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Many online faculty add at least one synchronous event to their courses to provide students with the immediacy of a full-class interaction. But a central challenge of synchronous events is finding something engaging for students to do. One solution is virtual escape rooms (VERs).

We used a VER in Communication and Engagement in the Therapeutic Process, a course in our doctor of occupational therapy program. This hybrid course includes asynchronous learning activities, weekly synchronous sessions, and immersive lab experiences. A VER was a good platform to both provide an application of course content and help develop communication and teamwork skills.

ThingLink, an interactive image and video tool, provided the virtual “room,” with a 360-degree image as the setting (Figure 1).

Image of a living room connected to a kitchen in the background. Hotspot "locks" appear as bubbles with numbers on top of various objects.
Figure 1. Interactive, 360-degree virtual escape room of a hypothetical client’s home with hotspot “locks”

This interaction walked students through a hypothetical occupational therapy intake visit to an older woman’s home. The green circles are hotspots that open audio clips, video segments, text, and weblinks that describe the home and the woman’s history, sometimes even in the woman’s own voice. Some also contain questions that students answered on an accompanying Google Form. These are the “locks” of the VER.

Students were divided into four- to five-person breakout rooms in a Zoom web conference. We created a more gamified experience by providing a bonus point on an upcoming quiz to each student in the first group to escape the VER. Students then received a link to the ThingLink interactive and the Google Form. We instructed the students to have one group member open the Google Form to submit group answers, while all had the ThingLink interaction open on their personal computers.

Students navigated the 360-degree picture and clicked on the numbered hotspot locks in sequential order. When the student groups were on a lock, they had to work together, use resources, and strategize how to quickly and correctly determine the appropriate answer to move on in the VER. When students thought they had the answer to the lock, they entered it on the Google Form.

Importantly, each Google Form question had specific directions to help students correctly format their answers so the system could interpret them as right or wrong. For example, students were told to use all capital letters or include a person’s full first and last name. If students answered correctly, the group moved on to the next hotspot lock in the Google Form. While students could click on any numbered lock at any time, the Google Form allowed them to enter the keys only in sequential order. This prevented group members from dividing questions among themselves to answer independently. Unfortunately, ThingLink does not have a setting that requires users to complete locks in numerical order, so groups had to remember to do so.

After 35 minutes, we brought all students back to the main Zoom room for a 15-minute debriefing. The discussion focused on what it felt like to work together as a team to “escape” the VER, the different roles group members took on during the experience, and which roles supported or interfered with the group process. We also discussed how the competition aspect of the VER changed the group dynamics and each individual’s approach to working in their group. The debriefing resulted in a robust discussion that could have gone on for much longer than the 15 minutes that class time permitted.

The final portion of the module was an embedded assessment the next day. In the class LMS, students worked together to design a group therapy intervention based on an occupational therapy clinical scenario. The VER gave students an opportunity to apply what they learned about group dynamics and processes to real-world clinical situations.

Learner feedback included a desire to increase the use of VERs in the program’s online courses and praise for the highly engaging sessions. Learners enjoyed the activity’s collaborative aspect and valued the time spent completing the VER. The easy-to-use platforms, novelty, and friendly competition were some of the reasons learners enjoyed the experience. Faculty preferred the ThingLink and Google Forms tools for executing the VER due to their ease of use during development and analytics.

Designing a virtual escape room

There are a few steps that are key to developing a successful, immersive experience:

  1. Start with the objectives. What should learners to be able to do by the end of the VER? Goals often focus on the cognitive domain of learning, but teachers can help develop students’ affective and psychomotor skills through a VER.
  2. Determine the lock and keys for your VER. Locks are the clues, questions, or activities that learners need to be solve or complete to move to the next step of the VER. Keys are the correct answers.
  3. Create a method for learners to input the keys. It is important to use a tool, like Google Forms, that allows for control and automation. Features such as forced response, answer validation, and adaptive release are essential.
  4. Develop a storyline for your VER. Be creative. Use storytelling strategies to create a memorable and immersive experience. The Center for Digital Storytelling at the University of Houston provides tips on integrating storytelling to enhance educational experiences.
  5. Create an escape room visual, such as a 360-degree picture, that you can edit and embed hotspots in.
  6. Add locks to the escape room image. Use numbers to help your learners navigate through the room in sequential order.
  7. Test, test, and test again. Make sure that all features work correctly. Since you can get creative and abstract with your locks, it is good practice to have someone else test your escape room to make sure the story and locks make sense.

In the future we plan to use a VER during a face-to-face lab to allow students to both make decisions and demonstrate hands-on skills. Students will be put into small groups of three to four and given a case scenario of a client with a disability they would work with in a clinical setting. The students will still work through the scenario using ThingLink, but instead of only submitting text answers, some locks will require students to demonstrate the skill by having a group member record them performing the skill on another team member and uploading that video to the Google Form.

In instances of text-based responses, the keys are automatically validated through the Google Forms response validation feature. In the case of a video upload, the key is the upload itself and does not require validation for the students to proceed in the escape room. Once students move through the VER and complete the case-based problems, they receive an electronic exit ticket and can depart the lab immersion. The VER in this case is a formative assessment, providing faculty with information on the cognitive and psychomotor skill development of students during an on-site lab immersion experience.

Bridget Scheidler, EdD, is a clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy, and Kayla Collins, EdD, is a clinical associate professor of occupational therapy, both at Baylor University.