Project story – from tools to guide


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The main objective of the project was to try to understand what seems to be a structural change in the way adult learners participate in educational activities. For decades, we have considered passivity in educational activities as a waste of time.

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 dared to ask questions or actively participate in discussions. Now, with increased opportunities to participate in various forms of learning online, things change. Passive participants can become very visible.

Research on participation in online learning, our own experience and data gathered through this project, suggests that some adult learners find value in engaging ‘passively’ in all sorts of learning situations. In the project we investigated participants reasons for ”lurking”. We tryed to find out what the incentive is for people’s (continued) participation without participating “actively”. We entered into discussions with our participants, using various methods, and asked them why they participate in all the webinars and virtual courses we are arranging for the institutions participating in the project.

We wanted to know if lurking actually is working.

Through questionnaires, interviews, webinars and conferences we came into dialogue with students, teachers and researchers investigating the engagement of both passive as well as active learners. Most of the findings met our expectations. However, we were surprised about the high number of different reasonable reasons given for participating passively in learning sessions. Some of the reasons named (many of which came at no surprise to us) are:

  • They do not follow the learning activity closely, they do perhaps other things simultaneously(“multitasking”).
  • They keep a close eye on the activity, but do not feel that they know enough to get involved in the discussion.
  • They keep a close eye on the activity, but because of introverted personality traits they just listen and reflect, and possibly they follow up later
  • They do not feel confident because the presentations are not in their mother tongue

However, another finding, which also is no big surprise but became very visible in our investigations, is that being passive seems to be an active choice. Passive learners are not always passive. Passive learners often actively decide to be passive. That is an interesting contradiction which gives the sentence in the project application high relevance:

“… 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’…”

The planned tools have been developed and tested. What has become a small surprise is that the tools developed for activating the students and the response rate for answering the questionnaires etc., have had most success in relation to the active participants. This might seems obvious but we are a bit disappointed even if it has no significant influence on the findings in our project.

The project was expected to be made in three ”phases”:

  • development of methods for identifying passive adult learners
  • development of a method for analyzing the participant’s behavior
  • development of tools for predicting passive learners.

However, we found that it was difficult to distinguish phase 1 from phase 2 so we decided to develop the two first phases simultaneously.

Towards the end of the project we decided to twist the focus of phase three from predicting the appearance of passive learners to developing ways of preparing for a diverse group of participants with diverse needs and thus predicting the need for more individualized or diverse learning resources that support silent learners.