from lurking to learning

Techniques for encouraging engagement in online distanced learning

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David Alcock
25 March 2012

As we are working through H800 we are interested in encouraging our fellow students  to actively particiate in online discussions. 

Modern technologies offer amazing opportunities for collaboration and participation in the learning experience, but how can we ensure that all views are valued and everyone feels not only that they are welcome at the party, but that they want to be there?

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I also believe that the role of tutor is very important. He/ she must ensure that all members participate and get feed back for their participation.

Maria Leonidou
21:41 on 15 April 2012

I also believe that the role of tutor is very important. He/ she must ensure that all members participate and get feed back for their participation.

Maria Leonidou
21:41 on 15 April 2012

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John Baglow
8:17am 26 March 2012

Having started H800 recently, I had my first experience of forums. Although I didn't know what to expect, I found that the best strategy was to overcome my natural shyness and modesty (that's my story...) and just get posting. Like with anything new, it takes a while to get the hang of it, and I am still thinking about ways of making my contributions more useful to me but also more likely to produce useful feedback from the rest of the tutor group.

Up to now, encouraged by the wording of the activities we are given, I have tended to use the posts as a way of getting down a kind of summary of my reactions to the current topic, but I think I shall make a point of starting first with a reaction to something that has already been posted. That way, I hope to get into meaningful discussion with lots of members of the tutor group. 

Alex Bell
9:40am 26 March 2012

Hi David

Nice cloud idea.  Quite a provocative title, just what a debate needs! Good luck.

This made me think of a good discussion on this by David McConnell in his text: Implementing Computer Supported Cooperative Learning.

In a learning community, there can be a tensions between oppressive collectivism and healthy individualism; constructive community and selfish, unsupportive individualism (McConnell, p.117).

later he says

“In traditional classes learners are usually taught to think the same and feel differently, while in the learning community participants feel together but think differently” p.118.

he suggests

chiams can “help learners develop ways of thinking about the group, helps them develop appropriate maps and rules about the group, and helps them see that it is possible to work as a group.” p.118


John Baglow
11:08am 26 March 2012

I can see that getting students to work as a group is an important element in the learning process, especially given the emphasis nowadays on learning being a situated, participatory process. This applies in F2F (I picked that up from Educause!) as well as non-F2F. When Ofsted observe sessions, they want to see that all the learners in the group are engaged. I wonder how they would monitor an on-line course. 

Does anyone know of any on-line programmes being Ofsteded? 

John Baglow
11:08am 26 March 2012 (Edited 11:12am 26 March 2012)

So good I sent it twice! Sorry! I couldn't just delete the 2nd copy. I had to send something.

David Alcock
11:31am 26 March 2012

John, thanks for sharing.  Alex, yes we did want to be just a teeny bit provacative.  Those that met in/on elluminate on Sunday were discussing how we might get others involved in posting a little more frequently.    We were a bit concerned that those of us in a lucky position to be able to post quite early on each week might in some way be putting others off from contributing. 

So we thought of using this cloud discussion as a way to generate practical ideas for how we could become more inclusive.

John Baglow
7:57pm 27 March 2012

I have just been looking at the framework with the 3 axes (Individual-Social/Active-Passive/Information-Experience) Do you think it is important where  on the axis a student is operating? Is it better for the student to be more active rather than less? Is it better to be more social rather than less? Or should we be happy for our students to operate exactly how they want to? 

Nicola Morris
7:56pm 30 March 2012

Have the potential benefits of online learning for those who  have some social interaction difficulties ever been documented?  I'm thinking of people who have some of the higher functioning autistic disorders who may find themselves drawn to an online course in order to "avoid" having to interact with others face to face. 


Joanna Neil
9:19pm 30 March 2012

I think the role of the moderator/tutor is really important with this, partly by making sure everyone has a response to their comments (this was a requirement of one of H800 first activities) but also at certain points summarising and naming people so that they could see their point being valued or related to others.

I also think Forums take a bit of getting used to and there is a 'skill' to using them. After some reflection I realised that I should try and open my language a little more - make smaller points, reinforce others views and ask questions to try and look deeper at points raised rather than go off on my own little tangents!

I personally find I can be more myself in forums than face to face as I do find certain social interactions awkward, however the forums are structured, focused and to a certain extent controlled environments ( not unpredictable social experiences) therefore, perhaps the type of social interaction we do is not as difficult as real face to face situations?

Joanna Neil
7:52pm 31 March 2012 (Edited 11:40am 3 April 2012)


Donna Smith
6:39pm 1 April 2012

Very good title/question.

In response to David's post, I think it can be a bit off putting if people have posted early on and you are coming to things a bit later in the week. There can be a sense of 'it's all been said and now people have moved on!'. I know that I felt a little behind when I logged on to this activity in the forum and saw that some students had made a decision in elluminate to set up this debate, and I was therefore late (or had entirely missed!) the party. This is not to say that students should be discouraged from posting/making decisions early on, but it is interesting to think about how others feel coming to things a bit later. 

If I am coming to something later on, when many others have posted, I make sure to respond to others' posts as well as post my own answer, in order that I at least attempt to join in the debate that has already taken place. Maybe one tactic is for us not to tackle the activities in order, but for some of us to start from the final activity in a week, some from the middle etc - so, we can all be first for some of the activities - aliviating the problem (if it is a problem - it may not be) that David mentions above.

What do others think?

David Alcock
8:18am 2 April 2012

Wow, Donna, that is a very interesting thought, the idea of carrying out some of the activities out of order.  My initial thought is that most often the activities lead on from each other and so completing them out of order might be difficult.  How about a variatio on that idea, with small groups of people (two or three) taking responsibility for posting their 'answers' to the first activity and others having the responsibility to respond, and then the next group taking responsibility for answering the next activity and everyone else responding, and so on.  Do you think that could work:?  It might enable people to feel a little bit obliged to contribute at the appropirate time.

David Alcock
8:22am 2 April 2012

Joanna, thank you for your contribution.  I do agree with your points.  The role of the moderator is key, I feel, to establishing a group norm, or culture of 'how we do things around here'.  Positive affirmations can go a long way in engerdering a culture of contribution and participation.  I also agree that the use of conributors names in posts and replies can be motivational and empowering; we all need to be stroked from time to time in order to feel valued, specially when we are in a new environment and engaged in unfamiliar tasks.

Donna Smith
1:29pm 3 April 2012

Hi David, I like that idea overall but don’t we have to respond – fully – to all of the activities? Isn’t that what’s expected of us? (So, answer ourselves and respond to others). I also worry that we wouldn’t have enough people to make enough groups!

Clem WIlkinson
9:34pm 3 April 2012

That's an interesting idea Donna. As you say, some people come to things a bit later in the week and due to work etc that might be the usual state of affairs. At the moment I see a couple of options following your suggestion. Either you alternate the order in which these 'micro' groups tackle each week; initiating a week then responding to one; or, you jump ahead occasionally and start some weeks a little early and then go back and respond to some of the other activities.

I think that one of the interesting aspects of the MAODE course is that some students are just starting out whilst for others it may be their last module. This, and the varied experience that everyone brings with them, means that I have found there are activities for which I feel I can jump straight in and contribute and others where I may wish to 'lurk' for a time while I get my bearings. For this reason I am quite happy to jump ahead to later activities in any given week if I feel it's appropriate and then return to others later.

I am wondering how this behaviour is represented in face to face situations: starting a new job, joining a new team or a student who changes school?


Anne Coddington
9:59am 4 April 2012

Hi everyone,

I'm not in your tutor group but I hope you don't mind me joining the party as it's a really interesting debate! I agree with Donna it can be difficult when some people post up comments early in the week and others are coming to the forums later. But for me as someone relatively new to forums the key point is to be as open as possible to engaging with the debate at whatever point it has reached. I used to feel quite anxious around posting because there are people who are very confident with this medium - effortlessly connecting points from various posts - and as a newcomer you are struggling to learn the conventions and forumulate ideas for your own submission. But I now see it as an opportunity to learn and engage in a situated process with some very experienced students.

Like David I am now trying to be more proactive in engaging with others posts and then where appropriate bringing in my own points. If six or seven people have already made the point your would make, better to say I agree with xxx rather than repeating again - or find a practical example to add another dimension to the idea. But it can be quite stressful, because you have to think on your feet. You want to get something posted up - particularly if you are pushed for time like many of us are - but in order to contribute to the community it's good if you can move the debate along and new thoughts, well they come when they come. But the more you practice the easier it gets.

Interesting idea Donna about allocating activities but I'm not sure - some activities do build on earlier ones. 

Great debate, I'm really enjoying taking part.




Gillian Ferguson
7:18pm 5 April 2012

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Cara Saul
11:59pm 6 April 2012

Was attracted by the provocative title - good online marketing!

Some really interesting debate on forum participation. I agree that the role of the moderator is key in encouraging participation, they have a strong role in making students to feel comfortable by facilitating a positive learning environment. I feel that a good moderator also is aware of the levels of participation, knows when to intervene and check to see that students are engaged with the course whilst not requiring them to participate in discussions. 

Learners will have different energy and involvement levels throughout a course as their understanding, confidence and interest levels will vary. Just as in F2F learning . Don't all learners lurk from time to time? Is listening lurking? is it an indication of problems? Maybe - not always? Or is it that other learners feel that they are doing all the work and resent 'lurking' so in that way it damages group cohesion. 

My feeling is it is ok but the value of online forum learning is reduced if contributions fall below a critical level

S M Hemmings
6:48pm 7 April 2012


Thanks for this cloud it's raising some interesting questions about on-line participation which are very pertinent for me at the moment as I am well behind with weeks 8 and 9 and catching up in a Bank Holiday Weekend rush...

My main computer is out of action and I'm having to work on a netbook with a small screen which is driving me a bit weird - and made me reflect on the increased presure that all students could potentially feel where there are such strictly sequenced activities which require participation and discussion. I know that the forums are asynchronous but I still feel uncomfortable about crashing into the party when everyone else is about ready to go home!

Because of my technical problems I am also finding myself skipping through activities to find bits that I can easily do in the hope that the big screen will be back in my life before week 10 starts.... this is freeing me up in some ways but certainly limiting my participation even further.

I like Donna's idea of working out of order - maybe individual's could make that decsion and then other people scanning down the forum could decide which debate they wanted to join in with and do the activities associated with that thread..... maybe this could make the forums more lively?

Sue (from another tutor group - thanks for this discussion - off to do the work I'm 'supposed' to be doing)

Sonia F
3:35pm 9 April 2012

Great topic!!! and comments.

While reading all the posts, I was wondering:

  1. why lurkng is such an issue in education when lurking is the first step to learning? (if you don't see / listen, you are less likely to know that it exists / can be done, right?)
  2. is lurking an issue in education due to assessment/evaluation?
  3. is "lurking" only lurking when the outcome is not shown immediately?
  4. if the outcome was shown immediately, would "lurking" be "a learning process"?

Alex Bell
4:09pm 9 April 2012 (Edited 4:12pm 9 April 2012)

It’s great coming to this and seeing that there are contributions from other groups, just because it enhances perspectives regardless.  There has been some really good points.  There seems to be some themes here to encouraging participation. It may be that encouraging people is about making them feel valued [Joanna, David], by naming them and pointing to their contribution, weaving their contribution into your own thoughts perhaps acknowledges that you are not just espousing your own thoughts but seeing them in relation to other’s contribution.  Perhaps ‘forums’ as places for equal contribution could have posts that relate to the group’s thoughts and its diversity of viewpoint. Blogs on the other hand seem to be places that we can own and are perhaps better for long personal thought, personal “tangents”.  Joanna also points to “smaller points” and “reinforce others views” so contributions are then in relation to others.  

There is also some interesting point about being first in or last in as Donna has picked up.  Yes, perhaps before making a first posting people should think as to whether they should leave room for others to start.  One of the problems is that in a way, first in decides the direction! This is why if a tutor posts the first contribution, which isn’t really a contribution, but a re-emphasis on the task, allows multiple threads or directions to take off in reply, but keeps the activity in one place.  So perhaps if learners are to start discussions in activities, they need to be prepared to be general and not individual, leave that to blogs?

Of course, as pointed out by Clem, we all work at different times.  So someone might want to do everything in the first few days, so may look as if they are dominating, even though this is unintentional.  Do you move back weeks, can discussions two weeks ago still be active.  Is there time?

I think part of the answer lies with what Anne said about being as open as possible to engaging with the debate at whatever point it has reached. I think this is achievable if trust has been established.  All the things pointed to here are for me about making space for people to contribute.  Being open not just in what you say not just about your perspectives and experiences but about who you are. But also the more you contribute, the more you reveal yourself the more people trust each other.   I agree to some extent with Cara who thinks that ‘lurking’ could not damage but impede group cohesion.  If people do not contribute, do not reveal themselves then trust might not be as established.

I think the tutor has a certain role to play but tutors can only create opportunities.  Learners need to give the places they occupy meaning for themselves and create their own culture.  From a tutor’s perspective fostering dependency isn’t always a good thing.  Learners need to be self-determining.  Whose learning is it anyway?

Thoughts from Alex (tutor)

Gráinne Conole
8:39am 10 April 2012

Wow great discussion! Yep agree its a good title. Also agree with the points about it taking a while to get a hang of interacting and finding your own digital voice! There are now so many ways in which we can communicate it can be overwhelming! There is no right combination you just need to find what works for you. Hope you are all enjoying the course!

Guy Cowley
9:13am 12 April 2012

I am late to this party so let me come from a different direction.  Should we think of the forums as primarily places where we respond to the formal activities? Not surprisingly there is not much to add for late comers.  However, we all have different valuable experiences and wacky thoughts.  Could we have more of the Tutor Forum space used for more general exchanges of views at the fringe of the formal subject matter?  This might make forums more fun which could be good for participation.  I realise that there are blogs and Clouds and Twitter for interpersonal chat but if lurkers are evidently reluctant contributors they are even less likely to use these than a formal forum, which feels a more protected space.

John Baglow
2:26pm 21 April 2012

I'm back from Italy and coming to this discussion a bit like a newcomer. What is interesting is that it has been easy for me to pick up the thread of this discussion because, on the whole, each post follows on from the previous one whereas in the forum we have  a tendency to react to the latest Activity as much as to what our co-students have said. 

I am coming round to thinking that it is not so much the choice of platform for student participation as the working out of the groundrules which determines its success. The issues raised first by Donna, then Clem and Anne, go to the heart of the matter; I certainly agree that the more you participate the easier and less scary it gets. 

mgt cullen
5:45pm 23 April 2012

Hi everyone. I too am not in your tutor group but was lured by the title. And I'm arriving rather late in the day. In fact because of illness I've been catching up late with a lot of the forums over the last 2-3 weeks so I was interested in the aspects of the debate about whether early arrivals put other people off. I have to say I hate being out of step with the course but it's been really interesting reading 'whole' discussions rather than bits of them. The ones that I've enjoyed most are where people do go off piste a bit.

I think one of the problems is that a proffered list of questions asking for comments does tend to make you think and answer to them rather than encouraging quirkiness or original thought.

I'd also echo Sonia's question, "Why is lurking such an issue?" I have participated in other OU courses where I've felt totally inferior to the other students (Music - I never knew that I knew so little!). Yet I learnt enormous amounts just lurking & reading their comments in the cafe forum - about composers, performances, instrumental lessons, you name it. And they were a lovely bunch - very willing to answer daft questions. None of what I learnt was examinable but it vastly enriched the course for me. I suppose this also fits with Guy's point about using forum space less formally and just seeing what develops.

John Baglow
2:37pm 25 April 2012

We are constantly being told that we tutors should take account of our students' diverse needs and learning style. I suppose it could be argued that lurking is a learning style - some learners might lurk, others might want to be more participative. 

If we conclude, however, that more effective learning is achieved through participation, then maybe Guy is right - we shouldn't expect students to access numerous sites and platforms, it should all be in one place ie there could be formal and less formal platforms on the website with the forums.

David Alcock
11:10am 4 May 2012

Trying to think of practical ways to 'encourage' a move from lurking to participating I have been thinking about how we might form and introduce distance learning study groups.  I wonder if a possible pattern might be to start off structured in pairs, two people working together.  Then in the third week put two pairs together, and then in the fifth week join up to fours, arriving at a final group size of eight.

I would be interested to hear others views of the above proposal, and also whether anyone has experience of such an approach.

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