David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
We Should Have Patented The Damn Thing

January 24, 2023

The Institute For The Future Of Education recently posted an interesting article on the "Escape Room as a Didactic Tool in Higher Education." Escape Rooms have gotten so popular that our library staff have been creating and offering one for several semesters now. I still haven't done one, and admit fear of being the idiot left in the room when the time runs out (despite my love of puzzles, crosswords, and games, I doubt my ability, even with teammates, to be able to solve such things on a clock). Nevertheless, I understand why they are appealing to many students and staff members. So, when the Institute For the Future of Education shares multiple examples of how classes employ Escape Rooms as a learning activity, I am truly intrigued. 

The primary examples come from the Institute's parent institution (I assume), the Tecnologico de Monterrey, and clearly show learning can be done through game theory. For example, in a business class, the learning is described as, "two spaces with different puzzles designed. Each time the students managed to solve all the riddles of the first room, they were given a key allowing them to pass to the next room. After solving the riddles in the second room, they arrived at a final room with general information on the most relevant concepts of the topics of the midterm exam."

Sounds pretty cool, but then it hit me: Higher Education is the ultimate Escape Room.

Students are charged up front to participate in something that could realistically lead to failure.  I am not saying all experiences aren't built on a pay-first-maybe-succeed-later model, but Higher Education, like an Escape Room, can be a very stressful activity.

That stress comes from various clocks ticking throughout: the 50 minutes to complete a test, the 5 weeks to complete a project, the 14 weeks to complete a class, the 4 (or 8) semesters to complete a degree.

When these timers reach their end, the result can often be catastrophic, you-may-not-continue failure. The test or project was worth 25% of your grade, the course is a pre-requisite to another course that you now can't take, your academic progress has not been good enough to justify your financial aid.

Players who have experience with the Escape Room are more likely to do well than players who don't. The anxiety gets amplified if the team members are all first-time-in-any-Escape-Roomers (FTIAERs), having to navigate the thinking of the game designers as much as the game itself.  We see this all the time with the FTIACs (first-time-in-any-college) trying to figure out how higher education operates. With Deans, Registrars, Provosts, and Chancellors, no wonder most FTIACs must feel like they have been transported to a Medieval nightmare rather than entering a modern institution of learning.

Most importantly, the Higher Ed Escape Room oozes puzzles, clues, riddles, enigmas.

Our best puzzle: What is a passing grade in this class? Well, that depends if it is a pre-requisite class, if it is a general education requirement, if it is in the Nursing program, if it is an elective, if you want it to transfer to Institution X.

Our worst clue: Office hours.  Come see your professor during office hours for more help.  Uh, yeah, but I am having trouble understanding Professor X when they are  in the classroom, why would I want to go see them at a different time and reveal my ignorance? This must be a trap.

Our best riddle: Multiple choice exams. 

Which of the following statements is not true about Cotton Mather? 

A) He sought, but was never elected the President of Harvard.

B) He failed to get the Governor the Massachusetts Bay Colony out of office.

C) He did not seek death for the convicted in the Salem Witch Trials.

D) He was never an Abolitionist.

What the heck? I am supposed to choose the not thing not done??

Our best enigma: Our definition of hour.  

Advisor: O.k., so your History class is 3 credit hours, while your Biology class is 4 credit hours, but 6 contact hours.

Student: Come again?

Advisor: You have 7 credit hours and 9 contact hours.

Student: So, that means I have to go to class for 7 hours or 9 hours?

Advisor: Well, in this case, you will go to Biology for lecture for 4 hours, but lab for another 2 hours.

Student: 6 straight hours? All in a row?

Advisor: No, at two different times of the week. And the lecture will really be 3 hours and 20 minutes, while the lab will be an actual 2 hours.

Student: I am so confused.  Will my instructor clarify that for me?

Advisor: Well, you will have two, one for the lecture and a grad assistant for the lab.

Student: I think I am going to be sick to my stomach. What about the History class? That is online. Does that mean I will be in the online class for 3 hours each week or more like 2 1/2 hours?

Advisor: Well, with online, you don't actually have to be in the class for a set amount of time. You just need to do the work.

Student: Then why say anything about 3 hours?

Advisor: Don't ask me. I just work here.

So, in the end, I am sorry Tecnologico de Monterrey, but while your escape room games within individual classes are innovative, you really are offering nothing new. Higher Education is a multi-year membership to Escape Room clubs.