Is lurking ever indefensible?

I have been thinking about this question since my last post. I notice that discussion on George’s blog has ceased and he has moved on, but the PLENK2010 NRC research team are continuing to pursue the question through two online surveys – one for active participants and one for self-confessed lurkers. The problem is that I don’t see this as an ‘either/or’ issue. More I see ‘active’ and ‘lurking’ as being on either end of a continuum, along which we will move in either direction, depending on the circumstances.

Another difficulty I have with the surveys is that the researchers have already defined what they mean by ‘lurker’ and ‘active participant’, whereas I feel that the discussions that have been taking place have shown that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what these terms mean. For example they state that ….

In this context, active participation includes contributions to discussion forums in the course Moodle, blogs, twitter, social networking sites, and in the production of artifacts …

I myself did not contribute to the Moodle discussion forums, Twitter, social networking site or the production of artefacts in PLENK2010, but I did blog – so does that make me an active participant? Lurking is defined by the NRC researchers in this context as

‘passive attention, silent participation, and/or self-directed learning.’

To some extent I did all of these – so does that make me a lurker?

For me it might have been more interesting to learn whether people consider themselves to be ‘lurkers’ and the reasons for their self-judgement and whether or not they can justify their online behaviour, which brings me back to the title of this post – Is lurking ever indefensible?

After much thought since my last post, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to this question has to be ‘No’ – i.e. lurking can always be defended. Why do I think this? Because I believe that learning should be in the control of the learner, which includes a choice of whether to lurk or not – although as a teacher of young children and adults I would always want to point out to lurkers the possible consequences of their choices and actions.

However, as we have seen from George Siemens’ blog post, active participants can find lurkers very irritating, particularly if assessment is involved. In response to my last post ‘In defense of lurking’ , Eduardo asked how we should assess lurkers’ participation. The bigger question for me is – should we assess participation? This has always been difficult, particularly where collaborative assessed group work is concerned – but if we believe that learners should have control over their own learning, why should we force them to work in groups for an assessment when they might prefer to work alone? Why can’t we give them the choice? So my answer would be that we don’t have to assess participation. Assessment should focus on the outcome which meets the learning objective. How learners want to arrive at that outcome should be up to them. As Heli points out in her comment on my last blog post, there are many reasons why people choose to participate in the way in which do and they must be allowed to find their own way.

I think this whole issue of whether or not we should tolerate ‘lurking’ comes very much down to issues of control. This is so ingrained as a teaching behaviour that it is very difficult for teachers to let go of or even fully recognise. Ultimately, lurkers may threaten a teacher’s authority and control. Is this the real issue rather than the lurking per se?

7 thoughts on “Is lurking ever indefensible?

  1. suifaijohnmak December 11, 2010 / 12:35 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    You might have noted my response to the post by George here http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/plenk2010-personal-learning-networks-and-legitimate-peripheral-participation/
    “if we believe that learners should have control over their own learning, why should we force them to work in groups for an assessment when they might prefer to work alone? Why can’t we give them the choice?” I share your views on this, and that’s why I keep on stating learner autonomy as the essential principle of connectivism – that learning theory should be based on learner-centred principles.
    “I think this whole issue of whether or not we should tolerate ‘lurking’ comes very much down to issues of control.” I do hope my current research on the Design and Delivery on MOOC would shed more light on this.
    Thanks Jenny for your sharing.
    John

  2. Alan Cooper December 11, 2010 / 11:10 pm

    The open web is open for anyone to look at or link to without any expectation or constraint, but it is also possible to set up private discussions, and IF access to a discussion is provided conditional on participation then I think it is fair to object to lurkers. (One situation in which this might be reasonable is if the discussion involved sensitive personal issues which participants only wanted to reveal to others who would share in return)

    But in PLENK, so far as I recall, there was no such restriction and it appeared at the outset that any level of participation would be acceptable (including none). So I was surprised to see George objecting to “lurkers”. (It would have been fine to suggest that they were failing to get the most out of the course, but not to characterize their behaviour as unacceptable.)

  3. Heli Nurmi December 13, 2010 / 9:02 am

    Hi Jenny,
    I agree with you in all parts of your post:

    1) it might have been more interesting to learn whether people consider themselves to be ‘lurkers’ and the reasons for their self-judgement and whether or not they can justify their online behaviour
    – I was away half of the course but consider myself as an activist, why?
    2) lurking can always be defended. Why do I think this? Because I believe that learning should be in the control of the learner, which includes a choice of whether to lurk or not …
    That is it.

    But how about ghost writers of academic essays or research? They follow my blog and send thanks – comments every now and then. I consider their comments as spam and do not publish. They copy my thoughts and are happy to use them in their writings, it does not bother me. Are they lurkers? They tell they follow me, so they are not?

    Perhaps George means something like this, I do not know.
    Good questions, Jenny

  4. ctscho December 13, 2010 / 5:15 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    Thank you for making very important points in your last two posts on the concerns around “lurking.” It is taking me a long time to develop a calm and balanced perspective in the wake of George’s initial post. I have been working, with only moderate success, on placing my own reactions into a larger context, beginning with the broad question of whether this issue may suggest a “watershed” moment for the concepts of open learning and MOOCs, and/or whether further focus on the commentary around “lurking” might create a further and unnecessarily negative spiral around ideas that were simply the reflection of a bad day at the office. I have also tried to separate the content of concerns from the tone of expression, but admit this has been a struggle.

    I’ve found I generally best wait to comment on things that catch my attention until I can highlight more positive areas of agreement and leaven the rest with a bit of humor… but this hasn’t happened so far. And finally, there’s the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t paradox of commenting in public about this at all, as such comments have been taken in support of the argument against “lurking.”

    I’ve gotten to the point where I can articulate at least four puzzlements surrounding the discussion and surveys about “lurking” and participation in PLENK. Roughly stated, these are:

    1. How is a learning environment affected when an individual view of moral behavior is applied to other learners? Most examples I see in the study of worldview /belief systems is that while open systems can (choose to) accommodate many views, the imposition of some form of rigor or litmus test on others often leads to factionalism or splintering. I would further observe that this splintering might not necessarily affect individuals in their pursuits, but does hinder the creation of a critical or sustainable mass.
    2. While I understand the desire and possible institutional need to develop metrics for such things as MOOCs, if one were to agree that there is such a thing as “lurking,” regardless of whether it is “good” or “bad,” how many “true” lurkers would feel compelled or inclined to step out of their lurking to participate in a survey?
    3. When a prominent member of a MOOC community or network condemns lurking, how willing are individuals going to be to self-identify as lurkers for the purposes of a survey? What happens to people who have already identified themselves as such, only to find it violates a community leader’s standards?
    4. Does the very notion and language implications of “lurking” contain such enormous presuppositions that any research or commentary about it (including my own) is problematic, misleading or moot?

    Still thinking.

  5. Edgar Altamirano December 16, 2010 / 12:28 am

    I think there is no reason to discuss about lurking learners. Any student in PLENK has a genuine interest or curiosity enough to enroll in PLENK. If a student has no interest then he would not being loosing his/her time in the Course.
    I am a lurker and I love read and learn alone, taking knowledge and reflecting later in order to apply this knowledge to my own teaching and personal growing learning.
    Will you discriminate me?

  6. gibirger December 16, 2010 / 3:04 pm

    Lurking is allright. We all do it and did it either in coferences, courses or in PLENK2010, where learning was actually in the control of the learner. This is the big challenge of a MOOC. The learner has to be in charge of everthing by himself, but is unable to control every corner of activity.
    You confessed, that you did not contribute to the Moodle discussion forums, Twitter, social networking site or the production of artefacts in PLENK2010. This was your decision. Your questioning came up in forums the 2nd, 5th and 10th.
    Of course lurkers are learning, but they are mostly reading. Until now readers are visiting my blog via פΛenK, the one, where I used to aggregate everything new to myself, and which turned out to become and artisan blogging site.
    But here is the wide difference between your understanding and mine. An active participant is creating history, a lurker may only nibble at it. More over a lurker has unresolved questions, whereas the active participant can be proud, knowing what a PLE or a PLM is – and in the best case found a PLN.

  7. Paul Left February 16, 2011 / 5:28 am

    Q: Is lurking ever indefensible?

    I say ‘no’ – we need to allow for the diversity of learners, many of whom (as others have suggested) are not ready to contribute or for some reason don’t want to be active in a particular community.

    That said, some communities might want to insist that membership is dependent on being or at least becoming active. If that requirement was clearly published up-front I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

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