Make 'em Laugh: Is Comedy Appropriate in eLearning?
After you’ve been creating eLearning for a while you’ll no doubt begin to find humor, or the potential for humor in the content that you develop. As we often work in teams, and report to a variety of personnel ranging from legal departments to subject matter experts – this generally gives rise to a very appropriate question: Should we add a joke?
The question of whether to educate or entertain is as old as learning itself. It’s no surprise that contemporary research has some answers for us. Zach Stambor did a very nice overview of the subject for the American Psychological Association in 2006 (http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun06/learning.aspx). In the article he examines the results of several large studies and consults with recognized experts in the field of laughter and learning.
It’s noteworthy that the summary findings of their results run directly parallel to findings rooted in Cognitive Theory of Multimedia eLearning proported by Clark & Mayer & a host of other researchers. The nuts and bolts answer seems consistently supported by the research, even across disciplines:
Use humor only in the context of the learning. In other words, the humor must relate to the learning. On topic humor is significantly better than no humor. Though the evidence from more recent studies suggests that it may only be effective in improving results for learners who are NOT highly motivated. (That’s egghead code for disengaged learners.) Off topic humor may be significantly worse than no humor. Highly motivated learners may be distracted by humor.
If you are very familiar with Cognitive theory of Multimedia eLearning you may recognize right away that there are parallels. In eLearning & the Psychology of Instruction Clark & Mayer propose guiding principles. Embedded among these principles is the notion of topical relevance. Research demonstrates that introducing material to the lesson that is not directly related to the topic is generally a distraction from the learning. (They call this principle, Coherency.) The work also identifies research which echoes the finding that highly motivated learners (people who have a strong internal or external need to learn the content) are clearly a different case than less motivated (or disengaged) learners.
For example learners who are highly motivate do not gain as much from the integration of multimedia and interactivity as disengaged learners. This is a salient point for those creating online learning, because attrition rates in online courses tend to be higher than attrition rates in offline courses. If we make the logical leap that the attrition is due at least in large part to learner disengagement, then eLearning should have more multimedia, more interaction and more comedy than conventional courses.
Clearly any funny stuff you add to courses needs to be directly on topic, and further the educational content upon which the course is focused. I think it’s also worth noting that as cognitive theory evolved (for example Alan Baddely’s model of working memory added a major component — the episodic buffer — in 2000) more evidence appears to point to the notion that we need to construct memorable narratives (stories if you prefer) to help us retain a long term map for new concepts. In some ways stories are a logical way of ‘making sense’ or organizing concepts. Humor is often reliant upon making non-sense of organizing concepts. We delight when we see comparative relationships that are humorous, ironic and / or nonsensical. So it’s reasonable to ask whether organizing concepts into logical narratives, whether humorous or simply supportive of the topic, is actually assisting the learner in converting short term memories into long term memories.
There is clearly a need for more research in the area, particularly more research that specifically examines the results for online learning – and for more studies that look at the long term retention of ideas that were expressed through humor. That said, I think a little funny is always money when it comes to people feeling motivated to continue the work, and feeling happy about the experience that they’ve had.
What do you think? Is Comedy appropriate in eLearning? Are there topics where funny should be tabboo? Is it impossible to get your team on board with an occasional joke? Do you have war stories to share? Success samples? Post them in the comments section below.