You got funny in my course module! Humor in eLearning

Laughing and pointing emoticonWe all love to laugh. We’re wired that way. In fact researchers believe that laughter itself is a social behavior. The crux of the theory is that laughing is in fact a social bonding mechanism. The grunts and guffaws we make when delighted and surprised are a physical manifestation of the sudden emotional shift from alert and stressed to amused and relieved.

Conventional eLearning wisdom says, avoid humor – it’s far too dangerous. You won’t have to look hard to find dozens of stories of someone who has been reprimanded or fired for offending someone else in the name of a good gag. These stories are legitimate, and the stakes are high. Often institutions are unwilling to take the risk on comedy when there is even a smidgen of a chance that someone will be offended.

Why is this association between offence and amusement so thinly divided? The apparent answer is that many of the things that amuse us, sit painfully close to things that can anger us. There are several theories that attempt to classify and explain the things that make us laugh. In a nutshell you could sum these up as Incongruity, Superiority & Relief.

Incongruous humor is perhaps the most obvious. When something is seen from a new angle, when it surprises and delights us, when it seems out of place or inappropriate to a set – it can trigger our funny-bones with it’s unexpectedness or its unusual perspective. Consider the image of the dog below. The image amuses because the size of the bone is incongrouous to the size of the dog.

chihuahua and bone

Superiority theory dates all the way back to Aristotle. The fundamental notion is that we laugh at the foibles of those we view as inferior. It’s the reason we watch comedies like Dumb and Dumber and find them amusing. It also could be directly associated with things like stereotypes. There is a long tradition of stereotypical characterization which runs parallel to the phenomena of Superiority rooted humor. Consider the common stereotypes found in literature, theater & television and you’ll find almost limitless examples of the denigration of a group of people into a cluster that is mocked by comedians. So why do we tolerate this sort of humor? And does it mean that all humor has no place in eLearning?

The relief theory of humor is rooted in the believed origins of laughter. The idea is that we laugh to relieve stress or to approach difficult subjects.

It’s interesting to note that as recently as 2010 psychologists from the University of Colorado, McGraw & Warren, proposed Benign Violation Theory. BVN attempts to form a common singular definition of what qualifies as comical by isolating three parameters;

  • something threatens one’s sense of how the world “ought to be”
  • the threatening situation seems benign
  • a person sees both interpretations at the same time
  • I like this viewpoint quite a bit. One reason is because it identifies a simple reason that our humorous efforts can go awry. You could even consider it a sort of test. Is the narrative, the context, the character or the joke – fundamentally benign? It also explains why culture is so completely intertwined into the reaction to a joke. What we regard as benign is entirely dependent on our unique world view, so what we regard as offensive vs. humorous will be equally dependent.

    Offending your audience is one of three potential negative outcomes that can occur when jokes go awry in your eLearning projects.

  • Your audience can be distracted by the humor
  • Your audience can be offended by the humor
  • Your audience can be confused or unimpressed by the humor
  • So why bother at all? If so many things can go wrong, should we try to put humor in our eLearning courses. I argue yes, and a small but growing body of research supports this argument. For a good overview have a look at Zac Stambor’s great overview of humor in the Journal of the American Psychological Association. It turns out that learners with limited motivation are very likely to perform better and have better long term outcomes when on topic, appropriate, inoffensive humor is used during a course. They are much more likely to rate their course experience more favorably, and they are much less likely to abandon the course. This means that most trainees would benefit significantly from a little giggle while they work.

    For a more comprehensive exploration both of the rationale behind using humor in your online training, and some advice about how it might be integrated, check out the on demand eSeminar: Louder, Faster, Funnier: Humor in eLearning. You might also be interested in one of these related resources:

  • Cathy Moore’s blog on humor:
  • Janet Clarey on Comedy in eLearning
  • Quintus Joubert with counterpoint:
  • Aruna Vayuvegula with practical advice:
  • My own thoughts on integrating humor and eLearning:
  • Zac Stambor’s very good overview of the literature:
  • An amusing Pin Board with eLearning humor:
  • An amusing example of a professor using humor via video:
  • I’d love to hear your thoughts about comedy in eLearning – please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below.

    5 Responses

    1. I agree Allen, as I have always tried to bring humor into learning situations I have been involved with, as I found that the students I worked with became more engaged and tuned in to what was being taught.

      Only a little bit of humor mind, as too many laughs will result in the student remembering the jokes and not the content! Unless the unit itself is about joke telling of course!! 🙂

    2. Agreed “learners with limited motivation are very likely to perform better
      and have better long term outcomes when on topic, appropriate,
      inoffensive humor is used during a course.”

    Leave a reply