Is silence a barrier to learning?

lurking1By Carola Eklund

During the last 15 years of my career I have taken part in a lot of online courses and webinars. I have always had the intention to learn something from the experience, though not always exactly what the course or webinar organisers intended me to learn. Sometimes I have decided that I want to improve my language fluency, understand the course design or something else that was outside the true scope of the activity.

Most of the time I’m not a person who wants to take a major role in a group and I’m not comfortable speaking a foreign language. These factors together with my sometimes peripheral objectives, mentioned above, can sometimes mean that I am perceived as a passive and silent learner.

When I was invited to participate in this Silent Learners project I felt that there were many questions and reflections that I could answer from my own experience. The project’s aim was to explore, understand and clarify what seems to be a structural change in how adult learners participate in education today. In the project group there was the idea that it would be possible to make tools both to identify and activate silent learners and also to predict them. This would in turn help teachers on how they could activate all learners in a class.

My first reaction when I started analysing these aims was that I fitted in well to the description of a silent learner and I began to wonder if this made me a weaker member of a study group. Is it wrong to be passive?

The project is now in its final phase and we haven’t succeeded in identifying any specific factor about whether it’s better to be active or passive in educational activities like webinars. We participate for different reasons, objectives and with different backgrounds and we learn what is relevant for us right now or what we know that we will need in the future.

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is whether being active or passive is always up to the learner. Maybe it is. But there are also a number of external factors to consider such as the context and the teacher. I think we are all more or less active/passive during different parts of a webinar for instance. Maybe the speaker talks for a long time, has a monotone voice and very little is happening on the screen. How large is the risk that your thoughts, and those of your fellow participants, fly away for a while and your concentration is lost for a while? Is that passivity? Or if you spend time trying to put what you hear into context in order to gain a better understanding? Does that make you a passive learner or mean that you learn less?


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