ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Online learning and fun

By Lisa Neal, Diane Miller, Ray Perez / September 2004

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

What makes e-learning fun? What makes e-learning boring? We posed these questions at a Special Interest Group (SIG) on E-learning and Fun at CHI2004 in Vienna, Austria on April 27, 2004. We wanted to reach an understanding of why so many of us have had boring experiences as online learners—and what to do about it. We hoped to uncover what makes an experience as an online learner fun and how this leads to better design and delivery of online courses. The SIG participants, who themselves design, deliver, or research online learning, had a lot of ideas about how fun relates to e-learning. These are some of the questions we used as a starting point for discussion, along with summaries of the ensuing discussions:

What is the definition of fun? It encompasses pleasure and enjoyment. However, there is a distinction between pleasure and enjoyment: enjoyment involves active participation. What appeals to one person may not motivate another. Fun for adults involves different concepts than that for children, and fun for learning similarly involves different concepts than fun for gaming since the objectives are different. Tom Malone and Mark Lepper in the 1980s characterized video games as highly motivating because they encouraged engagement in repetitive practice, learning through exploration, and striving for mastery through more difficult goals. The classic approach in e-learning is to add a bit of fun later, rather than designing learning experiences to facilitate a joy of learning, where the learning process itself is fun.

Is it ever appropriate for a course to be boring? The consensus was no, no matter what the topic or learner population. Teaching children might incorporate more playfulness, but adults like to enjoy themselves too. Learning a skill like typing can be made fun; even the most serious topic can be presented in an engaging way. Airport luggage screeners need to be painstaking and attentive in their often tedious work; a training program was described that involved superimposing images of dangerous items on baggage and baggage checkers had to identify whether it was real or a fake. Training outcomes included increases in motivation on the job, and people did their jobs more accurately.

Can a course be too much fun? Many thought that fun doesn't always fit into "corporate" learning and is too often gratuitously added without enhancing the content. Adding fun components to a serious subject must be handled carefully and integrated well. Otherwise, the learner can feel that his or her intelligence is insulted or that he or she is switching gears between serious learning and irrelevant activities.

What makes courses boring? Passivity was cited as a common reason for an experience that was not fun: when a learner has no control of his or her learning and is just reading—or skimming—page after page of materials. Presentation has a huge impact; an example was given of presenting children with cooked vegetables at dinner or letting them find and pick vegetables themselves. And, of course, what makes courses fun? Courses can be fun when they encourage a learner to be active, be it through exploring, challenging exercises and projects, or communication.

What about the learner's attitude? If a learner is motivated then a course needs to be well-enough designed to not de-motivate the learner, which happens when the content is too dry or seems too "frivolous" or when the usability of the course is poor. If a student is not already motivated, a poorly designed course will only worsen the situation. Is it possible to motivate a learner? The circumstances of why a person is in a course can impact its enjoyability. Can "required" learning be made more enjoyable? It helps to take into account what people want to learn about, to make it as relevant as possible, and to bring creativity and innovation to course design and delivery. Fun can motivate, but learning will occur only when the fun is purposeful; a game can be highly motivating but may not promote a deeper understanding of the topic. A balance between fun and learning is important but difficult to achieve.

What else can make a course fun? Learners learn more and are more likely to enjoy a learning experience involving a good instructor. Learners often learn more from each other than from an instructor, but opportunities for meaningful peer interaction have to be designed into a course. Storytelling is a great way to encourage participation in a course and can spark more active participation among learners since stories are generally more entertaining to read than expository text and require more creativity to write. Experiential storytelling can add an element of realism to otherwise dry course materials. Opportunities to collaborate on projects can be rewarding and fun as well. The underlying strategies of games can be applied, such as the use of challenge levels and rewards, using stories or scenarios to place the learner in a particular context, and using "what-if" scenarios to encourage the learner to think about cause and effect. Trying out different roles can be very compelling.

The following example was shared from a workshop on social learning and gaming. A game was developed to implement a therapy method, rather than a face-to-face session with a therapist. An effect was leveraging the expertise of teenagers in game playing; they took on more of a leadership role in the game than in a therapy session. The gaming approach involved collecting stories from other people in the same situation—these experiences were gathered for the teenagers to learn from others. As opposed to a face-to-face therapy session, a 3-D environment and gamelike design were used, yet the most "fun" aspect of it was found to be the storytelling and sharing of experiences rather than the "bells and whistles" of a game.

Another concept of game design that applies to learning is the concept of meaningful failure. A player learns through trial and error and especially from mistakes, trying a different approach to accomplish the task at hand. Games often provide multiple opportunities and methods for a player to succeed. If a player fails using one approach, there are other ways to solve the problem. e-learning can leverage this gaming approach, offering multiple means of solving problems to encourage exploration and learning from failure.

Do different cultures perceive fun differently? Notions of fun differ widely; the learner population, the topic, and the environment in which learning is taking place all affect how appropriate it would be to use, say, a gaming approach to learning. Even humor is tricky to use due to cultural differences, difficulties in conveying subtle humor using a technology-based environment, as well as different attitudes toward humor in education.

How can e-learning designers and instructors be encouraged to develop and deliver courses that are more fun? They need to know their audience better and explore a topic creatively to see how it can be presented. Sometimes the best ideas arise from looking at what the "competition" does well or poorly. And, to improve their design and delivery, designers and instructors should "take" their own courses (or perhaps take each other's courses), going through them as a learner would.


  • There are no comments at this time.


    Diane Miller
  1. The basics of e-learning
  2. Lisa Neal
  3. How to get students to show up and learn
  4. Q&A
  5. Blended conferences
  6. Predictions for 2002
  7. Learning from e-learning
  8. Storytelling at a distance
  9. Q&A with Don Norman
  10. Do it yourself
  11. Talk to me
  12. Degrees by mail
  13. Predictions for 2004
  14. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  15. Predictions For 2003
  16. "Spot Learning"
  17. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  18. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  19. In search of simplicity
  20. eLearning and fun
  21. Everything in moderation
  22. The basics of e-learning
  23. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  24. The Value of Voice
  25. Predictions for 2006
  26. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  27. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  28. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  29. "Deep" thoughts
  30. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  31. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  32. Want better courses?
  33. Just "DO IT"
  34. Five questions...
  35. Formative evaluation
  36. Senior service
  37. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  38. My life as a Wikipedian
  39. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  40. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  41. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  42. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  43. Not all the world's a stage
  44. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  45. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  46. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  47. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  48. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  49. Music lessons
  50. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  51. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  52. Advertising or education?
  53. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  54. Back to the future
  55. Serious games for serious topics
  56. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  57. Learner on the Orient Express