What do we mean by silent learner?

There are a number of closely related terms that are used to describe learners who do not actively participate in class discussions or take visible initiatives with their peers. In the traditional classroom there have always been passive or silent learners who never make a vocal contribution unless specifically asked. In many traditional classes these passive learners outnumber the active ones, some of whom tend to dominate all class discussion, but they are visible and the teacher is usually aware of the passive majority. In an online context this group becomes almost invisible; almost never contributing to online forums or group work but still submitting their assignments on time and clearly learning despite their low social profile.

These learners are often referred to in online courses as lurkers, a rather pejorative term for someone who “lurks” in the shadows without revealing their identity and whose intentions are not clear. Courses like MOOCs have typically thousands of such learners who register but leave very few traces of their progress. However, being passive does not mean that they are not learning, they may learn just as much as more active participants but they do not want their learning to be publicly visible. Some have suggested more positive terms such as peripheral learners or silent learners. In this project we have tried to focus on silent learner to stress that learning happens even if it is not so visible.

Why are some learners silent?

There are many reasons for not being active in an educational context:

  • Introvert who genuinely prefers to work alone without disturbance
  • Unclear about how to be active in an online course – unfamiliar with the ‘rules’ or etiquette of participation
  • Waiting for a cue to participate
  • Need more time to think before contributing
  • Feel overwhelmed and ignored by the extrovert members of the group. Hard to make yourself heard
  • Leave the course when you have learned what you want/need
  • Only interested in getting a certificate and want to progress as fast as possible
  • Shy and nervous about participation in general
  • Low confidence – any setback can confirm feeling of inadequacy.
  • Due to perceived language difficulties
  • Forced/obliged by employer to participate in course
  • Cultural reasons – not polite to question the teacher or start talking without permission
  • Ill, frustrated, depressed.
  • Lesson/course is simply boring 
  • In corporate learning there is fear of making a mistake in front of a senior colleague

Some of these reasons can be taken into consideration when designing a course whereas others are hard or impossible to anticipate. In the following sections in this guide we will offer some ideas on how to make your course more inclusive in terms of silent learners.