Students report that positive experiences help them succeed academically and socially (Madgett & Belanger, 2008). As online and blended course offerings increase at postsecondary institutions and students are less frequently present on campus, providing opportunities for fun, social interaction. Positive experiences have become increasingly crucial in attracting and retaining students.
We suggest that the image of online learning can shift from drudgery in which students feel isolated with the weight of the world on their shoulders to one that invokes laughter, play, and playful experiments. The online learning environment provides a unique space for inviting play and fun. Enjoyable, tech-enhanced experiences for students are possible even as they simultaneously engage or even struggle with academic concepts.
Some educators believe that education should focus solely on academic rigour (Cohan, 2021) rather than the enjoyment of learning. In other words, learning is complex, students must struggle with concepts, and this (usually unpleasant) struggle is a rite of passage. Yet Fisher et al. (2011) explicitly argue that “play and learning are not incompatible; it is not play versus learning but rather play via learning for which we must strive” (p. 353). Similarly, hooks (1994) argues that fun and excitement are fundamental to the learning experience. We suggest that well-honed scholarly skills and the enjoyment of learning can coexist. The growing influence of the online educational environment provides an opportunity to experiment, explore, and enjoy new educational technologies.
The philosophy and practice of inviting fun into the learning process are based upon the Ludic Pedagogy model. From ludere, Latin for to play or to play games, this pedagogical model builds upon four elements: fun, play, playfulness, and positivity (Lauricella & Edmunds, 2021; Edmunds & Lauricella, 2021). Recognizing the fundamental roles of fun and play early on in students’ educational and intellectual development, Ludic Pedagogy acknowledges that the amount of fun and play associated with learning is often slowly reduced, if not removed, as students progress through their formal education.
The online environment provides a unique space to implement the Ludic Pedagogy model. All four elements need not be incorporated into each activity and class. A focus on one aspect of the model can guide meaningful online experiences.
- Engage in fun activities with students. In other words, don’t be a bystander or passive supervisor. Students are far more likely to engage in a move that the instructor themselves participates in without reservation. In other words, you need to be willing to jump in and have fun (or, in some cases, actually start the fun) if you are going to expect it from your students.
- Carefully consider equity, diversity, and inclusion in online environments. Ensure that any fun activity doesn’t require additional bandwidth-consuming time, expensive software, or costly updates. Address and mitigate potential sociocultural barriers: will all students, regardless of ability, sex/gender, age, or ethnicity, understand and be able to participate?
- Games are a great way to introduce play in online classes. Games can increase motivation to learn (Iten & Petko, 2016) and actual learning because they typically require fewer cognitive resources than more serious learning contexts (Robson et al., 2015).
- Make the objective of play clear. Students in higher education are unaccustomed to the combination of play and learning and need to know that a game or experiment has a clear purpose. Describe how the activity connects to learning objectives or goals, and students may be more likely to buy in.
- Embrace a playful attitude. Many students perceive postsecondary education as a stressful experience as they learn to process vast amounts of new material in the context of tight time- and deadlines. In such situations, a playful attitude, and in particular the use of humour, can reduce stress (Martin, 2002).
- According to King et al. (2015), positivity closely relates to higher student engagement: a positive environment helps keep students involved in the class, the learning environment, and their learning. Further, when experiencing positive affect, individuals’ thinking becomes “more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information” (Fredrickson, 2003, p. 333).
- An instructor can be enthusiastic, welcoming, and engaging in online environments. The manifestation that this positive affect takes on will vary from person to person, but modelling a positive outlook toward both learning and the class will go a long way in helping students to embody a positive attitude.
Activity 1: Music for a Positive and Playful Intro
In a synchronous video-based learning environment such as a Zoom classroom, we can set up a more inviting and familiar atmosphere by broadcasting student-chosen music at the start of class. The music can help establish a relatable tone, signalling to students that they are in the right place and the instructor is present (even if all cameras are off).
The presence of music when students log in to the virtual classroom can replace the informal chatter that usually exists in face-to-face environments. Music can regulate emotion beyond simply providing a positive atmosphere before class (Thayer et al., 1994). That is, happy music can create happy listeners. Additionally, music can be relaxing (Van Goethem & Sloboda, 2011). The resulting well-curated, student-created playlist can assist in developing a comfortable, positive group of students and all of the benefits that accompany such a group.
Creating a playlist can act as a community-building exercise, thus building rapport and climate in a venue that can otherwise feel lonely or isolating (Kaufmamnn & Vallade, 2020).
- Invite students to fill out a Google Form or similar submission tool to submit which tracks they’d like to see in the pre-class playlist.
- Set up and invite students to use polling software to rate, vote, or remove songs from the pre-class playlist.
This playful, positive crowd-sourcing exercise can help curate positive emotions toward the course and its environment. Additional beneficial outcomes include the development of prosocial bonds (Armenta et al., 2016) and the reduction of potential interactional stresses (Dingle et al., 2021; Fredrickson, 2001). Because this activity is outside the bounds of class time, it:
- Does not negatively impact the time required for classroom activities.
- Can create a context for learning in which students start the class with a mindset more conducive to learning.
- May result in an increased likelihood of student engagement in positive behaviours, such as studying, attending class, participating in classroom activities, among others (Williams et al., 2013).
- It will likely result in pre-class conversation via the chat (Sharon has found this true, without exception!). While not a guarantee, students are likely to make comments in the chat, including “Who chose this?”, “What artist is this?” “I forget which album this is from!” “Omg, I remember this from middle school!” and “This was my prom song!”
- Music preferences are highly subjective. Not all track selections or genres will be appealing to all students. Mitigate this challenge by reminding students that you will feature their chosen tracks eventually. Even if someone likes country music, that doesn’t mean that they are a terrible person (the authors have an ongoing debate about such matters).
- Much contemporary music is potentially objectionable or even offensive. Establish ground rules with students and encourage them to choose generally appreciable tracks. We suggest using clean, over explicit edits of songs when possible to limit potential awkwardness and discomfort.
- Most music apps require a paid subscription, but at the same time, more people than ever subscribed to music streaming apps in 2020 (Millman, 2021), and younger consumers report using more than one streaming platform (Perez, 2017). If instructors don’t have a paid subscription to music, Spotify and YouTube offer free versions (but beware of advertisements).
Popular streaming apps for curated playlists include:
- Spotify (Premium subscription is free for one month, $9.99/month, and there are student rates)
- Apple Music (3 months free, $9.99/month or $99.99/year)
- YouTube (1 month free, $9.99/month)
- Note: Pandora is not available in Canada
Activity 2: Online Jeopardy! as Review
Formative assessment and gamifying a pre-exam or unit review is an active learning strategy that keeps students engaged (Baszuk & Heath, 2020) and increases content retention (Putz et al., 2020). Games such as Jeopardy! can be used to review course concepts in advance of exams, tests, or simply as a fun way of reinforcing course materials. Games in learning have multiple benefits, such as increased knowledge, enhanced problem-solving skills, and improved learning motivation (Backlund & Hendrix, 2013).
Games used in formal education are often called serious games, an unfortunate moniker that sounds contrary to fun (Michael & Chen, 2005). Naming conventions aside, games such as Jeopardy! allow students to:
- Receive immediate feedback on their responses to content- or skill-based questions.
- Receive ongoing feedback, affording students opportunities to assess their understanding of information.
- Retain a focus on the fun elements of the activity while not denying the underlying learning goal of the activity.
- Play with being wrong without high-stakes consequences.
This activity can be conducted in any subject area. While word answers are often common in games like Jeopardy!, educators can easily include equations, problems, or more involved solutions. We offer a template for personalized use in the resources below.
There are a variety of templates for Jeopardy!-style activities, but we like this one [Doc.] (also listed in the Resources section).
- Populate the template with answers and questions relative to course material as appropriate.
- Decide on the format of play:
- The number of students enrolled or present in class will dictate whether the game is played individually or in teams. If you use a team approach, consider whether they will be randomized or chosen.
- Ensure that you have a way for students to ring in to answer questions. Students can use the raise hand function if the review is via Zoom.
- Do your best Alex Trebek or Mayim Bialik imitation to host the game.
- Share the prepared template via the share screen function in whichever hosting platform is employed in the online class.
- While the Jeopardy! template totals the points, the group can address incorrect answers once the question is answered correctly: why are certain answers plausible, and what contributes to the correct answer? Discussion is encouraged!
- Celebrate correct answers! Encourage backchannel conversation in the online chat.
Some students may not view the activity as a learning event and may choose not to participate. In such cases, educators should emphasize the game’s content rather than the method of presentation.
- Google Slides Jeopardy game template [Doc.], developed under a Creative Commons license, can be adapted or otherwise changed to meet the requirements of one’s course. This template contains complete editing directions.
- 9 Best Free Jeopardy Templates for the Classroom.
Activity 3: Roleplay
Course-related roleplay can help students implement knowledge, practice skills, or rehearse a performance; roleplay allows students to engage in interactions as if they were real (DeNeve & Heppner, 1997). It is particularly effective to employ roleplays as an in-class activity with no consequences for failure. Scenarios in which students can pretend to take on roles and responsibilities of specific actors allow for the opportunity to take risks and have fun while internalizing learning.
The key to successful roleplay is the student’s immersion into the activity. Heinrich (2018) states that as the activities “become more dynamic, the interactions become more authentic, the discussion becomes more focused, and people grow and take risks” (p. xiii). Roleplay and acting out a situation can function as a bridge between theory and practice where students practice skills and knowledge applicable in the real-world context.
In a virtual setting, roleplays can occur through synchronous face-to-face technologies, voice-only media, or asynchronous text-only methods. According to Russell & Shepherd (2010), critical factors for a successful roleplay activity include the application of learning and authenticity. Applied and authentic learning situations help build skill and confidence (Russell & Shepherd, 2010).
In keeping with the Ludic Pedagogy model (Lauricella & Edmunds, 2021; Edmunds & Lauricella, 2021), we add a third but overarching element in roleplay – fun. Recognizing that fun is not a pre-requisite for roleplay, we propose that as students make themselves vulnerable in the potentially embarrassing or even silly context of roleplay, the internal motivation of fun must exist. When students engage in activities without a sense of fun, it may be better referred to as simulation rather than roleplay.
To effectively implement a successful and fun role play in the higher education setting, we provide the following guidelines (Rao & Stupans, 2012):
- Consider the purpose of roleplaying. What should students practice or experience in this activity? Make the learning objectives clear at the start of the activity.
- To minimize students’ concerns about participation and encourage students to have fun in their roles, teachers must reassure students that they can express themselves “without fear of the negative consequences or feedback that their speech, comment, or action might generate” (Lateef, 2020, p 5). Even with these reassurances, give students the option to opt-out of activities that cause them discomfort.
- Consider the requirements of the roleplay activity:
- How many practice scenarios will maximize the experience for students? How many students will be involved in each scenario?
- Carefully consider each actor in the activity and connect to a learning objective.
- Prepare background information for each scenario. Communicate to students the scenario, each actor, and how they would respond.
- Definition of roles can be sent directly to individual students via the direct message in the online chat or a more extensive document.
- Consider timing. Ensure that students possess the requisite content, skills, or knowledge before engaging in the activity. For example, roleplays are not often effective at starting a new unit or subject. Instead, they should occur once students have enough information to take on a specific role or purpose.
- Provide guidelines for students regarding respectful behaviour. Students should understand that taking opposing views in the activity is simply an exercise.
- Prepare several questions for debriefing. Ask each actor what they found easy, helpful, or challenging about their role. Students may have after-the-fact revelations such as “I should have said…” which are beneficial to consider after the exercise.
Some students may be hesitant to make themselves vulnerable in a roleplay. An environment of psychological safety must be developed and reinforced. Every student should feel comfortable knowing that any laughter is not directed at them personally. To minimize student concerns, model a positive attitude and a playful approach to any roleplay activity. Humour, in particular, can assist in dealing with anxiety and stress reduction (Rao & Stupans, 2012). The instructor can even take on a small or minor role in the scenario to demonstrate willingness.
- Creating Effective Scenarios, Case Studies, and Role Plays [PDF] by University of New Brunswick
Activity 4: Icebreakers
Fun icebreakers can help students get to know one another and feel more comfortable in an online learning environment which is paramount given the perceived distance in learner-learner relationships (Moore, 1993). Using icebreaker questions and discussion can help students connect, enjoy a sense of community, and feel comfortable with collaborative work (Dixon et al., 2006).
- Consider the objective of the icebreaker. Do you want to introduce students to the course material, would you like to set the tone for the course, unit, or class period, or do you seek to provide time and space for students to get to know one another?
- Consider logistics, including the time you’re able to devote to the activity and the number of students participating in the icebreaker. This consideration will help to determine the specific activity that you employ.
- Ideas for icebreakers suitable for online higher education are listed below.
- Introduce the activity to students and explain the objective of the icebreaker. Describe whether the purpose is to introduce course information or provide students with the opportunity to meet and learn about their peers, for example.
- Explain logistics, such as duration and how many students will be in each small group.
- Breakout rooms can help to distribute students into groups or partners. Be sure to describe to students how they will return to the large group. For example, make it clear that you’ll close breakout rooms after 5 minutes.
- Mid-point check-ins can help ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute.
- Giving a 2-minute or 1-minute timekeeping cue is an example of a broadcast message that can help keep students on time.
- Debrief after the activity. When students return to the large group, invite individuals or groups to share what they learned or something funny/surprising/unusual that happened in their small group or pair.
- Icebreakers, like all activities, may not go as expected; your flexibility and adaptability will be critical factors in the activity’s success.
- Students may need encouragement to begin a small group or paired discussion. Suggest to students that the first person to speak should be the person with the first birthday of the calendar year or the shortest person in the group or pair.
Activity 5: Polling
We can use polling tools to keep students on-task (Price, 2021) and engaged (Khan et al., 2021) in online class periods. Interactive polling can also be a fun way to develop mutual insights between peers and the educator alike. Polling is adaptable, and we often use it as an introduction to a class, attention-grabber, or as a formative assessment at the end of a class.
- Polling is a common feature in most hosting platforms (e.g., Zoom, Google Meet), or often we can recruit add-ons or other platforms for enhanced responsiveness. An example is Mentimeter, where polls can be embedded directly into a slide presentation.
- Decide what kind of poll you’d like to run: Do you want students to vote on something (e.g., their favourite type of fries or vacation spot), provide one-word answers, or submit phrases or short answers? Polls with votes can result in bar or pie graphs to communicate results. One-word or short phrases can result in word clouds and be displayed in text blocks on the screen.
- Incorporate a poll at the start of class to gauge student mood. A fun option is the how are you feeling today scale. A Google Images search will reveal many humorous possibilities, including dog expressions, cat photos, or famous art, to name just a few. Responses can help everyone understand the class’s general vibe on any particular day.
- Throughout an online lecture, invite students to respond to a poll relative to course concepts. The question could include a simple quiz question to gauge student comprehension or a fun question about how the topic relates to popular culture.
- At the end of a class period, ask students to respond to a poll question about the course or the day’s topic. Or, have students respond to a poll about their weekend plans, goals for the semester, or winter/summer break.
- Debrief each poll. Invite students to explain their response, ask a related question, or ask a question of a colleague or the larger group.
- If students do not have another device other than that with which they are consulting the course stream, it may be awkward for students to switch applications. For this reason, it is helpful to either use Mentimeter, which streamlines the presentation and polling process, or use polls only in every few slides so that students do not have to switch windows or devices too often.
- Students may not be willing to explain why they chose a particular answer to the polling question. In this case, it may be helpful to select a more debatable topic in future (such as, “is cereal soup?” or “is a hot dog a sandwich?”).
- #creativeHE supports pedagogical rebels and free-thinking innovators through the design and development of novel education tools.
- 101 Creative Ideas is an OER project that shares ideas fostering and promoting creativity in higher education.
- The power of play in higher education: Creativity in tertiary learning is a book that collects a wide range of insights into integrating play into the higher education experience.
- The book When roleplay comes alive: A theory and practice covers the theory and practice of roleplay in the context of active learning, providing instructors implement insights for effective implementation.
- Using Play to Rewire & Improve Your Brain | Huberman Lab Podcast #58 [1:46:35].
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