Understanding lurkers

There have been some great points made in the discussion that some have engaged in about ‘lurking’. One of the big problems with this discussion is that it is not representative of the group which is being discussed. How can we hear the voice of people who prefer to ‘observe/read’ rather than ‘talk/interact’? As Carmen asked in a comment on my blog post –

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?

Stephen Downes entered the fray at one point, with a fascinating observation –

And don’t think it isn’t participation – think of it as being akin to the role of scrutineer. My very act of watching has an impact (the desired impact) on the outcome of the proceedings.

This is in line with the Gulati research that Rita writes about on her site:

‘Lurking is not free-riding but a form of participation that is both acceptable and beneficial to most online groups. Public posting is only one way in which an online group can benefit from its members’ (Gulati, 2003, p. 51).

Rita also points to further work by Gulati which suggests that – self-directed learners will fall into the lurking category, and Carmen’s views are along similar lines –

I am inclined toward heutagogical views that suggest effective adult learning is largely achieved through challenging and understanding the self, and suggest that the act of self-challenge, more than any resulting artifact, is a useful and empowering model for others. (comment on blog post)

but Eva Birger (comment on blog post) suggests that lurking leads to a lesser learning experience

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. (Here she is talking about learning in PLENK2010)

Another point that has really struck me is this one made by Jakob Nielsen in his blogpost Participation Inequality: Encouraging more users to contribute – where he writes that:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action

but for me more significantly he makes the point:

The problem is that the overall system is not representative of average Web users. On any given user-participation site, you almost always hear from the same 1% of users, who almost certainly differ from the 90% you never hear from.

So what are the issues and why might it be worthwhile to find out more about lurkers? Here are some thoughts –

1.       If open courses – particularly open courses with no associated assessment or accreditation – are to become a route by which increasing numbers of people choose to learn, then course designers and facilitators will need to have clear in their own minds their expectations of participation and be able to justify their stance, which means knowing more about ‘lurkers’ and understanding why 90% of course members might choose to lurk.

2.       But what do we mean by participation? I notice that Rita talks about active participation. Is this different to just participation – and when does participation become non-participation?

3.       Stephen Downes has claimed that the very act of watching has an impact on the course. I have heard this argument before – but how does this happen and how does it affect the active participants?

4.       Perhaps the main issue lies around Jakob Nielsen’s comment about representation. For me it’s quite a thought that the ideas and learning of 90% of course members will not – from their own choosing – be represented. Perhaps this is one way in which they have an impact on a course. What effect does their ‘lurking’ have on the value of what is being learned in open courses by those who do actively post and interact?

5.       How will we ever be able to find out more about how the 90% of people who choose to ‘lurk’ learn, when they are the very people who are unlikely to step forward and tell us what they think?

I’ll be really interested to read the research findings from Rita and Helene’s surveys – but also feel like Carmen that there is scope for a more in depth ethnographic study on the lines of the one carried out by Keith Lyons on participation in sport (thanks to Carmen for pointing me to Keith’s blog post and to Keith for his post).

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?

Teachers talk too much

The CCK08 round up was an interesting meeting. It seems like it was held at a difficult time for some and clashed with their teaching commitments, so a few familiar faces were not present.

There was quite a lot of talk about assessment. I think it will be worth listening to the recording again to capture this conversation. 

Most intriguing was George’s apparent frustrations with lurkers. He thought that in the next run of the course they would have to do more to encourage participation – in his view people need to participate more to make the course work. ‘Lurking is not appropriate.’ George expects everyone to be transparent in their learning and by default become a teacher in the course.

There seemed to me to be loads of participation – both in the blogs and in the discussion forums.  I personally would not have coped with any more. I’m not sure what percentage of people were participating in blogs and forums – probably not the 10% that Nancy White recommends should be active in an online course – but then this wasn’t a course in the true sense of the word – or was it? This question of whether the word course should be used to decribe the CCK08 experience was also discussed.

Perhaps Stephen and George need to be really clear about whether they are running a course or not ; they do appear to have different views on it. If they are just establishing and managing a learning community or network, then I think participants would view their responsibilities differently. In a community or network, peripheral participation is legitimate (Wenger) as George acknowledged. Lurking (I prefer to think of it as reading or observing) is legitimate. People get drawn into conversations as and when they need them. Stephen seems happier with this than George.

However, in both a community and on a course, (but maybe not a network), there are leaders who try to draw in participants and increase levels of interactivity. This requires skills and ‘teacher-type’ interventions, whereas I think Stephen and George’s model was more – let them (the participants) get themselves organised into groups, decide for themselves where they want to communicate and get on with it.

So it seems to me that you can’t really have it both ways. Either you let participants just get on with it, in which case you leave them to lurk if they want to, don’t worry about it and are happy with whoever, however small the number, actively participates. Or you go for skilled teacher intervention. George stated that he wanted a less didactic style for the CCK08 ‘course’ where he and Stephen would become less prominent as the course progressed – but this ‘hands off’ approach isn’t something that just happens. It has to be cultivated by skilled facilitators/online teachers. In my experience as an online tutor, I have to work very hard at the beginning of a course, helping participants to make appropriate relationships, establishing an ethos of security, trust and mutual respect, and that once this is set up I can withdraw. But it doesn’t just happen. It depends on my initial interventions (and I don’t necessarily equate interventions with ‘talking’).

I agree that very few participants took the mic. in the synchronous Elluminate sessions, but I don’t think that is necessarily down to a lack of willingness to speak;  maybe more to the teaching style adopted for these sessions. It occurred to me yesterday that maybe it was a case of  ‘the teacher talks too much’. It was very noticeable in yesterday’s session that at the beginning of the session when there was only one tutor (George) participants took the mic. a lot more than they did at the end of the session when there were both George and Stephen, who then tend to talk to each other. 

There’s plenty of research around about teachers talking too much and there has been for many years. The original research showed that teachers are really surprised when they are observed and are given the evidence of exactly how much they do talk. Student teachers also always struggle to see that their job is not so much about their teaching, but about their learners’ learning and that if the focus is on learners’ learning, then the learners need more time to talk, even if this means tolerating silence while learners gather their thoughts.

So what I am saying is that if George and Stephen want more people to speak in Elluminate sessions, then perhaps the way in which the sessions are organised needs a rethink. Again, if they want more participation in the various communication groups, Ning, Facebook, Second Life, blogs, wikis, Moodle, then there might need to be more teacher intervention at the beginning of the course to establish this – but it seems to me that more teacher intervention is the antithesis to what the CCK08 experience (or whatever you want to call it) is all about.

So we are back to the tension between CCK08 being a course and the type of open learning experience it is trying to achieve. Not an easy one, for which there are no easy answers. Would a discussion about these very issues right at the beginning of the CCK08 course help?

I’ll be very interested to see how the course is run next time round at the end of this year.