Should Online Classes Be Fun?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

There’s fun as comic relief, then there’s fun as passion.

The first is temporary and a diversion. In the classroom, it’s the seventh-inning stretch in a long lecture. The piano stairs (see the video below) falls into this category, a diversion from the dreary commute from one point to another in a big city. The jokes in an otherwise long and boring speech, too, are diversionary, sugar coating for a bland or bitter pill. The assumption is that the speaker has a captive audience that requires some form of relief.

The fun that makes the most sense for education is passion. Think of our personal interests, joys, hobbies. These aren’t haha funny. They’re aha fun. And the interesting thing is, we don’t need comic relief in these pursuits because they’re inherently engaging, absorbing. We lose ourselves in them. In a word, this type of fun is what Dewey calls “educative.”

When we have passion for something, we have an insatiable hunger for all there is to know about it. My son, growing up, wasn’t the best student, but I never worried because I knew he was bright. Even in grade school, he knew all the NBA teams and players and was an expert on MJ and the Bulls and, later, Kobe and his Lakers.

Driven by passion, he absorbed tons of information like a sponge via TV, newspapers, and magazines. He didn’t need a teacher. And this is the beauty of fun when it’s a passion. We become our own best teachers. We teach ourselves, or more accurately, we learn on our own.

We also become active participants, and my son played organized ball from elementary through high school. The fact that he spent much of his varsity years on the bench didn’t dampen his passion. Today, he still enjoys watching games and playing ball with his friends.

Think of your own passions. Golf? Travel? Cooking? Gardening? Reading?

Independent learning doesn’t mean we don’t seek out experts. We do, but on our own terms. We might read books on it, attend lectures or conferences, subscribe to periodicals. But we don’t need a teacher or a guide to tell us how to enjoy our passion. We already do, and decisions about what or how are part of the joy that we reserve for ourselves.


How to transfer this p-fun into the classroom? That’s the biggy.

Conventional wisdom says to use pull rather than push strategies, and this means using individual or group interest as a starting point. The common term for this is student-centered practices. The idea is to get students to personally buy into the objectives and lessons, to own them. This way, they’re learning primarily for their own sake and only partially for the teacher or the grade. The motivation is mostly intrinsic.

When motivation is located within the student, learning becomes largely self-directed and fun. In a word, passionate.

In composition, the variables we can manipulate are our assignments — readings, discussions, and paper topics. We need to come up with assignments that allow students to personally connect or engage with the class work, so they’re no longer doing a class assignment but a personal project.

In my English 200 (College Composition II) lessons, I’ve tried to set up a personal connection between topic and self to generate passion. For students who buy in, the results are terrific. For example, here’s a paper from earlier in the semester: “Broken Into Beautiful – Ishinomaki.”

These students were engaged in the learning activities that led up to their final paper. I read this as fun of the aha variety. They’ve made a connection with the objectives and class work and produced a paper that is personally passionate. Now, I have to figure out how to work the same kind of magic with students who don’t buy in and just go through the motions and churn out works with little or no passion. One strategy is our course publication that I use to feature exemplary student works such as the two mentioned above. These works are part of the course content that all students are required to read.
Note: This article was prompted by a forum assignment in an in-service workshop I’m taking at Kapi’olani Community College, which is part of the University of Hawaii System. The completely online course, Teaching Online Prep Program (TOPP): Spring 2017, is being taught by Helen Torigoe and Marisa Yamada, instructional designers in the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching and Technology (CELTT). The “Piano Stairs” YouTube video was embedded in their lesson plan.

2 Responses

  1. Some instructors believe that classes must be entertaining, that material must be fun. You have definitely hit on the right term (as an English instructor should) as engaging. As with fun, you can have trouble defining engaging. Is it like the Supreme Court comment about porn, that you know it when you see it? I tend to think this way myself.

    The instructor’s job is NOT to entertain. It’s not to engage students with the instructor either. It’s to ensure that students engage with the subject and topic. Most often, that means getting out of the way once you have introduced the material.

    These concepts apply at all levels, from preschool through graduate education. I could trot out a handful of tired clichés to cement this concept, but that would just distract and disengage the reader.

    If you do it right, then your students come away at the end of the day and answer that time-honored question about how your class went that day with “It was fun,” meaning “I was engaged.” But, who says the latter?

    • Harry, you nailed it with “The instructor’s job is NOT to entertain. It’s not to engage students with the instructor either.” All too often, the two are seen as causally related. The instructor believes that the only engagement that matters is between her/him and the students, and being entertaining (funny) is best practice for getting there. A great class is one where she feels great about herself as a teacher. The hardest transformation to make as a teacher (and as a parent) is to realize that education is NOT about the teacher. It’s all about about the student. And the best teaching occurs when the teacher is able, as you say, to get “out of the way once [she has] introduced the material,” allowing her students to engage with it. I guess it’s like taking your young children and turning them loose at the playground. If the learn/play environment is set up properly, best practice is to then get out of the way.

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