Are We Having Fun Yet?


Karen Costa and Clea Mahoney

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If we know that fun is a powerful, evidence-based pedagogical tool, shouldn’t fun also be part of the instructional design (ID) process? How can we create a fun learning experience if we aren’t having some fun ourselves? We believe fun is an integral part of teaching and learning as well as the instructional design process. As you think about the opportunities that you have to incorporate fun into your design and teaching work, allow us to take a few minutes to elaborate on how and why we prioritize fun when developing quality, online learning experiences — including our preparation for the upcoming OLC workshop on Facilitating Live, Online Sessions.


I used to hide my silliness, striving for professional perfectionism and poise. That didn’t really get me anywhere in my career. In fact, it led to boring work assignments that allowed no room for creativity. And who could blame my supervisors? They probably thought I wanted to be bored because that’s what I exuded. Over time, I opened up and began to experiment with what degree of goofiness I could “get away” with. In higher education, as it turns out, I can get away with a lot. I’m not aiming to entertain, but rather to find meaningful ways to connect with my colleagues and learners, whether I’m preparing for a workshop, webinar, or meeting for staff or faculty. Here are just a few ways I incorporate fun.

When delivering a presentation, match your slides. Here’s a photo of me facilitating a workshop for NYU’s Women in Technology community on “Pink Collar Labor.” Of course, I went with a hot pink slide theme and matched my outfit and lipstick. My co-facilitator dressed the part, too, and I firmly believe that our “pink presence” provided an easy way for our audience to warm up to us by commenting on our commitment to the workshop theme. 

Bring humor into your work with technology. I dressed up as Zoom for Halloween. This is 100% an idea graciously borrowed from a colleague who might’ve been too intimidated to follow through on it herself. Luckily, I have no fear of embarrassing myself at work, and I got compliments from all levels of staff, from my student employees to my colleagues to the Associate Vice President of our organizational work unit in NYU IT. Fun has the power to contribute to a sense of community, and in this case, it also reaffirmed my suspicion that we all like to have fun, even at work.


If you’ve ever had any contact with me, whether in real life or online, you probably know that one of my favorite books is John Medina’s Brain Rules. Medina is a fun scientist (that’s not an oxymoron) who writes in such an accessible and engaging way about how the brain works and learns that he’s able to take this highly complex organ that lives in our heads and turn it into a field of possibilities and hope. One of Medina’s brain rules is this: “We don’t pay attention to boring things.” Fun is one of many ways to get and keep learners’ attention. In short, it’s a smart pedagogical choice. But also, why not have fun? As a teacher and course designer, I have lots of choices. If one of those choices is between content that’s interesting but not fun and content that’s both interesting and fun, why not opt for the fun? Life is tough, and it seems to me that the world could use some more laughter. 


For example, when Clea and I were brainstorming about how to best present our video introductions to our learners, we weighed the pros and cons of various types of introductions. Ultimately, we decided on a Powtoon (an animated video) because we wanted to set a tone of fun right from the start of our workshop. Does that mean that there’s a video of me with a giant, animated head that will be floating around the internet? It sure does. If my learners are engaged and having a laugh, it will be worth it. 

Our Fun Design Process

As you might gather, fun is a core part of both of our personalities, and in order to be authentic in the design process, when approaching our development work with OLC, we made a pact to have fun with our work, our learners, the content, and each other, while always keeping a laser-focus on learning at the forefront our design blueprint. Here’s how we integrated fun into the ID process:

  • We had a kick-off call with our OLC Instructional Designer and Project Manager in Zoom, where we got to know each other and connect as human beings before diving into the work. This, of course, included talking about our pets. Having some fun together was critical in building trust and maintaining momentum. Does it take a few more minutes to get to know one another and share a laugh at the start of a new project? Sure. We believe that it also saves time, because we are motivated to work harder, and we are proactive about creating an environment of support that fuels the design process. 
  • We had regular one-on-one meetings in Zoom to talk through our fun, sometimes weird, ideas for the workshop. Asynchronous collaboration and the siloed work of instructional design can be lonely, so we sought opportunities to connect as much as possible (which was no easy feat considering both of our active schedules). We both came to look forward to these meetings, and again, while they took time, they also saved time. We got a boost of energy from our fun time spent “together” in Zoom.
  • We shared clear, professional documentation with our OLC Instructional Designer and kept our weird, wild, color-coded (Karen is pink and Clea is purple), miles-long Google Docs for internal planning and collaboration. We held nothing back on those internal docs, from “shower thoughts,” to funny YouTube videos, to memes, to long comment chains that felt more like fun chats with a friend than requests for getting the work done. Within all of these creative and playful musings, there was always a specific nugget of content that we would discover that was the perfect fit for one of our learning objectives. Our fun foundation allowed us to generate lots of ideas, a critical part of the design thinking process. 

There is a moment during any course design process when your brain feels like it’s being pulled in a million directions. It can be overwhelming. There are also long stretches where the only thing that will get you out from behind the proverbial 8-ball is a ton of detail-oriented work. Bringing fun to your work, whether you’re flying solo or working with a team, can help you stay motivated, to find joy in the challenge, and to gain the energy you need to create excellent and engaging courses for your learners. 

Karen Costa is a career higher educator with a passion for supporting students and faculty, particularly in the online learning environment. Her work is centered around teaching college success strategies to first-year students, online pedagogy, and faculty development.

Karen’s first book, 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos (Stylus, February 2020), focuses on helping faculty and teachers to make creative use of videos in their classrooms.

Karen is a staff writer for Women in Higher Education. Her writing has also appeared in Inside Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, On Being, and Faculty Focus. She is involved in various faculty development initiatives including as a facilitator for Faculty Guild

Karen graduated with honors from Syracuse University with a bachelor of arts in sociology. She holds an M.Ed. in higher education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a CAGS in educational leadership from Northeastern University. A proud lifelong learner, Karen recently received a Professional Certification in Trauma and Resilience from Florida State University, and will complete her Certificate in Neuroscience, Learning, and Online Instruction from Drexel University in early 2020. Karen is a certified yoga teacher and Level 1 Yoga for Arthritis teacher. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Connect with Karen at or on Twitter @KarenRayCosta.


Clea Mahoney has over 3 years of webinar facilitation experience and serves as the Training Lead for the Instructional Technology Services team at New York University. She has developed and delivered engaging and interactive one-hour webinars for faculty, administrative staff, and colleagues, each session focusing on a specific set of goals depending on audience needs. Clea graduated with honors from Drew University (Bachelor of Arts in French) and from Drexel University (Master of Science in Library & Information Science), and is currently ecstatic about collecting yet another degree: Master of Arts in Digital Media Design for Learning.


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