Humour in education can be tricky to get right. In online training however, it is necessary for group cohesion and motivating learners, argues Toula Giannakopoulou. The text is a column written for issue 1/2022 on Engaging and Re-engaging.
You might say that I am a spy of online adult education.
As the organiser of online courses for the staff of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, I have the rare opportunity to observe the way people react to online learning.
Sometimes I organise very specific job-related courses for 10 colleagues that are quite technical, sometimes seminars with 300 participants. The staff are mostly prosecutors, lawyers, people working in finance, HR, and IT.
I have been running online courses for over a year in the current COVID-19 reality, and observed that stressors in adult learners have significantly increased, as they now face the issues of distance learning and social isolation.
Educators cannot resort to grades to motivate their adult learners who usually hide behind closed cameras and microphones while continuing with their daily work. This highlights the problem of maintaining the engagement of learners whom you cannot see.
AFTER OBSERVING more than 150 online courses, I can say this: fun lessons motivate learners.
There are many psychological benefits to humour including reducing stress and tension while increasing self-esteem, hope and empowerment, as Donna Gayle Anderson reminds us. In my work, I have also seen that humour increases group cohesion.
Often educators – understandably – remain wary of using humour in their classes. Many different personalities, senses of humour and job roles need to be considered when organising online courses, especially in the culturally diverse classes that I work with.
If the trainer shows the courage and strength to take a chance, failed efforts are mostly received with kindness.
Casual learning spaces, such as breakout rooms, especially in large classes, can be a good starting point for creating a more joyful and destressed atmosphere in learning.
In my opinion, as long as you demonstrate enthusiasm and openness, there is no danger in turning the classroom into a comedy club. The chat function is also a helpful way to introduce backstage banter when muted mikes prevent verbal participation in large online classes.
OBVIOUSLY, THERE ARE also many ways to get things wrong when it comes to laughs.
I believe humour should emerge from the material that the trainer is working with – telling jokes that are out of context or being sarcastic do not work. Targeting an institution’s people or rules is also typically a bad idea.
In my experience, humorous examples from the course material, problems, funny pictures, or anonymous amusing situations usually have the right effect. I have witnessed trainers using Slido, polls, surveys or online quizzes that are great tools and were extremely effective. They provide useful information and friendly competition and help bring the participants closer together.
Training should not be taken too seriously. I have watched trainers wear a silly hat and bright colours, use a frivolous background or play music that everyone recognises from popular culture. Even the most serious academic deserves to enjoy teaching.
While many games, jokes or activities have been successful in engaging learners, other attempts have failed miserably.
However, if the trainer shows the courage and strength to take a chance, failed efforts are mostly received with kindness – as long as the trainer is willing to laugh, even at themselves.