By Taru Kekkonen
In the project, we had this brilliant idea to interview some of our silent online learners to learn more about them and their ways of learning. Our humble aim was in this way to learn to support their learning better. We were curious to hear how they learn best, how they want or don’t want to participate, what encourages them to and what discourages them from taking active part in online learning sessions. A nice idea, yes, but the problem is that the silent learners are usually not very eager to give interviews… Anyhow, we contacted some online students that we identified as silent learners i.e. learners who pass courses and make progress in their studies but seem to be passive when it comes to taking active part in real time online events or online discussions. And we did get to talk to a few students. Even if the interviews were not so numerous, they showed us clearly that we are not talking about one category in which we could place all these silent students but about individuals who all have a different story to tell and individual reasons why to remain silent online.
All interviewed students were adults. They all said that it is simply easier to study independently at their own pace because the time they can spend on studying varies from day to day and week to week. This means that they either can’t or don’t want to commit themselves to other students’ or teachers’ schedules and fixed points of time.
One student considered his communications skills as poor. “I have quite a lot of self criticism and I think a lot what is appropriate to say in which situation. That is why spontaneous discussion is difficult for me and I often feel an outsider because of this.” Another student told that his depression and other mental problems prevent him from taking active part. He also said to be afraid of remaining an outsider in groups. A third student considered himself an introvert and said that he has no need to express himself loud among others.
Many of us have the experience that it is easier to take active part in face to face meetings than online. Anyway, one student gave a totally different aspect to this. Even if he was also identified as a silent learner by the teachers, he said that he is more courageous to express himself online than in face to face situations. He explained that he had been bullied earlier at school and that’s why he now doesn’t have the courage to open his mouth when face to face. In online events the situation changes. He said that it is easier for him to take part in discussions when he doesn’t see the expressions, reactions and gestures of other participants.
All of the interviewed students valued the learning events organized by the staff. They said that participating in online learning events – even if silently – adds to their motivation. They regarded the events as useful and felt that they get help and peer support.
Even if we might not have made any radical new discoveries through the interviews, I feel that the understanding of our silent learners has once more grown a bit deeper. The lesson I personally learned is that we should respect the various kind of learners and their individual ways of learning. They all seem to have a reason for not taking active and loud part. That is why it might not be that smart to put too much energy on trying to make each and everyone participate in the same way i.e. actively, but to focus on offering and supporting individual learning paths for individual learners instead.