What do students think about fun and online learning during the pandemic?

By Alexandra Okada

Currently, Rumpus team is developing a series of studies about fun and online learning with undergraduates from an introductory online course module offered by the Open University – OU in the United Kingdom.

OpenLearn and Fun
OpenLearn and Fun

Data was generated at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  A variety of participants contributed to this study including a representative sample of beginners who came from secondary schools. As this module is offered to all undergraduates at the Open University UK, there were also students from other levels of study.

Two instruments were provided for volunteer students: (1) a structured self-reflective questionnaire (Sheehy et al., 2019)  which was replied by 551 students  and then (2) an open and optional question replied by 207 students who provided their points of view, with freedom including their perceptions about  fun and learning.

Most – more than 90% – ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ agreed that

  • To learn effectively, students must enjoy their learning
  • To learn effectively, students must be happy while learning
  • Learning should involve fun
  • I am enjoying studying this module

Students identified factors relating to fun and online learning as:

freedom, engagement, real scenarios, personalised learning, more pleasant experience, meeting people, opportunity to interact and learn from both the lecturer and peers, sense of humour, flexibility (study on your own time), study on my own pace, collaborative learning, expand knowledge and enjoy the process of learning and something that differs from the standard read/ watch and answer questions, more enjoyable learning environment.

These were associated with various benefits, such as:

taking the stress out, breaking up the intensity of learning, to better myself, to keep up and catch up with learning with a better mindset, more effective participation, motivation alive and inspiration, interest to interact and learn more, makes the student want to take part in learning and continue studying, less likely to drop out, improve learning experiences.

Some students reported that fun is needed for academic engagement but felt it was difficult to achieve online. They felt isolated and that they were ‘missing out’ from closer (and possibly fun) interactions with peers.

In addition to positive ideas about fun and learning held by most students, one in five (19%) strongly or somewhat agreed that fun can get in the way of learning. Some felt having fun is difficult or may distract from learning – preferring to study without wasting time. Some see fun as part of social interaction and would prefer to work on their own (i.e., without fun). Some felt online activities were repetitive and boring, linking distance education with an explicit lack of fun or contrarily as ‘forced’ fun. Some students who felt under pressure or stressed did not expect online learning to be fun and instead wanted more support from tutors.

Rumpus members found some findings interesting, in particular the connection established between 1% of students who highlighted that fun should not be forced:

Being able to work on my own. My other modules force us to participate in group work, which is why I didn’t choose a “brick” uni, as I don’t have the time to sit and wait around for other people to be able to do group work.” OU student, Feb 2020.

“I think fun can be a valuable tool in learning, however I question how it can be applied in distance learning, without forcing students to interact with other peers. Fun activities could be viewed as a waste of time by certain students”. OU student, Feb 2020.

Rumpus members shared their comments and highlighted the importance of understanding students’ needs and expectations.  Findings that indicated negative perception about fun that is   “forced” surprised the team.

“It’s interesting that two of the students who are quoted as finding fun a distraction, link it with ‘forced’ social interaction and don’t connect it with something you could do or experience as an individual. There’s always a tension between learning as the social construction of knowledge, and students’ experience of group or collaborative learning – but I’m surprised that it extends to fun as well.” R.F., May 2020.

These findings confirmed the results of previous surveys which  revealed, for example,  that  there is a negative reaction if students’ participation in forum discussion is assessed because they do not like to be forced to interact with others .

“Yeah the resistance to forced social interaction produces some surprising results, for instance one of my colleagues in Learning Design surveyed a lot of students and found that (amongst those participating in the survey) 8% of the students who are only occasional users of the forum, actually contributed less if the contributions were assessed – the interpretation of this is they resented it so much that they’d protest by dropping out. We regularly got students stating they chose modules to avoid having to interact with other students. It wouldn’t surprise me if these effects translated to including fun in activities, particularly if the fun activities were assessed.  I’m not sure how much it would help to point out that they’re not forced, students are quite at liberty to not do them and simply forego the marks – as they are with any other parts of the assessment. For some reason they resent being graded on their interaction with other students while they don’t resent being asked to write essays.” M.C. May 2020

Students’ reflective views about the relationship between fun and learning led to these six recommendations for all learners:

1. Fun can have a positive impact on your learning when you have enjoyable activities, feel motivated, focused and engaged with your studies.

2. Identify what is difficult or boring during your own learning and discuss it to find alternatives, in order to avoid anxiety or lack of interest.

3. Distance learning can potentially be lonely and isolating, so being open-minded towards social online activities might help you engage

4. Your personal views about fun can help you identify factors that affect your enjoyment and engagement with distance online learning.

5. Interacting with other students may be fun – so do consider these opportunities when they arise.

6. Keeping your study engaging and fun with time allocation and intervals to be able to face busy life and lack of time.

You can read more about the study and its findings in this OpenLearn article: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/education-development/learning/distance-education-do-students-believe-it-should-be-fun