Reclaiming Lurking


Lurking is a potential problem for theories of social constructivism and principles of active learning. It’s also a problem for data analytics – if the student is not VISIBLE, how do we KNOW that they are learning? The invisible are easy to ignore, easy to problemetise, easy to marginalise, easy to other, easy to shame. It is tempting to chivvy them into participation, but participation without intrinsic engagement and motivation is futile, is facile, is inauthentic. A pedagogic approach that emphasises the visible over all else ignores autonomy, dismisses reasons, denies that another story might exist. This type of approach can force us all to join in the jolly learning games FOR OUR OWN GOOD.

All of this makes me shudder with memories of the forced jollity of childhood – the insistence upon JOINING IN – no sitting in the corner READING quietly while the rest of the (good) children are PLAYING NICELY together. (If you know Joyce Grenfell you will hear her voice here.) I felt odd. I am not shy, yet for most of my life I had no way of describing my need to sometimes pause and reflect before speaking. Now I know that I am not alone – that others (sometimes) feel as I do. But I digress.

When we other the silent participants we risk confusing what is countable, what is trackable, what is noticeable,  for what is important – we risk confusing meaningful learning with what is easy to assess. But learning is not a counting noun – Dave Cormier taught us that. And, if we are not careful, we send students the message that spending time in quiet reflection is somehow wrong, that spending time learning conventions is wrong, that watching is cheating, that this behaviour is FREELOADING and that is JUST NOT CRICKET.

Yet learning often takes time. Thoughts need to percolate. Fine wine is not made overnight. this blog post, for example, began with a discussion on Twitter, and has been knocking around in my head ever since.

So I am stating, here and now, that I am reclaiming lurking. I am reclaiming the behaviour, and I am reclaiming the word. Lurking is allowed. Lurking. Is. Allowed. There, I said it aloud (lol).

I’ve written about this with others before. I’ve used Lave and Wenger’s idea of legitimate peripheral participation to suggest that lurking can be a legitimate strategy for those new to a community and its norms. I’ve talked about how our Facebook groups can help shyer students, and those without English as a native language, to take their time to respond in their own way. I’ve run a Twitter chat to talk in more detail about this. I’m not saying anything new. But the current emphasis on student engagement and active learning makes me want to emphasise this more. Lurking is a legitimate behaviour. It is something we all do from time to time. I lurk, you lurk, we all lurk. (Note, by the way, that I am talking about a behaviour here, and not a type of person – lurking is relational, is situational, is context dependent.)

We learn a lot by doing, I know. We should encourage our students to participate. We should ensure that the digitally shy can be helped to find their voice, that students build their digital capabilities as well as their academic ones. All of these will help them both within academia and beyond it. But any insistence on one size fitting all, of active learning being the only ‘proper’ way of learning, needs to stop.

So the question becomes, I think: how do we, as compassionate educators, allow students opportunities to learn what, when and how they want to learn?

Image of Cagney, lurking in our garden

This entry was posted in #CLMOOC, #rhizo15, Academia, Critical pedagogy, Facebook, Learning, Online learning, Peer interaction, PhD, Teaching and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Reclaiming Lurking

  1. I am agree with your sentiments entirely but I argue that lurking is a valid active learning strategy. As you say, legitimate peripheral participation confirm this, as do situated learning, and cognitive apprenticeship. Our challenge, then, given that active learning in my book is student-centre, is how much to intervene as facilitator/tutor/peer? Can we as active learning communities foster an inclusive and engaging learning environment that reassured the anxious learner and respects the quiet observer/lurker?

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      Yes, you are absolutely right. I’m actually wondering if active learning is an oxymoron – is there such a thing as passive learning?

      • amiddlet50 says:

        [Apologies for previous typos! eyesight, smart screens…] Well, in the most cited description of Active learning by Bonwell & Eison(1991), their first characteristic is ‘Students are involved in more than passive listening’. So the notion of active-passive is another unhelpful binary, but it serves to point us in the right direction.

  2. There is also the potential to be able to summarize the group consensus by listening to all others before speaking out at or near the end. That ability DEPENDS on good listening (lurking) since it does not involve staking out an individual perspective too soon and then, perhaps, having to work to defend it.

    Ultimately, listening and condensing/correlating the participation of others is a significant skill…one which should be cultivated by educators themselves, especially administrators.

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      That’s an interesting one – thank you!

    • amiddlet50 says:

      ‘Lurking’ is a derogatory term and so lessens the value of what we are talking about – ‘observation’ may be better or even something like ‘constructive observation’ or ‘purposeful observation’ (?) indicating that this kind of observation has a positive intent and potentially mutually useful outcomes.

  3. charlenedoland57 says:

    I may get on a high horse here, so my apologies in advance.

    1. Any educator who has not read Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” needs to. She also wrote “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids,” which I have not read but presume touches on many of the same points. Society values talkers, whereas observers/thinkers (lurkers) bring so many gifts that are undervalued or ignored.
    2. You are absolutely right, Sarah, that “lurker” and “shy” are not synonyms.
    3. One of my sons is an introvert (who loves to discuss any topic one-on-one!). He is the best thinker I know (yes, I am biased, but honestly believe this). Because he observes (lurks?). And thinks about things from many angles and points of view. And doesn’t try to “fit in,” instead stays true to himself. I hope one day an employer will recognize and value these traits.
    4. I about went through the roof a year or two ago when a teacher using project-based learning expressed surprise and consternation when she surveyed her students, because the introverts often were interested in being team leaders. She felt they wouldn’t have the requisite skills. I explained to her that the introverts (lurkers) often DO have excellent skills to lead teams, because they observe and understand the big picture, team dynamics, potential problems, etc.
    5. Bill Gates, Larry Page, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk…
    6. I have a couple of “friends” on Facebook who are lurkers, but not really. I classify them as stalkers, because they relish checking out what other people are doing, but rarely let themselves be seen. I consider this different than lurking, because true lurkers enter the scene and conversation, just in different ways/times than the non-lurkers.

    Thanks for listening!

    • amiddlet50 says:

      Interesting. So intent is important in understanding the value of lurking/stalking – but only if a judgement needs to be made.

      • NomadWarMachine says:

        I think intent is probably always relevant. Thanks Charlene, this is helpful. So the lurker/stalker distinction suggests to be that the former might be characterised as members, in a sense, while the latter are not? At any rate there is an emotional difference, maybe?

        • charlenedoland57 says:

          Yes, intent is definitely important. Any relationship requires reciprocation. When someone makes their presence known (e.g. “liking” a statement/post), yet never reveals anything of themselves in any form, my hackles go up and I put them in the stalker category. You, Sarah, may “lurk,” but you also participate, regularly contributing to conversations and being “seen” in a variety of spaces.

  4. ltaylerson says:

    Really enjoyed reading this blog and found it really valuable, Sarah – equally Charlene’s comment. My thesis involves attempting to capture the value of FE educators’ informal learning (via Tweetchats and the like). I struggled to find lurkers on events such as UKFEchat, cus, well, how??

    By talking about my research in more formal spaces, 2 lurkers ‘revealed themselves’.

    In both cases, it seems impostor syndrome held them back and they were shy of commenting, only to find that others then said what they had planned to and received acclaim for it.

    Rather than acting as an impetus to participate, these events seemed to spur further feelings of guilt and inadequacy and served to reduce the chances of future participation. One labels herself as somewhat introverted, the other is anything but – it is the digital space and feelings of inadequacy around the @ and #ness of it all that deter her still.

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      Yes, it’s really hard to find the lurkers. We found some by sending an open link to a survey to a hashtag, and using SNA to narrow them down.

  5. Kay Oddone says:

    I have really enjoyed reading this post. I think that lurking (or ‘percolating’ as I prefer to call it) is an important part of learning. We all (whether extroverted or introverted) need varying amounts of time to take in and process the large amounts of information flowing through our learning networks. Some need to spend more time percolating than others.

    The time when I think it becomes less helpful is when that is all that the learner does. Some contribution/participation is necessary in the learning process. If one only ever absorbs and never shares back their thinking, how do they test their learning for misunderstandings or misconceptions? When do they ‘give back’ to the community or network that they have taken so much from?

    Not everyone has to be the leader, or take a major role in participating, but perhaps if a learner is finding themselves ALWAYS lurking and NEVER participating, they should consider why this is the case and if all of their learning needs are being met.

  6. Pingback: Evidencing Learning – TweetChats, ‘Lurking’ and the Value of Reflection – Swansea Academy of Learning and Teaching

  7. Pingback: Evidencing Learning – TweetChats, ‘Lurking’ and the Value of Reflection – SALT Blog

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