I had teachers who wanted to create their own and teachers who wanted to use them, so it evolved from there.” Moura soon published a blog post on creating escape rooms and started a course to teach other educators how to use and build them.

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What Do Students Learn in Virtual Escape Rooms?

As the director of educational technology at Magen David Yeshivah School in New York, Rebecca Penina Simon works with other teachers to create virtual escape rooms for students. The rooms she creates cover a variety of subject areas, from literature to lab sciences.

“It can be used for any content and any age,” Simon says. “We want to make sure we have our educational goals and our technical goals set when creating it.” These goals help guide the content that’s included in the room and how it ties back to the lessons students are working on.

“We can set it up where it will only accept the answer if they enter it correctly, whether it’s numbers, letters or symbols,” Simon says.

The clues in the virtual escape rooms all relate to the material students are learning. It forces students to pay attention, read carefully and understand the content so they can enter the correct answers into the Google Form and escape.

Beyond the class material, however, students are learning persistence, teamwork, critical thinking and other valuable skills.

“They start looking at things through the lens of a detective, and then you can start to think about subjects like math that way — like, ‘Oh, remember when we did the escape room, and we didn’t get it the first time?’ And we try it again,” Moura says.

Teachers using the virtual escape rooms in remote and hybrid learning environments can continue incorporating them into the classroom. Simon and Moura both say the lessons taught with virtual escape rooms increased student engagement.

“They were definitely engaged,” Simon says of the students she observed working on the escape room. “And they were interacting with the actual content and with their peers because they had to work together to succeed.”

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What’s the Secret to Creating an Educational Virtual Escape Room?

Moura originally began creating the escape rooms on Google Sites because students are “used to Google products,” she says. “They’ve seen Google Slides, they’ve seen Google Sites, so it’s not that big of a jump once they start doing them.”

The rooms can be created in and played on Google Sites or transferred to Microsoft Sway. Using Microsoft allows educators to share the virtual escape rooms even when their district blocks external Google websites. Once educators determine where they’re going to host and share the escape room, creating them isn’t particularly challenging.

“Basically, you’re going to create a picture of a room,” Simon explains. “You’re going to have a variety of objects and props in the room — some will be interactive, some won’t — and of those that are interactive, some will get you onto the right path and lead to clues to unlock the room, and some of the interactive clues might actually be red herrings.”

Educators intimidated by the escape rooms can work with ed tech specialists or other tech-savvy teachers to create the assignments. Once students have accomplished a room, however, Moura has seen that they’re eager to build their own versions.

“The kids get really excited,” she says. “Without you even mentioning it, they want to start creating. That’s what we want. We want our kids to consume it, but in the end it’s so cool if the kids take what they’re learning about content and then create one for their classmates.”

Karly Moura
We want our kids to consume it, but in the end it’s so cool if the kids take what they’re learning about content and then create one for their classmates.”

Karly Moura TOSA and Computer Science Teacher, Sun Terrace Elementary STEM Magnet School

This is the approach that David Weber, a science teacher at Normal Community West High School, took with students in his district. His school in central Illinois has a program with Heartland Community College that allows students to work toward an associate degree in computer science over the course of four years.

Weber oversees some of the work these students complete and decided to implement virtual escape room creation when the pandemic began last year. In a normal year, the students in the program visit physical escape rooms and work to design their own. They then swap escape rooms with another high school in the district that’s done the same project and play through the experience.

“That wasn’t going to be possible this year, so our solution was to make our own virtual ones. That way the students who were at home and the students who were in person with me could both still collaborate on a project,” Weber says. “Even though they weren’t all physically in the same room, there was a demonstration of their problem-solving skills.”

Weber is already looking at how to incorporate the virtual escape rooms into his computer science students’ program when the school safely and fully reopens. “One of the advantages we found with the virtual escape rooms is that it’s familiar enough to students that they can work, but they can also take on new challenges and learn new skills along the way,” he says. “I learned a lot in terms of what things are and are not possible.”

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