Institute of Education


New project explores how online jokes improve digital literacy and learning

20 January 2017

Happy school children

A new project led by Professor Rose Luckin, UCL Knowledge Lab, will explore how online jokes improve digital literacy and learning skills amongst young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the UK and the Philippines. 

The project will draw attention to the ambiguity of language and facilitate comprehension of non-literal meanings, which are often encapsulated in jokes. There will be a specific focus on jokes that have a double meaning, for example: "Why do cows have bells? Because their horns don't work" or "Why don't leopards escape from the zoo? Because they are always spotted."

For Professor Luckin, this double meaning encourages valuable discussion around language: "The jokes teach the learners that language is so much more than just decoding letters. Jokes are a great place to start because they help the learners to visualise the scenarios and, most importantly, show that exploring meaning is fun."

Dr Kaśka Porayska-Pomsta, who will also be working on the project, said:

"The focus on non-literal meanings in teaching and learning comprehension is often ignored. As such, it misses an opportunity for developing children's understanding of layers in linguistic expression as well as, in the context of English as a second language, opportunities for exploring cultural similarities and differences in the way that humour is expressed.

"Furthermore, and equally important, is the fact that humour is a fantastic motivator for children, so the subject matter itself is intended to turn a routine and often boring experience of learning a language into something that children enjoy and want to do. So in this project, as well as helping children understand jokes in English, we will be paying attention to the cultural and motivational aspects of the experience that the focus on jokes may engender."

The two year project will start in April and is the first collaboration between the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Both countries will work with learners aged 11-12 years old and will use jokes that relate to their own cultures.

The project will aim to increase the learners' reading comprehension and digital skills through explaining the different ways in which digital technologies and media can be used. These skills are essential, particularly as children transition from primary to secondary school, where such skills, if well-developed can help them to progress.

Speaking of the project, Professor Luckin said:

"After being introduced to the power of jokes and language ambiguity by my colleague Dr Nicola Yuill nearly 20 years ago, I have been fascinated by the way that language ambiguity as expressed through jokes, varies across different cultures.

"Jokes engage children in wonderful discussions about language and humour as they explain what is funny to each other. I'm looking forward to finding out what Filipino children find funny in comparison to UK children, and vice versa. I'd like to understand the extent to which humour can be used on an international scale, and how best humour can support language comprehension with the aid of digital technology.

"We can use voice, image, video and text to help learners share and talk about what they find funny and we can connect learners globally. Young learners love sharing pictures and videos that are important to them using applications such as Instagram, so we will use their love of these activities to help them learn by scaffolding their learning through our own Artificially Intelligent (AI) application that takes #jokegram to a new level for learning."

The project draws on Professor Luckin's past collaboration with Dr Yuill at Sussex University, which revealed a clear link between a learner's understanding of the ambiguity in riddles and the development of language comprehension. The project also builds on Professor Luckin's work around digital technologies and AI, which has demonstrated that computers can effectively structure and support collaborative discussion.

The funding was awarded by the British Council's Newton Fund Institutional Links, which provides grants for the development of research and innovation collaborations between the UK and partner countries.