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Digital icebreakers

We’re all familiar with the use of icebreakers in workshops, seminars and meetings. Usually it’s a rapid-fire series of names, disciplines and role titles. They can also take alternative forms like an individual task that is then shared with the group in turn. For some, icebreakers are an essential means of promoting friendly interactions, while for others it’s seen as a waste of time. The former operates in the realm of human emotions and social decorum and the latter is predicated on functionalist values. When it comes to the new term, particularly our new student intake, how can we strike a balance between ensuring we get the most learning opportunity from our timetabled sessions while also supplementing the diminished social connections our students would otherwise make.

In the spirit of having a bit of fun with digital-only teaching spaces, I propose some ways to lighten the online experience and take advantage of digital social norms.


The lexicon of communication is continuously changing as new technologies and social norms shift in the ebb and flow of all cultures. Emojis have existed since the late nineties and blossomed in use through social media platforms and texting. As an informal means of communication, they have been held apart from many mainstream traditional learning spaces. But now may be the time to embrace them for the simplistic service they provide in gauging student emotional responses to learning content. 

A sea of raised hands is a familiar depiction of teaching in face to face classrooms. In the digital learning environment (DLE), this is replaced with thumbs up emojis and waving hands icons. On the surface, this appears to be a smooth replacement for learners notifying their teacher than they have a question or wish to speak. Yet, the many subtleties of human body language are lost in the shift to online spaces. Shuffling seats, barely audible grumbles, darting eyes, and furrowed brows are hard to discern in a mosaic of small video frames, and entirely impossible to notice when both student cameras and microphones are turned off. In digital only contexts, this expressive language disappears. How much this impacts your teaching depends, of course, on the nature of your practice. 

For example, if you are teaching using BlackBoard Collaborate, you could invite students to use the right-hand side chat box for emoji communication only. It’s quicker to review than reading text and as such, potentially less distracting. Students could be directed to indicate if they are confused 😕, frustrated 😖, surprised 😮, or any other type of response to the class content. Using emojis like this allows the cohort to see each other’s emotions in a way that is otherwise impossible and can promote empathy and comradeship. 


Recently, our PVC-Education Tansy Jessop presented a great way for students to engage with critical thinking on academic journal articles: the instructor provides students with the article all except for the abstract; students then write their own abstracts based on their understanding of the paper and later compare their proposal to the original.  

With this in mind, I thought why not get students to review the segments of articles (introduction, method, theory, results, discussion, etc.) and represent them as a series of memes, one meme for each segment. Yes, it sounds silly, but it also promotes both critical and creative thinking. Students sharing and comparing their meme series to each other would certainly find it at least amusing and provide them with a new way to discuss academic content. 

Example meme.

Memes provide a means to distil complicated information into an expressive and easily digestible form. Beyond article reviews, memes can also be embedded within discussions of public engagement and how your subject communicates on informal digital forums. 

Bespoke memes can be edited using free apps and online platforms . Students should be directed to understand the social context of the meme before they submit their series, using sites such as KnowYourMeme. Likewise, gifs could be used in the same way. You can readily find databases of gifs online, such as giphy.   


It’s worth noting that there are downsides to how we use digital content, including critiques of “digital blackface” (Jackson 2017). Rather than shy away from employing emotionally expressive digital content, we can instead use our pedagogy to purposefully engage with these discourses and enrich the curriculum experience for students while promoting their long-term digital literacy and global cultural awareness.  

Dr Aisling Tierney, BILT Lecturer

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