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Working the Online Crowd: Humor and Teaching with Tech

Infusing online courses with a little fun can make a big difference in engaging and motivating students.

Subject: Never run with nitroglycerin or a bucket of camel snot.

Well, you could, but it would be your funeral.

But seriously, using humorous subject lines just might be a way to engage students being taught with technology; more specifically, students in online courses. Humor doesn't always mean jokes that start, "A priest, mountain goat and ballerina enter a bar." It can be a subtle way of looking for a student's funny bone and tickling it enough to spark motivation to finish a course.

I teach for Western Governors University as a faculty member in the IT College. Technical Writing and Capstone courses are my specialty. It's an excellent gig: fantastic students with professional backgrounds working hard to earn degrees while life circles the wagons. Everything is online. It's a totally new experience for me, having spent the rest of my 30-plus years of higher education in brick-and-mortar settings.

Subject: If a wizard wants to change you into a toad, just say, "No!"

Humor is a tough nut to crack. In the face-to-face classroom, it works great to keep the troops awake and actively breathing. Effective techniques include goofy activities, oddball writing assignments and witty comments. Prodding students into a laugh proved to be a viable strategy and I was very successful at it. What really helped was reading the class's body language: those subtle shifts in attitude where I could deliver one of my dry zingers, producing the desired jovial results.

Those experiences proved to me that humor was a dominating factor when creating an interactive classroom. So, moving to the online format was a little disconcerting. Could humor achieve the same responses online as in real life? Well, I've come to find out the answer is, "Absolutely!"

Subject: If you must change a badger's diaper, always wear gloves.

The thing about working the online crowd, as with a face-to-face classroom, is that you don't need to be a standup comedian. Not everyone tells a good joke. What you need is a creative way of analyzing your students and providing the encouragement, mixed with a light-hearted delivery, to help them drop their guards and get involved. Here's what I find creating such an environment accomplishes:

Comfort. Around the third day of teaching face-to-face, my students figured me out. They decided to let down their defenses and open up. I loved that transition. My class of independent learners became a community of learners. I see the same thing happening with my online students. After a phone conversation or a few e-mails, their formal tone is replaced with a willingness to banter, counter my humorous comments with their own, or include links to things like funny YouTube videos.

Motivation. Faculty who have been in the online trenches will tell you this is a big — maybe the biggest — obstacle for students working in a virtual environment. Dry and boring content delivery can extinguish even a blazing self-governing student. When levity is thrown into the mix, students perk up and take notice. I find they start looking forward to my next e-mails in anticipation of what goofy stuff I'll offer up next.

Subject: If a priest, donkey and chipmunk enter a bar, don't use the restroom.

Creativity. Well sure, why not? Mixing things up with random, off-the-wall comments shifts a student's brain from the analytical to, "What the heck does a donkey have to do with it?" And it's not a distraction. I always include pertinent, timely material for my students. It just happens to be sandwiched between a few random thoughts. Brain scans point to enhanced activity when humor is used in instructional settings.

Personalization. Students in a brick-and-mortar setting are often intimidated by the "professor." Now, place the instructor behind the Oz curtain of online uncertainty and the cowardly lion shines. Learn something unique about your students and then customize your responses to meet those individual characteristics. Students who are comfortable with their instructor are more willing to stay engaged, ask more questions and embrace the virtual community setting than those shaking at their keyboards.

Subject: If you must kiss a white donkey, keep your mouth closed.

So, those are the benefits I'm seeing but the obvious question is, "How do you do it?" You'll need to come up with your own strategies, but here are a few of the things that I have found to be successful:  

Engage. This, from the Latin words eng, meaning a bird of flight, and age, which refers to getting caught in a snare. The trick: how to get those flighty students caught in the content we teach? One technique I use is my e-mail subject lines. Off the wall, yes. Totally random, yes. Highly successful, yes. I constantly have students respond, "Ha ha, thanks again, Joe! I chuckle with your e-mail subjects. I can't wait till your next one." That's right, they can't wait to continue to interact with me. Cool!

Use real world examples (kind of). Any second-year education student knows this as a big, big motivational factor. In my courses dealing with crucial technical writing concepts, this plays out as me supplying questionably related YouTube links. For audience analysis, I send Bad Lip Reading's version of Yoda being poked by some Seagulls. When faced with critical topic analysis, I pass along "She's a Witch" from Monty Python's Holy Grail. If the lesson is on planning a document, I send along the McKenzie brothers in the classic Canadian movie Strange Brew.

As goofy as it seems, those and others work very well. It's the novelty, tied to the concept, that causes the association to have a lasting meaning. Plus, it's a heck of a lot of fun.

Make it personal. Learn something unique about your students and then use it. For example, I started working with a student whose last name was Bourne, like the movie. So, my theme of communication with her became one of espionage. We shared jabs about decoder rings and self-destructing e-mails.

Subject: Even though fish have salivary glands they don't spit. Why would they?

Be authentic. The average age of a WGU student is 37, and most I deal with have 15-plus years of professional experience. I insist being called "Joe." I don't boast about my publications, technical writing experience or advanced degree. Students tell me about Department of Defense projects and being hired to hack into systems only to have the police break down a hotel door. I'm humbled. My message is, "We're partners, having a little fun while looking for the path to success." On the phone, I spend more time listening than talking.

Give timely feedback. This is crucial in face-to-face classrooms but may be more so in the virtual realm. Online students, floating out in the ether, look for replies to affirm they exist. A quick, positive (or carefully coined negative) response goes a long way in stimulating motivation. I field positive results like, "Thank you for the kind words, Joe. Your approach to this assignment has really helped get me moving toward completion."

Of course, I like to goof with the feedback as well: "Thanks for the e-mail and draft. What do you want me say? This is awesome? This is a stellar job? This is outstanding? This is the last time I put bleach in with my dress shirts? Well, it's all of that except the last one. :)"

Establish clear expectations. We've all heard of the sandwich technique: positive at the start, nuke 'em in the middle, and positive at the end. I start my e-mails with a witty comment or two, provide clear explanations of what work or editing is needed, and finish with a positive. "You're doing an excellent job! Holler if you have any questions or run out of cash. :)" I don't try to circumvent the learning process, just try to encourage it.

Subject: Avoid traveling when the moon is full unless Lars has caught the greased pig.

I started teaching because I love working with students. The growth of technology as a delivery system has proved to be a challenge. WGU's students are some of the most fantastic folks I've ever dealt with. What really brings home the bacon is when my students are motivated to learn and eventually succeed. I find humor, even in the virtual world of online learning, is clearly a major instructional skill that helps me achieve my goals.

Oh, and you'll know when the pig gets caught. That Lars is a real braggart. 

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