Friday, July 26, 2013

Lighten Up Online (Seriously!): The Value of Humor in the Virtual Classroom

"A joke is a very serious thing." - Winston Churchill

In Carla Meskill's forthcoming book on Online Teaching and Learning, N. Anthony has contributed a chapter entitled, "Perceptions of Humour in Oral Synchronous Online Environments." Anthony interviewed and surveyed students and teachers using the Wimba classroom specifically to determine the role of humor in this synchronous online environment. Here are some of the students' comments:
  • "It helped with the anxiety levels. The times we had humor, it did kind of lighten the mood and took the pressure off...."
  • "It helps me to relax and not feel pressured."
  • "It makes it more fun and makes it more ok to try and make a mistake than being afraid to speak...."
  • "Making it funny helps people feel less insecure about messing up."
  • "I believe that teacher-initiated humor relaxes the classroom and leaves us all more willing to participate because we aren't afraid to mess up because there is a portrayed sense of light-heartedness."
  • "It just makes it easier to feel relaxed and speaking in conversation is less intimidating." 
  • "It's easier to remember something that is funny than something that is boring... Words are remembered better when presented in humorous situations."
  • "Often humor makes the content more memorable and therefore helps to learn it faster and better."
  • "I tend to remember things more easily if I have a phrase to associate them with, and humorous phrases are particularly memorable."
Other researchers have noted the beneficial role of humor - both from teachers and from students - in the online classroom. Mirjam Hauck and Regine Hampel investigated the factors in the virtual classroom that facilitated interaction (with students and with instructors) and observed, "making humorous comments or observations to improve the interaction with individual partners and the group as a whole was also identified by several students as a motivating factor." They describe a particular use of humor by a student who did so because he perceived that "some of his peers still felt uncomfortable in the synchronous online environment and were therefore exposed to techno-stress and cognitive overload."

Michael Eskey notes that "humor, whether in the form of jokes, riddles, puns, funny stories, humorous comments or other humorous items, builds a bond between the instructor and students; bridging the student-teacher gap by allowing students to view the instructor as more approachable." How you introduce and use humor will depend on your teaching style, your pedagogical objectives, and your comfort with the tools available in the online classroom, but there is a growing body of evidence that students learn better when they are allowed to "loosen up" online and enjoy themselves and one another.

In the Confer classroom, instructors will inevitably be doing some things by "trial and error": the technology changes, for one thing. Successful instructors demonstrate a fearless attitude and don't mind making public mistakes in the process: it's probably the best way to encourage experimentation and exploration on the part of students. By letting your audience (students) "in on the joke" while you try to figure out how a new tool works, you're allowing them to participate (naturally, you won't allow your experiment to last so long that it interferes with instructional time or time on task).

Have fun!

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