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The Great (Digital) Escape: creating virtual escape rooms using Microsoft OneNote

26 July 2022

5 minutes to read

The Great (Digital) Escape: creating virtual escape rooms using Microsoft OneNote

Rachel Sloan and Dr Lisa Alberici are well known at the University of Exeter for their dedication to supporting student learning and their passion for puzzles. Here they explain the wonderful world of virtual escape rooms…

Using puzzles is a different and innovative way to engage learners in a way that not only helps to reinforce learning, but which can also be used to develop learners’ soft skills, such as teamwork and communication.

We were introduced to the concept of using Microsoft OneNote to create virtual escape rooms through the Active Learning Network’s World Festival in 2020 (with many thanks to Jamie Heywood, Academic Developer at Anglia Ruskin for running the original workshop). Now, through the power of storytelling, a series of engaging puzzles, and password protecting sections in OneNote (yes, it’s that straightforward in terms of technology), we have created a series of virtual escape rooms to facilitate active student learning.

These have proven to be a well-received and effective addition to the catalogue of learning and teaching activities. We’ve also created two rooms to help inspire other educators to create their own.

This is a really enjoyable seminar exercise which will enable learning in such a great way.

Student participant

How do they work?

When creating virtual escape rooms it’s important to have a story to contextualise the puzzles and the learning. The story can be the narrative of a particular threshold concept, core subject knowledge, or a guide to developing particular skills. As part of the narrative, you include puzzles to generate passcodes or passwords to move on to the next section.

We are partial to codes to unlock a safe, and have used crosswords, anagrams and Morse code puzzles to generate these passcodes. Students are then asked to work in groups (face to face or online – both work well), or individually if that works better for your context, to work through the material and solve the puzzles. The passcodes generated by the puzzles are then used to unlock the password-protected next page or section of the escape room, which is hosted in OneNote.

Image 1: Puzzles to promote engagement with learning

The sample puzzle below uses pictures to create a word (answer: OneNote). Microsoft OneNote is included in the Microsoft Office suite used at the University of Exeter, but this simple way of creating virtual escape rooms can be applied to any similar software which has a password or section-protect function.

OneNote puzzle image




Image 2: Create a narrative

You control the content and the narrative, as well as the puzzles. We like to use a safe-cracking or hidden treasure storyline, but you could choose a narrative which relates to the subject content too.

Puzzle image 2









Image 3: Password protection

This is the function that turns the OneNote from an online folder of information to a ‘virtual escape room’. Each puzzle leads to a password, and there is a different password for each section – hence multiple puzzles! For mathematical subjects, the codewords could be numbers or part of formulae rather than words – as long as the characters are permissible by the password protection function.

The puzzles are created around the topic for which you want to reinforce the learning. This could be particular terminology for an academic subject, skills-related (such as communication or teamwork), or a combination of both. The main purpose is to help students access their learning in an engaging way.

The material doesn’t need to be all text-based – you can embed images, videos, audio-clips and links into OneNote. You are in control of the content, but the puzzles and passcodes add an additional, gamified element to students’ engagement with their learning.

Puzzle image 3






Image 4: Use different types of puzzles

We have used crosswords, anagrams, picture puzzles, Morse code and more. Once you have created your first set of puzzles, it is straightforward to adapt them for more virtual escape rooms.

Puzzle image 4













Image 5: Hints pages

Not every page needs to have a puzzle. You can section protect in OneNote which allows you to add multiple pages per password. This means that you can add ‘hints’ pages to help students engage with both the content and the puzzles.

Puzzle image 5









Virtual escape rooms in practice

One way we have used virtual escape rooms to encourage groups to work together is through the Intercultural Communication Escape Room. Students are encouraged to ask questions of each other, acknowledge their own knowledge gaps, and think creatively.

During this virtual escape room, we noticed that some of the native English speakers would keep repeating the same word to a non-native English speaker, and wonder why they didn’t understand. This gave space for the facilitators to debrief around communication skills and the importance of recognising the diverse experiences of a group.

So much fun! Nice low-tech solution to make serious stuff fun.

Student Participant

It is vital to think about how accessible and inclusive your puzzles are, which is why we recommend the inclusion of ‘hints’ pages. Hints pages offer an opportunity to recommend further reading to address knowledge gaps, or allow you to link to material that will help students engage with the puzzle itself.

Why not have a go at creating your own virtual escape room to help actively engage students with their learning? When you do, or if you already have, please do share your experience and ideas with us via email.

If you don’t know where to start and would like access to a short screencast and quick guide we have produced, aimed specifically at educators to explain how to create their own virtual escape rooms using Microsoft OneNote, then please email Dr Lisa Alberici or Rachel Sloan.


For more information please contact:

Dr Lisa Alberici SFHEA is a Senior Lecturer in Academic Practice in the Graduate School of Education, and the SSIS College Director of Digital Education. Rachel Sloan FHEA is a Careers Consultant and an employability skills educator. Both are at the University of Exeter.

If you are based at the University of Exeter, please do try out The Puzzled Educator Escape Room (behind University of Exeter Single Sign On) which takes you through the principles of creating these interactive and engaging learning activities.


Dr Lisa AlbericiRachel Sloan
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