Escape room - education games, Serbia: Winner of Innovative Teaching and Learning Award 2022
The Great Escape: Making Learning Fun
Serbian Katarina Veljkovic has used her life-long enthusiasm for playing both real world and virtual games to make her programming classes come alive for her students.
“I have loved computers from the age of eight when a friend’s father bought him one, and we played games on it and then wrote our own,” she says. “The Internet at that time was not good enough to play against other people but as soon as it was, I played Age of Mythology; exploring mysterious new worlds and trying to be the best.”
Veljkovic’s passion grew at the University of Kragujevac where she studied Computer Science and Maths, and continued at the Vocational education and training [VET] centre and First Grammar school in Kragujevac, Serbia, where she increasingly exploited games’ potential to make her classes for 15-19 year old’s fun. “Students love to be someone else, and they can do this through the characters they create in virtual worlds,” she says. “Those with low self-esteem can play a role as a scientist, try out a first job interview, or take the part of a character from literature, and become more confident in the process. However, afterwards I always bring them back to the real world by asking them how they were feeling while playing the game.”
Veljkovic highlights the fact that most students are able to use technology in ways that seem incomprehensible to most adults, and can adapt much more rapidly to the use of modern technology in the classroom. “In order to ensure that technology is being used effectively, however, teachers need to use a variety of tools for different activities,” she argues. “This is the best way to enable students to understand concepts and phenomena in both science and society.”
One of the tools Veljkovic has found particularly effective is the use of Escape rooms in the virtual world of Minecraft. “I encourage students to express their creativity and develop critical thinking and digital literacy in a variety of ‘real world’ scenarios in which they have to solve set puzzles and tasks,” she explains.
One of the tasks, for example, which is of great importance for children, is to learn how to stay safe in a digital world. In a Minecraft Escape room especially designed for this activity, a student explores a space and learns how to distinguish desirable from undesirable behaviour, and how to react correctly when you encounter inappropriate content or unknown people online.
In another example, relating to rights over images, a student meets a friend at a local bazaar who has created incredible illustrations of future worlds. The student uses their phone to capture the image and then prints them on t-shirts and phone cases and sells them on the Internet. “This allows us to clarify the law and debate about when this behaviour may or may not be okay,” says Veljkovic. “Checking students' knowledge in this way frees them from the ‘nervousness’ of conventional tests because they are fully engaged, and approach it as they would a game”.
In another scenario students must check the reliability of information on a webpage.
“The idea is to teach students how to approach information on the Internet critically. They need to check the source, who is the author, and what references they have. And they must respond to these types of questions to go a step further in the game.”
In total, Veljkovic has developed seven scenarios from scratch with her more skilled students, and shared them with students in other schools. Around half-a-dozen primary schools in Kragujevac are now using Veljkovic’s innovative Minecraft scenarios, as well as many others throughout the country.
“In Serbia there are free accounts and materials for teaching purposes, but it is true that until now they have not really been used for learning in our language,” she says.
“In November I will seek formal feedback from these schools, but I know anecdotally they are very pleased with the material because pupils love it,” she says. “I would like to address all topics in the same way.”
In order to achieve this goal Veljkovic says she is learning all the time, because computer sciences are rapidly changing and she needs to keep ahead of her students. Specifically, she pays to do one-year or month-long courses at American or Serbian universities: “Oracle is the best place to learn about computer science,” she says.
“But the extra time and effort is worth it,” she concludes. “I recall one student who came to my class and didn’t understand a thing. He lacked motivation and would regularly skip classes. Now he is an engineer and working in a factory as a programmer. I know this is the right job for me; I really love teaching.”
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