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eLearning and fun
a report from the CHI 2005 special interest group

By Lisa Neal, Lorraine Normore / July 2005

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The relationship between eLearning and Fun can be viewed from many perspectives: Can fun enhance learning without reducing it to entertainment? What makes the process of developing or delivering an online course fun? What makes taking an online course fun? At a Special Interest Group (SIG) discussion at the recent CHI 2005 conference in Portland, Oregon, we explored these and other questions in a lively exchange.

Much of the focus on eLearning centers on the experience of students, not on that of online teachers. What makes online teaching fun, and how does that impact students? Professor David Kieras, University of Michigan, offered an informal case study about his recent experience as a first-time online instructor, teaching a seminar on Cognitive Modeling for User Interface Design. An experienced classroom teacher, Dave was nervous about moving online and intimidated about speaking to over 200 participants he couldn't see. He found that he became comfortable quickly and that it was a "bizarre experience but it was fun."

There are many differences between teaching in the classroom and online. Teachers may be uncomfortable initially because they don't know how to transfer their skills effectively and, unable to see students to gauge their reactions, they receive less feedback to help them tailor their lecture or tweak their performance. Practice helps, as does experience, and techniques such as envisioning an enthralled audience, which is sometimes better than what you get in person, helps with initial discomfort. Dave reported that one student commented that he acted more professionally online than in person, perhaps subconsciously formalizing his presentation style. Teaching is less fun when one is uncomfortable, more formal, or hypersensitive about what one says or how one says it; the impact on students is likely to be negative as well.

Online teaching is not fun when technology is not working or when a teacher is focusing more on the delivery technology than on content. While bells and whistles can expand opportunities for online interaction, more sophisticated technologies can be less reliable and require more training and assistance to use effectively. Anxiety is not fun, and this is likely conveyed to students. However, some features increase fun for students without a cost to teachers; one is awareness indicators since students like to know who else is there.

Dave said that teaching online was especially fun for him when the class was interactive. The most interactive moments arose from the use of the text chat during the seminar, when Bonnie John, who was teaching a unit of the seminar, moderated the text chat while Dave was speaking and vice versa, and also when Dave and Bonnie both answered questions by audio at the end of each unit. When a teacher is having fun during such exchanges, students are more likely to enjoy it as well. Finally, a more interactive session offers the potential for students to play a more active role in the class, which increases engagement and commitment, as well as providing an increase in technological skills and comfort.

eLearning, Teaching, and Passion

If an instructor is really passionate about a topic, can this be expressed online in the same way as it is in the classroom? Voice and tone convey passion, but something may be lost without face-to-face interaction that even video can not convey. Thus online students may have to work harder, which is often less fun, to have passion instilled in them. This begs the question of how online learning impacts students of different ages and with different levels of self-motivation.

Further, when the instructor is removed from a course, as is often the case in the ubiquitous self-paced course, it may be very difficult for online materials to convey the passion that a teacher feels for a topic. This is compounded by the fact that many online courses are created by instructional designers with input from subject matter experts, so the developers may have no knowledge and likely no passion for the topic.

eLearning, Fun, and Group Discussions

The group next broke into smaller groups to allow more people to talk about what makes e-learning fun and, conversely, what makes it tedious or dull. Four dimensions emerged across the groups. The first could be characterized as rigidity vs. spontaneity. "Fun" experiences were seen as the result of situations that were surprising, playful, and challenging. The second dimension concerned the communication mode. Unidirectional messages from "teacher" to "student" were perceived as undesirable. Interactivity was prized. The third dimension was related to the nature of the social experience provided. Working in isolation was felt to be "not fun." Working collaboratively was felt to be fun or engaging. The final dimension concerned the flexibility of the program. Fixed programs were seen as inferior to programs that contained user customizable features.

As the session drew to an end, the group moved towards one additional realization, that the dimensions that make e-learning and e-teaching effective are, in essence, the same as those that make any learning and teaching situation effective. However, virtual environments can be used in ways that present new opportunities and which provide new ways to enable experiences that have been shown to be effective in face-to-face learning situations.


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    Lisa Neal
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