Background – Silent learners

The project deals with silent or passive learning in online education for adults, also sometimes called “lurking”. The partners in the project have many years of experience arranging online webinars about and around educational subjects. In various relations, the partners have monthly or even weekly webinars in their individual networks. Several of them also have a long experience working together arranging webinars.

We have wondered why participants in these webinars participate consistently month after month usually without saying anything or showing other signs of activity, perhaps apart from writing «hi» and «Thank you» in a chat window. If they are inactive why do they then come repeatedly? In that case, why are they lurking? In this relation, it is worth mentioning that the participants in question are registered participants. People we know are busy, highly skilled and well educated. What do they get out of their lurking? If they get anything out of it – is it then right to label it with the negative label: lurking? What they are doing is perhaps learning or they might even be working. In both cases, their continued participation clearly indicates that they feel that they derive a benefit from their participation. Their «lurking» thus cannot be considered a failure and definitely not «drop out» if they just disappear when they have learned what they were coming for.

The year 2012 was, by some, labeled «the year of the MOOC». Suddenly online learning in the form of “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses) became a universal catchword, from university rectors to politicians, praised as the new panacea for adult and higher education. However, the following year – 2013 – was by some of the same… declared to be the year of the “death of the MOOC”. The reason being that MOOC providers experienced massive dropout rates from their courses. This area has also been the subject of research in the last three years and various theories about completion rates and learner retention have been discussed, notably Daniel (2012) and Clow (2013).

The main objective of the project is to clarify/explore/understand what seems to be a structural change in the way adult learners participate in educational activities. For decades, we have considered passive learners in educational activities as a waste of time. Repeatedly we tell the old Chinese proverb:  I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand (Confucius) emphasizing that active participation is paramount in learning.

Until recently, most people participated in learning events by going there physically. Learning meant attending courses, conferences, symposia and lectures in person. The fact that they were physically present counted as active participation though in practice only a few dare to ask questions or actively participate in discussions. Few would seriously consider finding ways of measuring “real” participation among participants who were physically present. However, with increased opportunities for people to participate in various forms of learning online things change. It becomes easier to measure active participation in learning offerings.

However, what the partners in this project have experienced in recent years is, that passive participation in many of the new types of virtual, ICT-based educational offerings seems to be increasing significantly. Statistics confirm this impression. Passive participation has become so significant that the behavior even has got its own name. Passive participants are called lurkers. In the research literature it has been coined: “Legitimate peripheral participation”. Martin Weller described them as drive-by learners:

“These are learners who are signing up because they can. It costs nothing to sign up, they can take a look, see if they like anything and move on. They may dip in and out over the course, taking bits they find engaging, or they may not even turn up at all. The financial and emotional commitment to formal education is much higher, making drive-by learners very rare.” (

This area is receiving increased research interest, notably a study from the Open University UK (Smith & Smith 2014). They observed an increasing amount of silent learners on some Open University courses and concluded that: … teaching and learning strategies need to be reconsidered, to encourage or increase ‘active engagement’. However, the data, alongside literature, also suggests that some adult learners may find value in engaging ‘passively’. From the perspective of a Higher Education (HE) institute such as the Open University, this may have implications for the tuition delivery strategy used to deliver the module material, as well as how staff development occurs for the tutors that deliver the material. For example, rather than focus a significant effort on encouraging adult learners to participate in active forum use, the emphasis may need to be shifted to ensuring that appropriate/sufficient material is available to ‘passive engagers’. (Smith, D. Smith, K. The case for ‘passive’ learning. The silent community of online learners, EURODL 2014) )

If the apparently inactive participation in our webinars has a positive impact on the participants, is it then right to consider lurkers on MOOCs, online courses or webinars as failures? Stephen Downes suggests that we view MOOCs as newspapers and traditional for-credit courses as novels. You start a novel with the intention of reading it all and if you don’t there was something wrong whereas you dip into a newspaper and read the parts that most interest you. The newspaper has not failed if some people only read one article whereas the novel has failed if you only read the first two chapters.

In this project we will investigate reasons for ”lurking”. We will try to find out what the incentive is for people’s (continued) participation without participating “actively”. We will do that partly entering into discussions with our participants, using various methods, and asking them why they participate in all the webinars and virtual courses we are arranging for the institutions participating in the project, and we will investigate courses, which are arranged by external institutions.

The knowledge we will get about these so-called “lurkers” will be used in a development process where we will experiment with various forms of participation and how we can use these (assumed) passive participants as resources on the training courses…

Gilly Salmon has some very interesting methods for activating online learners. Her five-stage model for online learning presents a framework for increasing learner engagement that is highly relevant to the aims of this project (see The project will explore and test her methods in practice. What structures do we need to provide scaffolding for “silent” learners? Libraries, adult education, online mentors and peer support are important aspects that need to be examined more. Many learners drop out because they simply don’t understand how to study online, are not native English speakers, are overawed by the other adult learners’ contributions and are afraid of asking stupid questions. Course designers must address these insecurities and one result of this project is to produce a booklet/toolbox of guidelines and methods for increasing learner engagement in online learning.

The course designers further must consider the importance of recognizing the skills learned when the learners’ drops out or general just are passive. A very important issue in this connection as well for the learners as for the institutions is if it in any way is possible to make recognitions of the skills learned by lurking. The dilemmas described opens the question if lurkers are learning or working. If that is the case, it must be considered how the institutions can make the recognitions of skills.

Project focus

The project will focus on what has been considered as a serious problem for many years in the educational circles – namely high drop-out rates in online courses. MOOCs often report completion rates as low as 3% and an average dropout rate of 88%. Distance courses regularly report completion rates starting from around 30%, and this has been considered as disastrous. However, taking into consideration how adult learners act today and what their intentions are for participating in lifelong learning events, combined with the viability of online courses, MOOCS, online communities of practice, webinars etc. and other educational offers, this project is questioning whether partial participation (passive or drop out) should considered as a failure at all.

The project, will explore the following hypothesis: Adult learners today take what they need from courses they attend – and not more. That they participate in courses in ways that suit their busy schedules, not in the way the educational institutions want. For many, certificates are of little value, they need the knowledge, ideas or competencies. The adult learners are not awarded for fulfilling the courses/MOOCs etc. The institutions are not the owners of their courses. It has become the adult learners. However, the educational institutions need the information to justify their activities and their existence. Therefore, the information about the motivation from the lurkers to participate on the courses is valuable for the institutions.

The focus in the project is so to say on a structural level. Is “lurking” just working with individual personalized learning? Individual personalized learning is what the educational institutions are arguing they are delivering though flexible online studies? We want to clarify if ”lurking” just is a specific version of flexible learning.

As another branch of the project, we will explore if we can organize online learning activities that would make silent learners feel more comfortable and included, and hence more inclined to active participation. Here is the dilemma: Should we accept silent learners the way they are – or should we try to “improve” them by activating them will be a driving question to be discussed and explored throughout the project.

In the project a wide range of online courses, MOOCs and learning and guidance networks will be investigated and our focus will be on the benefits these educational activities have for participants who only follow the courses in part, what reasons they give for participating and the effect of their participation in the learning event.

The dilemmas described open the question if lurkers are learning or even working. A very important issue for the learners as well as the institutions is if it is possible to make recognitions of the skills learned by lurking.