Designing collaborative and interactive staff development learning activities

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Designing collaborative and interactive staff development learning activities
Designing collaborative and interactive staff development learning activities

Guest blog post by Lisa Donaldson, DCU

Image of synchronous escape room show the Helix venue
Synchronous escape room: I’m an academic, get me out of here!
‘Asynchronous escape room: Twas the night before term started

The Dublin City University (DCU) Teaching and Learning Week 2021 took place in early September. This event is run annually by the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU), traditionally over a single day, face to face. In 2020, Teaching and Learning Day became Teaching and Learning week with online events scheduled over a full week, both synchronously and asynchronously. This format was adopted again for 2021 with the event run over three consecutive days.

The theme of the 2021 event was influenced by the wealth of resources from webinars, blogs, and  academic papers discussing the impacts to teaching of the current Covid-19 pandemic (many available in the NIDL resource bank.) All highlight the significant shift in educational practices caused by the move to online teaching and learning.  This change has not been easy; learning new pedagogies and technologies, trying to engage and support students, all whilst living and working through pandemic anxiety and fatigue has been challenging. The Teaching & Learning Week event sought to offer an opportunity to pause, reflect, and consider the impact of this on future teaching approaches but utilise a playful approach to ward off Zoom fatigue and create an engaging learning environment.

Donlon (2021) discusses the myriad changes forced upon academic conferences during the Covid pandemic but lauds the creativity in formats and reimagined solutions that have ensued. One such format referenced, “a combination of live-streamed presentations and pre-recorded content”, was the approach taken for the 2020/2021 Teaching and Learning events. As well as live zoom presentations, the 2021 event included novel learning formats including fireside chats with students, virtual worlds, and synchronous and asynchronous escape rooms activities on the below themes:

  • Enhancing engagement in the online space through playful practices
  • Promoting a pedagogy of care
  • Impactful technology integration beyond Covid

Over 100 participants attended the live sessions and over 220 engaged with the online resources and activities on the custom Moodle page this year. This post will focus on the escape rooms activities designed for this event, in keeping with the playful practices it sought to highlight.

The escape room concept has risen in popularity in recent years from their origination in Asia in 2007, across Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA. The premise of an escape room is that it is a ‘live-action, team-based game where players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal (usually escaping from the room) in a limited amount of time” (Nicholson, 2015). With the rise of playful learning approaches to education over the last decade, this form of gamification has now begun to take hold within the field of education for both student learning and staff continuous professional development (CPD) (Whitton, 2018).  Solihull College, Bridgend College, Loughborough University, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Boise State University amongst others, have recently adapted the escape room concept to improve engagement and learning with staff CPD.

Escape rooms can offer immersive problem-solving experiences in educational contexts to engage learners in developing skills such as problem-solving, creative thinking, digital competencies, and group-work skills. Participants can collaboratively engage in an interactive space to take an active role in their own learning, most typically arranged around a specific theme or narrative with well-defined learning outcomes (Whitton, 2018).  A debriefing session following the activity can facilitate a lively discussion and reflection on what participants learned about themselves and others, what they learned about the subject of the game, and a review of any digital technologies used. (Cable, n.d.) Feedback following such initiatives indicated that the games were both fun and challenging and that participants displayed a high level of engagement (Walsh & Spence, 2018; Clark et al, 2016).

In 2020, DCU launched a podcast series called the Edge of Discovery. This stimulated a growing interest in podcasting for learning among DCU staff. The TEU decided to embed the knowledge required to create an educational podcast in an escape room challenge during Teaching and Learning Week 2021.  Additionally, an escape room front end was designed for a series of Moodle activities using the Level up customisable Moodle block to add an element of gamification to a second escape room. That challenge was designed to enhance lecturers’ knowledge of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and to encourage them to use Moodle activities to create more inclusive modules in the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

A total of 26 participants attempted the ’I’m an Academic, get me out of here’ podcasting Escape room challenge during a live session in Zoom during Teaching and Learning week. To date, 13 participants have attempted the ‘Twas the night before term started’ Moodle escape room challenge which was designed as an asynchronous activity and has remained available to staff after the event.

How the asynchronous escape room was designed

The escape room scenario was outlined on the Moodle page hosting all the Teaching and Learning Week resources and a link provided to the ‘office’ that participants were trapped in. 

Excited and enthusiastic students will be pouring back onto campus and into your classroom tomorrow and you still have so much to do! Undaunted, you run through a list in your mind. First things first – you have been told you have a very diverse class this term and you want to do your best to support every student. You know that Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles offers equal opportunities for all to learn so you decide to find out more so that you can unlock the next items on your To Do list. If you can complete all items on your list within 30 minutes you will be prepared and ready to have a great semester with your students! Best go to your office to start looking for clues (they are hidden in the room!)…the timer will automatically start and you have 10 minutes to solve the first clue!

Note: This escape room will help you explore some of the features of Loop.

The link brought participants to the front end escape room which was designed using Google tools. The ‘office’ was a Google slide in presentation mode. Within the slide were embedded hotspots which linked to both false and real clues. The clues were in the form of Google documents with additional instructions. Once the clue was solved the digits that formed the answer could be typed into a Google Form disguised as an image – a lock on a virtual door. The form then released the URL of the custom built Moodle page which contained a number of tasks designed to enhanced knowledge of UDL principles and how they could be applied to a Moodle course page. There were five tasks in total with staff gaining ten points for each task successfully completed. This process was managed and tracked by the Level Up Moodle plugin and a report could be generated which listed participants who had completed all tasks and succeeded in achieving the next level. This activity ran over a morning and all those who succeeded in reaching the next level were entered into a draw during a subsequent live session. Thirteen people attempted the escape room during this time and it remains live following the event for any other participants to explore.

How the live escape room was designed

During a live Zoom session, participants were introduced to the escape room concept. Following a reading of the scenario below, they were randomly assigned into groups from two to four across eight breakout rooms.

Delighted to be back on campus, you went to the Helix for an event with some colleagues– but you were so busy catching up you have managed to get yourselves locked in! You need to send a message for assistance. Working together, you decide to create a podcast message for help but you can only use the tools at your disposal in the room. Look around carefully as you have only 30 minutes before the shutters automatically come down and you can’t get out till morning!

Some top tips before you enter the room:

  • You will randomly be assigned a breakout room (we will have about 11). You and your team members in the room will need to work together to escape within the 30 minutes
  • You will need to appoint a note taker to keep track of clues and manage the tasks.
  • All the clues you will need are in the room but watch out for false clues. If you need help, you can send a message from the breakout room and keep an eye out for TEU staff who may pop into your room
  • The clock will start when you enter the escape room
  • The first team to escape will win a prize for each member.

This escape room had a complex design with many clues and locks and sought to expand participants knowledge of podcasting as an educational medium as well as to introduce Zoom and Audacity as tools to create podcasts. Teamwork and collaboration were at the forefront of the design in order to complete the activity within the timeframe allowed.  It can be best understood through the below blueprint:

Prior to the launch of the escape rooms they were extensively tested by TEU staff members and during the live session the team visited each break out room to ensure all teams were on track to solve the puzzles. A great level of collaboration and competition could clearly be observed during these visits and an unexpected difficulty, caused by the unanticipated removal of a required piece of software from the Information Systems Services (ISS) website, was quickly resolved. This underlines the importance of considerable testing, consistent monitoring, and contingency plans to be drawn up when attempting this kind of interactive staff activity. Twenty-six people took part in the live team challenge and most teams completed it within the thirty-minute time frame. A sample of the finished podcast can be found here.

Feedback and Evaluation

The immediate feedback from escape room participants was very positive and indicated an interest in using this form of playful practice for learning.

“I think that the Escape is a fabulous idea. I got stuck on it and then went to a meeting and I think that I am locked out but it is REALLY good!”

 “Thanks for a really interesting session, …. I’d be very interested in using some of/replicating your session for a tutorial class in a first year module, so any materials to support this would be most appreciated.

As a feedback, it was interesting. I was a bit shy in the begging bc I had never played escape room but by the end I was very involved in the game”

“Many thanks for yesterday’s programme and fun experience in the Escape Room. I’d really like to use the escape room exercise as part of my training session with Access ambassadors next week”

The formal evaluation of the week has now launched and of the responses so far, all respondents when asked “What three things from the online week were most useful to you?” included Escape Rooms in their answer. One respondent went on to add “Escape room… I thought it was excellent”

Increasing staff workload can lead to less time to focus on professional development activities (Foster & Warwick, 2018). During a global pandemic where educators have been frantically trying to change pedagogies and embrace new technologies, this has never been more relevant. For this annual DCU professional development event, we sought to adopt a playful approach to promote collaboration and engagement however the COVID effect can certainly be seen to have impacted on the number of lecturers who participated which is disappointing. All online resources will remain available to enable staff who were too time pressed to attend during the Teaching and Learning week to review activities over subsequent weeks.  Our hope is that the number of people engaging with the Escape Rooms will continue to grow and materials are being developed that can be shared with those wishing to integrate a similar learning activity.

As an overall approach for delivering CPD, escape rooms can be seen to capture the imagination as is evident from the feedback to date. Further investigation is required to fully examine whether there was a meaningful impact on teaching and learning practices and whether modelling this approach is a catalyst for wider scale escape room adoption institutionally. It must be noted that this novel approach to CPD can be labour intensive and considerable time and effort went into crafting the narrative, designing the technical aspects, and testing the final escape rooms. However, escape rooms are fun to build and certainly fun to participate in making it the perfect addition to a CPD programme. Why not try it here yourself here?


Cable, Liz (n.d). Using Escape Games for Learning- part 2. Advance HE Blog [Blog Post] Retrieved September 22, 2019 from

Clarke, S., Arnab, S., Keegan, H., Morini, L., & Wood, O. (2016, December). EscapED: Adapting live-action, interactive games to support higher education teaching and learning practices. In International Conference on Games and Learning Alliance (pp. 144-153). Springer, Cham.

Donlon, E. (2021). Lost and found: the academic conference in pandemic and post-pandemic times. Irish Educational Studies, 1-7.

Foster, T., & Warwick, S. (2018). Nostalgia, gamification and staff development–moving staff training away from didactic delivery. Research in Learning Technology26.

Neumann, K. L., Alvarado-Albertorio, F., & Ramírez-Salgado, A. (2020). Online approaches for implementing a digital escape room with preservice teachers. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education28(2), 415-424.

Nicholson, S. (2015). Peeking behind the locked door: A survey of escape room facilities. White Paper available online at http://scottnicholson. com/pubs/erfacwhite. pdf.

Walsh, B., & Spence, M. (2018). Leveraging escape room popularity to provide first-year students with an introduction to engineering information. Proceedings of the Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA).

Whitton, N. (2018). Playful learning: tools, techniques, and tactics. Research in Learning Technology26.

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