CNL award

Using adventure games to unlock student learning potential, Morocco: Finalist of Innovative Teaching and Learning Award 2022


Games Help Unlock Student Potential

Egyptian Arabic Language and Literature Professor Fatma Mohamed has had an incredible journey teaching at the American University in Cairo, the University of Miami and Middlebury language institute in California and, among other things, has taken advantage of her travels to experience local gaming rooms and glean ideas for her current project.

My passion for educational game design, and my exposure to Escape Rooms in different U.S. states, inspired me to combine some of my previous physical and digital games and build my own version of the Escape Room for my students,” she says.

Now as an Assistant Professor at AlAkhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, she has also been able to capitalize on her innovative practices to teach both Arabic as a foreign language for non-native speakers and Arab literature courses for native speakers using her educational games.

Escape Room game

Mohamed designed the Escape Room adventure game for her non-native speakers to provide a more engaging atmosphere for her students to practice the target language, which comes naturally in this immersive environment, and the improvements are tangible.

She conjures up highly evocative atmospheres by using traditional clothes, rousing smells, expressive photos and significant items from different Arab countries; as well as materials that have been produced during other games. Further, the fact that the countdown clock is ticking makes students more enthusiastic and work closely in teams to escape the room before the time is up.

Mohamed has developed drama scenarios from the students’ own textbook stories. This drives students to feel great empathy towards the main characters and makes them eager to ‘save them’, which further inspires them to solve the puzzles to escape the room.

Additionally, she has created two levels that need to be ‘unlocked’, with each level containing its own set of puzzles. In one example of these puzzles, cards are used to match plural and singular nouns, with the last card without a match holding a digit, which is needed to unlock the lock-pad. “The same idea could be applied in any other discipline. For instance, instead of matching singular and plural, students could match a terminology and its definition,” she says.

Another example involves an online crossword game. Mohamed developed this by using the ‘Hot Potatoes’ application, which is free and user-friendly software. Students spontaneously team up to solve the online game in order to exit the room. “They are always enthusiastic to solve puzzle after puzzle,” she says.

While Mohamed’s aim is to create fun in learning, she emphasizes the importance of students always feeling secure in the environment. “The light stress helps the excitement, but I always start off by getting them to sign a pre-agreement so that they are clear, for example, that there are two doors in the room, and one of those is always open if they wish to leave,” she says. “They need to know it is a safe space.”

Inspiring students

In Mohamed’s Arab literature course for native speakers, she teaches Electronic Literature, which only a few universities in Arab countries offer.

In these courses, for example, student teams create ‘non-linear hypertext fiction’ for another team, with her help. Hypertext fiction allows the development of different plots to each story, which the reader can choose from by clicking on hypertext icons. The ending of each story changes according to a reader’s choices. “I start with workshops in which students brainstorm and create characters and then act out those roles,” she says. “Once students have crystallized that in text, we finalize creating their digital story, and then can explore other team’s E-stories - as if they were playing with it - to reveal different endings, or solve a puzzle,” she says.

The empowering aspect of this method is that it puts students in control and allows them to explore radically different avenues.

“One of my students created a text, for example, in which there were two possibilities – in the first you kill the main character and in the other you try to solve the main character’s problem,” Mohamed says. “That is like in real life, as we are often faced with difficult decisions ourselves.”  

Some native speakers are unmotivated to learn Arabic at first, but Mohamed spends time showing them where the Arabic language is in demand in computational linguistic jobs, for example, since most of them are majoring in Computer Science. “Students change their feelings towards the language when they see they can build their careers around it,” she says.  

Ideas with potential

Mohamed is highly motivated by the results of her creative games and simulations of real-life situations in virtual reality for non-native speakers’ language learning. “When I see my students give 10-minute presentations or when they communicate in Arabic in their professional life, it makes me very happy,” she says. “The formal and informal university assessments clearly show their improvement in oral and written Arabic.”

While Mohamed has given presentations at numerous international conferences, published papers, and enthused countless students with her innovative games, there is one outstanding puzzle she would really love to see resolved.

“My aspiration is to be able to upgrade my virtual activities from the Second Life platform to build our educational games in the Metaverse,” she says, adding: “I’d like to find a way of spreading my ideas everywhere by finding a foundation that is willing to fund that project.”

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