Using Humor in Online Learning

Everyone knows that laughter is the best medicine, but not everyone may realize that it can also be an effective (and affective!) pedagogical tool. I learned a lot about using humor in online education when I was asked to write a demo course about the care and keeping of household refrigerators. The subject practically obligated me to make the course fun. (Imagine the alternative.) As I began working on it, however, I found myself occasionally walking a thin line between the reader–alienating precipices of snarky and silly. My efforts to avoid the wrong tone made me wonder if other people use humor effectively in their online teaching and, if so, how. I am happy to report that the halls of virtual Academe seem to ring with laughter, and want to share a few things I learned. What follows is a brief summary about the use of humor from three articles.

If you’re looking for evidence that humor is an effective pedagogical tool, the article Taking the “Distance” out of Distance Education: A Humorous Approach to Online Learning by Donna Gayle Anderson makes a convincing (although humorless) case. The conclusion of the course, cited verbatim below, argues that humor is a way of creating positive presence in distance learning:

Humor in the traditional classroom has long been an accepted practice for many instructors. With the online learning environment becoming increasingly accepted as a long-term strategy in education, the use of humor by the instructor can assist with taking the distance out of distance education by creating a personalized class. This personalized environment can help motivate students to engage more fully in online discussion as reflected in the statistically significant difference between the two groups. Furthermore, humor increases positive perceptions of the students about the online learning environment. Students recognize appropriate humor just as they recognize inappropriate humor. Thus, care should be taken to ensure that humor added to the online class is appropriate and relevant to course content. (JOLT – Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. (n.d.). Retrieved December 13, 2016, from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no1/anderson_0311.htm)

Christopher Pappa’s article Top 5 Tips To Effectively Use Humor in eLearning stresses how important it is to conceive of your learners as your audience, so to understand how to use humor to engage them. Although some of the polling tools and demographic research he suggests may not be readily available to your average course writer or instructional designer, such information might be (or should be) available at the program level. At very least, his point is well taken: used poorly, humor can alienate or even offend your audience.

Pappas reminds us of the fun of using stories and examples to animate dry facts or to break down complicated concepts. People like to follow narratives to the end and are likely to remain on track if they’re enjoying the trip, even when the going (or homework) gets rough. To that end, Pappas cautions that it’s important to keep humor upbeat and light. Too much sarcasm or negativity may foster those very attitudes in the classroom. Towards the end of his article, Pappas suggests that presenting information playfully, through comics and mini-movies, makes content more engaging and memorable.

An article by Robert McNeely on the NEA website reminded us that the web itself is a good source for humor and that it’s important to provide students the opportunity to get in on the fun. Although McNeely talks about humor in the real world classroom and focuses mostly on what teachers can do, his examples suggest good ways to get students involved. Looking for bad or silly examples of concepts you are exploring, soliciting creative and humorous responses to assignments, or simply acknowledging and reacting to each other’s attempts to be funny can go a long way towards making the virtual classroom a place you want to spend time.

If students can see the fun in what they are learning, or at least in their efforts to learn it, online classes can have a more connected and personal feel. If you decide to encourage class participants to engage in some fun, it is important that they understand how to use humor in a way that advances the course’s objectives. Just as students must observe netiquette to be effective online learners, so must they understand how to use humor in class to improve the educational experience. The Dos and Don’ts of Using Humor in eLearning by Christie Wroten provides a succinct list that could be used as the basis of page to talk about how to have fun while still promoting a conducive learning environment. The short list also serves as a good refresher for instructors.

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French Studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured Professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students at an R1 university before deciding to focus his career on online learning. Tom has been involved in educational technology since its inception, first as a student, then as a professor, and now as an instructional designer. His current position as an Online Learning Architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to create courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

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Using Humor in Online Learning

by Tom Armbrecht
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