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Cows, a DeLorean and time travel set the virtual stage for annual learning exchange

Mature black and white cow head, gentle look, pink nose, in front of a blue sky.
Before students and faculty arrived at Furman University's current campus, dairy cows ruled the site.

What do Marty McFly’s DeLorean, a herd of cows and codebreaking have in common?

An old black and white photo of a dairy farm that is now campus.
In the learning exchange virtual escape room, participants travel back to 1952, when the current campus was a dairy farm.

They’re all part of the annual learning exchange, a program designed to help Furman University faculty and staff share effective teaching techniques and sharpen their professional teaching strategies, said Benjamin K. Haywood, assistant director of the school’s Faculty Development Center.

Typically held in person, the COVID pandemic has moved the learning exchange online. So organizers designed the program along the lines of an escape room, full of riddles and puzzles that participants must solve in order to travel through several time and space phases of Furman’s history in a virtual DeLorean time machine based on the 1985 hit movie “Back to the Future,” Haywood said.

Set to launch on April 28, the learning exchange will also include live Zoom discussions, though faculty can participate in the escape room according to their own schedules, Haywood said.

“Normally, we share these ideas and presentations in person. But we’re in a different time now, so we decided to do something different,” Haywood said. “We still have a goal of allowing folks to share their teaching innovations and ideas, but in a virtual space and in as fun a way as possible.”

For example, he said, through the escape room, participants travel back to 1952 to discover that the land now housing Furman was then a dairy farm. To move beyond that point in history they must review a presentation by a colleague about a recent teaching innovation in order to complete a puzzle related to that content. If they solve the puzzle correctly, a code word is revealed in order to solve a riddle for that phase – in the case of the dairy farm, “How can we keep cows calm?”

Having solved the riddle, participants move forward through time to encounter more Furman history, teaching content and puzzles which, if answered correctly, eventually bring the participant back to 2021.

“Essentially, participants are moving through time and space to eventually end up back at home on the Furman campus,” Haywood said. “Although the escape room is symbolic, the hope is we’re all back on campus this fall.”

The idea is for faculty and staff to learn tools they can bring to their teaching while improving their knowledge and understanding of Furman’s history, he said.

“We hope participants will gain ideas and content they can use in the classroom as they explore the escape room,” he said. “It’s a stealth way of encouraging folks to learn while having fun. If you can make it enjoyable and fun, we think our colleagues will learn more and retain more information.”

For instance, Haywood said, one faculty member who created material for the escape room learned that one challenge in student motivation is the fear of making a mistake, which leaves them apprehensive about taking on more challenges in a course. She wanted to build their confidence through incremental success and created an assignment for students to share something they weren’t good at initially, but subsequently learned to do well, he said.

“The goal then, because that’s the first assignment they do in the course, is to facilitate a belief that it’s OK to make mistakes in this classroom,” he added. “The takeaway is that part of our job as educators is to let students know that making mistakes is a part of learning.”

Stephanie Knouse, associate professor of Spanish, said the program is impressive and welcome, particularly after a year of Zoom fatigue.

“I was just blown away by how innovative the activity was,” she said. “We are not only hearing from our colleagues about the different techniques that have worked for them, but learning about Furman history. And also how I can do an escape room in my class if I have to do something online.”

A year into the pandemic, the faculty is contending with how to keep students engaged, she said, noting this program demonstrates a way to do that and more.

She also appreciated the “Back to the Future” references.

“I grew up in the ’80s, and it was one of my favorite movies,” she said.

Haywood said this is the first time the learning exchange is being held virtually and the first time it will include an escape room, too.

“The pandemic has taught us that there are lots of opportunities to creatively expand the way we do things when faced with a challenge,” he said. “Hopefully this sets an example of capitalizing on new opportunities to approach things in an atypical way in order to reach broader audiences.”

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