I was in the middle of conducting a research study, examining my own teaching of implementing fun and play into learning, when COVID-19 hit, and we were forced to transition from face-to-face courses to fully online classes. I had to re-think how I would offer a meaningful class in a way that allowed me to continue my research study. As a student, I didn’t remember online learning being very playful, but now, as a faculty member, I was determined to find out how I could make my virtual classes more fun. I found that fun and play was actually pretty easy to incorporate in online formats. The digital world opened up alternative possibilities that were not available within in-person settings. Previously, I’ve shared my ideas for making asynchronous learning more fun, but below, I share ways I have attempted to make my synchronous online learning space more playful.
Play to build community and “hook” learners
I think icebreakers are underused in higher education. You don’t start playing a sport without stretching, so why do we expect students to jump straight into learning and without a warm-up? I have found that icebreakers build a sense of community and also prepare students for learning. One example includes using PollEverywhere to ask a prompt where students text in their current mood by only using an emoji. Another idea is to split the class into separate Zoom breakout rooms and instruct each group to design their own secret, virtual group handshake. Or you could have them take a virtual group “selfie” screenshot. After they create a handshake or screenshot a selfie, I have them return to the main Zoom room where each group performs their handshake or shows their selfie. The group with the best example wins a prize.
I have also tried holding Flappy Bird competitions. This is a free computer-based video game that’s completely absurd—you have to get a little bird to fly through openings in pipes and see who can get to the highest level. These competitions happen with all students in the main Zoom room. I give students two minutes to play individually, and at the end of the two minutes, the student who achieved the highest level wins a prize.
Hint: be sure to unmute everyone because hearing their laughter and competitive nature will just make your day.
Another game, that I now call “scrolly questions,” is where you divide students into groups in breakout rooms and provide them with this webpage that contains—what seems like—a bajillion, random questions. In their groups, one person shares their screen with the scrolly question website and starts scrolling down the page of random questions. Students take turns and randomly tell the scroller to “STOP!” and whatever question the mouse arrow is pointing to must be answered by the “stopper.” These activities don’t need to take very long, but I’ve found incredible benefits from including play at the start of every class. Students enjoy the chance to decompress from the day and come together for a laugh with their peers in order to prepare their minds to learn.
Death to the synchronous lecture
I have found that heavy lecturing does not work in my virtual courses. I believe that online learning should be more of a hybrid approach, where the majority of the content learning takes place asynchronously, so synchronous class time is reserved for discussions, role-playing, and interactive games. I find that it’s important to make students responsible for their learning. So, instead of me lecturing about something, I have students research the topic on their own time and come back to class prepared to discuss and share an interesting and related blog, video, or resource with their group.
When students research the topic on their own, they are forced to go down “rabbit holes” searching for answers, which often makes them learn the material on a deeper level, and in turn, makes them more invested in their learning. I’ve noticed that when students research a topic, they usually speak about the concept with much more passion than they would have if I simply spewed the information at them. I also include an element of play and games within my synchronous classes. Group work lends itself nicely to games and friendly competitions. I put students in separate Zoom breakout rooms for small group discussions and have them discuss the topic just like any typical discussion, but to make it a game, I have them create some type of ‘product’ to share when we return to the large group. The ‘products’ can be anything. Sometimes I have students come up with a three-sentence theory for an issue that has no one right answer, or develop an acrostic based on a list they constructed from their conversations, or come up with a piece of advice they would give a parent based on a video they watched in their groups—the ‘product’ options are infinite. The type of product isn’t that important, but the actual discussion is important. For students, knowing they have to produce a product to show their peers, where they could possibly win a prize, increases their engagement and investment in the small group discussions.
Hint: be sure to continuously pop in and out of the small group discussions and provide them very clear instructions so they don’t get disengaged.
Dynamic and unpredictable
In order to keep students’ attention, you have to design classes so they never know what is going to happen next. The ever-changing nature keeps them more engaged because they don’t want to miss what is going to happen. They never know when there’s going to be a game or a shift in visual scenery. Some of my students said if they weren’t paying attention, they worried they would let down their peers if they were later expected to engage in a group competition. It might not seem as though you’re able to “move around” a lot while sitting in front of computer screens, but think about it as moving visually instead of physically. If you’re using a software such as Zoom for your synchronous classes, think of the main room as one setting, breakout rooms as another setting, and different components of digital technology as other settings (videos, games, websites, etc.). You can then instruct students to go back to the main Zoom room for a larger discussion to share their ‘products’ or consolidate smaller group discussions. You can also take a break and assign students to breakout rooms again, but this time with a different set of peers. See, ever-changing. Just don’t stay in one virtual space/environment for too long or you will lose them.
I like to think that I am student-centered and attempt to find inclusive teaching practices that increase my ability to reach all students through various forms of learning styles. I would be willing to bet that most faculty would claim a similar value. I think the recently changing landscape of academia due to the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our ability to deliver a comparable education as we were giving before—at least those of us who have become accustomed to teaching in-person. I’ve found that playing with the possibilities of online learning has resonated with my students and has allowed me to maintain my teaching values and efficacy.
I recently started a faculty listserv called “Professors at Play.” If you are interested in sharing your ideas about fun and play and/or getting inspiration from others on the listserve, please join our group! You can request to join the group here: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/professors-at-play
You can also check out our website: Professors at Play
Lisa Forbes, PhD, is an assistant clinical professor in the counseling program at the University of Colorado Denver. Lisa is a licensed professional counselor and is currently training to become a registered play therapist. Her research focuses on motherhood and mental health (#themotheringproject), and also incorporating fun, play, and games in teaching and learning for higher education.