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Transforming classrooms into arcades: Professor Maqsood is developing games to enhance student learning


Teaching methods in the early years of education rely heavily on creative games to spark student engagement and enthusiasm. However, in later years, games become less prevalent in classrooms as educators begin to adopt approaches such as textbook readings and lectures. Sana Maqsood, assistant professor in the Electrical Engineering & Computer Science department at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, is challenging this conventional transition by exploring the use of games to educate students of various age groups on different topics.

Educational games can elevate traditional teaching methods and improve student learning experiences by addressing challenges such as lack of engagement and accessibility. “Games also provide experiential learning opportunities which are crucial for developing knowledge in many subject areas, including cybersecurity,” says Professor Maqsood.

Understanding online privacy and security has become increasingly important as advancements in technology continue to impact society. Using educational games allows learners to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills to help navigate real-world situations in online privacy and security while building effective defence strategies for future online experiences and increasing knowledge retention of complex concepts.

Professor Maqsood’s ongoing research in this field was inspired by a project created during her PhD fellowship with MediaSmarts, a non-profit organization focused on digital and media literacy. In collaboration with a team of digital literacy experts, teachers and researchers, Professor Maqsood developed a web-based game, A Day in the Life of the Jos, to educate students in grades 6-8 on cybersecurity, privacy and digital literacy issues.

a screenshot from a digital game that includes a grid of numbers
A Day in the Life of the Jos: main screen.

“Elementary schools were using an outdated quiz tool for digital literacy that was developed all the way back in the year 2000,” says Professor Maqsood. “This motivated the entire project. We wanted to create something that was more engaging and relevant for students today.”

A Day in the Life of the Jos takes users through a series of decision-making scenarios encountered by two relatable characters who are highly active on social media. Each scenario addresses online challenges that students may face in the real world, such as cyberbullying, misinformation and privacy violations. As users decide how to respond to the encountered scenarios, they are provided with the results and consequences of their choices, as well as informative feedback and guidance on the best approaches to future situations.

Through four empirical user studies, A Day in the Life of the Jos proved to be educationally effective and engaging for both students and teachers; leading to its successful adoption in 550 schools across Canada.

A screenshot of a digital game
A Day in the Life of Jos: decision-making scenario.

“Gamification is very effective for teaching children,” says Professor Maqsood. “Now we want to work on developing games to teach all kinds of users and topics.” Currently, she is exploring the design of games that can improve users’ knowledge of different topics. She is also focused on developing educational games for students from low socioeconomic households that may not have access to progressive technology, thereby aiming to remove barriers and provide supportive tools for education. Some of these tools include creative board games that are entirely developed by her research team.

Professor Maqsood’s ongoing research is contributing to meaningful, interdisciplinary work at Lassonde that can help shape the future of teaching in K-12 institutions. She also continues to prioritize decolonization, equity, diversity and inclusion (DEDI) efforts by focusing on accessibility in her projects. In addition, she has been actively collaborating with Lassonde’s k2i academy throughout summer 2023, to work with a group of high school students exploring a research question related to educational games.

To advance this work, Professor Maqsood is currently recruiting undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in human-centred security and privacy. To learn more, contact smaqsood@yorku.ca.