Fostering Fun: Engaging Students with Asynchronous Online Learning

Lightbulb with other learning icons represent asynchronous learning

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

Today, faculty are being asked to abruptly expand their teaching practices in ways many of us would never have imagined. For many, teaching online is something they’ve never done and for some, it’s something they never desired to do. I have some experience with digital pedagogy but for me personally, asynchronous online teaching holds the highest level of difficulty because my style of teaching induces and relies on a sense of community, connection, and interaction within the classroom. I’ve been playing around with making my own online teaching more fun and playful to create an engaging student experience, because I believe engaged students are more eager and active in their learning and assume more responsibility for their learning. I have experimented with incorporating fun, play, and games in both synchronous and asynchronous formats and have found it really matters to students. The narrative that follows demonstrates some ways I have attempted to make the asynchronous portion of my online class more fun. 

This is Me! Welcome Videos

The typical online course introductions generally focus on a students’ name, major, career goals, and maybe a fun fact.  This approach is common for in-person classes, but I think for asynchronous learning, it feels a bit like a 10-second first date—highly ineffective at building rapport or a connection. Therefore, my first step to making an engaging online class was to beef up the introductions. For my class, I created a three-minute video of myself using iMovie. The video is not about who I am as a faculty member or a professional, it has more to do with who I am as a human. It has information about my family, my interests, my passions, my approach to life and teaching, and in the background, you can hear my favorite Mumford and Sons songs. After showing a few of my colleagues the video, they encouragingly said it was “vulnerable.” This let me know the video was right on track to create a connection with my students and a sense of community. I had students watch my video and create their own video that represented who they were (this could even consist of just pictures and text). I then had them share their own introductions to the group.

Not Your Typical Module

If you are already creating modules that make up your course, just change the modules to something fun—something outside the typical pedagogical-language box. So, instead of “Module 1, Module 2, etc.,” you might change the wording to fit some type of theme. Maybe you change them to reflect video game levels or maybe it’s superhero themed, or for all the baseball fans, you could change the module names to “1st inning, 2nd inning, etc.” It doesn’t matter what theme you choose, but being creative and unique can add to the fun element and spark students’ engagement. For my class, I used “missions,” where the “missions” were like any other module but the wording was changed, so as students completed the work for each mission, they felt like a secret agent completing challenging tasks to complete their assigned mission. Once they completed a mission, the next one would open. 

Virtual Escape Rooms to Exit the Module

If you already include an end-of-module quiz, you can simply present the quiz in a different format—virtual escape room format! You can go to YouTube and view step-by-step instructions on designing these, as there are certain settings that prohibit students from passing to the next “lock” until they have used clues to disable a previous lock. You could set it up that if students escape the virtual escape room, it unlocks their next mission! Or, if they escape, they might be given a secret code word in order to enter into the next synchronous class session. Hint: be sure to send the escape room link to a playful colleague prior to students trying it. There may be some operator-error glitches that need to be worked out before it runs smoothly for students.

Hidden “Easter Eggs”

An “Easter egg” is some type of hidden clue or hidden prompt that you place within your recorded lecture or other documents that students must view/read for their asynchronous work. Let students know ahead of time that these Easter eggs will be scattered throughout the course and they should keep an eye out. Maybe there’s a reward or prize for finding them. So, for example, within one of your recorded lectures, you could provide some type of hint or action students need to complete. It can be as simple as a hint to a question to an upcoming quiz or it can be a message that provides an answer to one of the upcoming escape rooms. One of my colleagues puts Easter eggs in her syllabus. It instructs her students to email her the funniest meme they can find—if they make her laugh out loud, they get an extra credit point. These Easter eggs don’t have to be anything extensive, or even all that frequent throughout the course, but just the fact that students know there are hidden messages and surprises makes learning more fun and engaging. 

Games for Prizes

Including fun and play in your courses is easier than you think. You can take your existing lesson plans, discussions, or activities and simply add elements of game design to make them more fun. For example, I have students create “Five Golden Rules” for therapists that guide them in their decision-making about when and how to use therapeutic self-disclosure with clients. To make it a game, I tell students that with their Five Golden Rules for self-disclosure it should also be written as an acrostic (either the first letters of each word or random letters within each Golden Rule have to spell out a word). The groups share their Five Golden Rules, as well as their acrostic, and the group with the most creative or funniest acrostic wins a prize. This type of game did not take a ton of time to create and did not drastically alter the previously designed learning experience.

Alternatives to Recorded Lectures

I started making recorded lectures for content that I wanted students to learn in their asynchronous time. But, I started to get tired of listening to myself talk, so I knew my students were most likely getting tired of recorded lectures, too. Now, I provide alternative ways to convey information rather than solely recording lectures. I think asynchronous learning (all learning at that) needs to be dynamic and unpredictable, or you lose students’ attention and focus. Instead of a lecture, I prompt students to research a certain idea to bring back to our synchronous class time. I have found that making students responsible for finding content that guides the discussion makes them highly invested. They come back eager to share what they’ve learned instead of me lecturing and providing them with the information. This way, they also tend to have little buy-in or interest in the learning. Additionally, I have also used YouTube as a resource for the topic of counseling. I found an approved, recorded counseling session on the internet and recorded myself introducing the video, played 10 minutes of it, and then discussed how I thought the counselor did regarding exploring the problem. This real life and applied example was much more engaging than a dry lecture of me theoretically describing the process. Another idea I tried instead of a recorded lecture was through Adobe Spark. I made my own web page that progressed through a topic with graphics and thought-provoking questions. I provided students with the URL to my web page and they dug deeper into the topic in a more engaging way.

As a mental health counselor, I believe you can’t demand a client’s openness, respect, and vulnerability just because they are in counseling; you have to establish a strong enough therapeutic alliance to earn it. I believe the same goes for teaching. You can’t demand engagement, vulnerability, and passion from students—we can hope for it, but you can’t demand it. By making my classes more fun and playful, I’ve found it cultivates the very things we want from students to create a learning community that’s engaged and passionate and fosters deeper learning.

**I recently started a faculty listserve 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 email me so I can add you!

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.