In the first part of this blog series, we shared how Erasmus School of Law (ESL) contacted us with the ambition to use our Minecraft Campus in their completely new course; Tech Legal. In this course, 1500+ students learn the basics on how to use legal databases. A perhaps unexciting, but necessary skill needed for finding the correct files for future lawyers. The ESL-team thought Minecraft would help make this unexciting activity more engaging. Our iterative design process with early user testing brought to light some challenges and revealed that Minecraft was not the best solution for their needs. Due to our earlier experiments with the Gather platform, we knew it had the potential to increase social engagement and collaboration. Additionally, within Gather, developing environments was easier and the user-experience was also better. A win-win situation for both students and teachers! Which is exactly why we ended up using the Gather platform to develop the final solution. If you want to read the whole story of how we got to this point, check out Part 1 of this blog series!
In this blog, we share how we actually used Gather to design an engaging course for 1500+ students. To make this blog as value packed as I can, I interviewed 3 people who are part of the bigger team behind the course, namely:
- Course coordinator Koen Swinnen (ESL) who was responsible for the educational part of the course.
- Game designer Pablo Ortiz (ErasmusX) who was responsible transforming the education into something exciting in the form of a game.
- IT consultant Jaap Stelpstra (IT Education Services) who made sure the game was accessible for 1500+ students.
Through their eyes, I will show the process behind the project and how we were able to manage everything. Because there is a reason that we set up such an interdisciplinary team, that combines the ingredients of education, game design and IT.
Three important ingredients
So why these 3 main ingredients? To start off, the students had to achieve 3 different learning objectives. Koen is an expert on the content and was able to design assignments. As these assignments and activities were seen as unexciting by the students, we had to come up with something more engaging. That’s where Pablo came in. Game design elements were a perfect means to achieve this. And finally, Jaap could identify early, that a project for 1500+ students was going to become big, and that automation would become a necessary component!
The combination of these 3 disciplines only works if they are in sync together and understand each other’s world. The first thing Pablo did was soaking in the learning- objectives of the course. He even executed the assignments to fully understand what students needed to do. With a bit of help with the lawyer language he was able to OWN it. The course coordinator, Koen, was also challenged in his way. He had to think creatively by creating assignments that could be turned into a game. The assignments had to be layered and connected to each other, which was important for an engaging narrative. To make the course integrated in the educational tool Canvas and presentable for the students, IT expert Jaap had to understand the in- and outputs of the course. His automation challenges were linked to the capabilities of the Gather platform and all the design decisions had a direct impact on his work.
As the combination of these 3 disciplines was unknown territory for all of us, prototyping and testing was key, even before the course started. An eye for detail and rigorous testing was important because inconsistencies, bugs or spelling mistakes would destroy the learning experience. For most other courses this is not as necessary, as course coordinators can often rely on previous experience. So, what was the result of all this testing and collaboration? What did the course end up looking like?
Cracking codes in escape rooms
First some context. Within the course, students learn how to browse through huge legal databases in order to find relevant legal documents. As we said earlier, this normally isn’t the most exciting task to perform 😜. So how did we make this more engaging and enjoyable?
We decided to design escape rooms. In essence, students were challenged to explore the space and discover clues by playing mini games. These would provide them with the correct search items, so they could eventually perform a search in the legal databases, which lead to the final answers.
Playing collaborative mini games increased the social interaction and unlocking the next escape room gave feedback about their performance. The Tech Legal learning objective consisted mostly of lower-level thinking skills such as recognizing and explaining. Such skills are easily assessed by multiple-choice questions, which were ideal for transforming into creative escape room puzzles and codes. Each room had personalised details and interactive objects which resulted into an interesting narrative. By layering the activities and instructional information the students came in a nice flow when they explored the rooms. As they progressed in the course they increased their ‘experience points’ and we designed more challenging games so they could fully master their skills.
When we were designing the escape rooms, we wanted to make sure that new players, and especially non-gamers, were onboarded well. It is important that the course is accessible to players from all levels of experience. That is why we decided to organize a launch event! During this event we did not only explain why we did what we did, but we also introduced the learning goals. Students then participated in playful activities, to not only get to know the platform, but also their peers!
The launch event was visited (virtually) by around 200 students. We noticed during the event that having big numbers of people simultaneously on the platform can lead to some chaos. This of course was not something we wanted when students were playing the escape rooms! We therefore decided to divide the students in groups, which meant having to copy each room manually. However, as with all repetitive work, making mistakes is pretty much inevitable. And that is exactly why automation was key for this project.
Saving hours by automation
Every group required a unique hyperlink in Canvas (an educational tool that helps organize courses) that teleported them to their unique escape room. Easy peasy lemon squeezy… right? Well, that’s how Jaap made it sound… to us. Because the truth is that it was complicated. Jaap is highly skilled in communicating complex information in an easy way. He didn’t only know exactly what to ask us to collect the right information, he also knew exactly what complex information to hide from us 😆.
To explain it in an easy way; a program was written to generate a personal “mail-merge” kind of message for each unique Canvas group that contained their own unique escape room hyperlinks from Gather. With mail-merge you can send similar bulk messages, but some information is unique, like a name or hyperlinks. This information is often collected from huge generated excel sheets. And that is how he generated hundreds of personalised messages for the students in Canvas.
But how did we get these unique links? Well, luckily the programmers of Gather already wrote parts of the code that Jaap could use to generate these links. The only thing we could not control were the servers of Gather when the code was running. Sometimes, server instability resulted in hick-ups which required manual labour. However, testing, failing, and learning is part of doing new things in innovation projects. Just for reference, Gather is also a very new platform, as they launched in the beginning of the Covid pandemic. They are also working out their kinks and improvements every day, just like us.
In the end we designed a total of 8 different escape rooms for 1500+ students who did the course in groups or by themselves. This resulted into 1000+ unique canvas messages with almost 4000 different escape room hyperlinks. Can you imagine doing that by hand?
Teamwork makes the dream work
During my interviews with Koen, Jaap and Pablo, I asked them what they were most proud of during this project. They all said that this project was mainly a success because of our teamwork and way of working. This wasn’t just another innovation project with goals, tasks, roles, weekly meetings and deadlines. We were a team that relied on heavy collaboration, trust in each other, and clear and honest communication. A team that was eager to design an engaging online experience for students, and not choosing the easy way out just to make it easier for the organization. Because we could have easily made a simple MCQ assignment and have students just ‘practice around for a bit’…
Everybody in the team had a clear and unique role, but there was also overlap in parts of our expertise. This made it perfect for smaller teams to build bridges between education, game design and IT. And although we trust each other’s expertise, we had to build a safe space to make sure team members would check each other’s work constantly. Because even with great teamwork and the brightest people in the world, you will still make mistakes. And software cannot always cover that…
In the end we made it work, we used the Gather platform to create super fun and interactive escape rooms in which 1500+ students learned working with legal databases in a very engaging way. We believe that we completed our mission successfully, together. However, It’s not all fun and games, because in the end it’s all about the learning effects for the students. Our researcher Milan will perform a more elaborate study to measure the effects. This will take some time, but we are happy to share the results by the end of the year!
Do you want to know more about this project, game design or automation? Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!
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