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Lurkers as Learners

Much evidence on the student use of collaborative tools such as online forums indicates that a...

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Simon Cross
22 April 2010

Much evidence on the student use of collaborative tools such as online forums indicates that a majority tend to read them but not contribute. There is a gap therefore between how we design / anticpate their use and how they are used (unless students are compelled/forced to use them).  How can we therefore best design for the behaviour of ‘lurking’ (for want of a more enabling and positive term) and exploit it for learning?

 Let’s suppose that instead of relying on the ‘possibly’ of someone in a particular group contributing something, why not ‘fake’, or rather let’s say ‘aggressively seed’, the discussion forum? Why not prepare a set of useful real posts from previous years, add to this to posts written on behalf of ‘imagined’ students and then intentionally drip feed them in to the forum at the appropriate time they were originally/intended to be made? You could call this ‘time-shifted posting’ or ‘simulated’ posting.

  • Certainly what is 'collaborative' for one person is a broadcast or object purely for consumption by another. If the forum debate unfolds like a soap opera and most are only watching it, what would the difference really be?!
  • How do those reading forums ‘know’ the people posting are real (in which case how does a student really ‘know’ a post is from a ‘real’ person unless they have met them face-to-face!)?
  • What is it these ‘lurkers’ are getting from watching / reading things like online forums and discussion treads and are the patterns and content of posts currently 'on offer' or provided by them (by ‘real’ people) really delivering what these ‘lurkers’ want?

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Janet Jones
12:57pm 22 April 2010 (Edited 12:59pm 22 April 2010)

Passive forum users can get a sense of group identity and a sense of belonging to a group whether or not they participate which can bring reassurance.   Sometimes, for distance learners in particular, it's nice to know there are others out there tackling the same activities, preparing for the same assignment, etc. so that should they wish to raise an issue, or query something, there are other students who might be able said that if they have a problem, they will go straight to the forum to see if anyone else has had the same experience and more often than not, they find that they have.  In that case, other people's contributions would answer their query.  Such peer support could also lighten the tutor's workload.  

How do people posting know other posters are real?  Firstly, on a course website, you would have to be a registered student to participate; secondly, if you read the content of their messages, if you're reading the same course, then you should recognise something of what they're saying even if it is using different language to explain the same concepts, and thirdly, I trust them!   I guess in a less regulated environment, it would be less easy to know if the contributors were real.  Although not forums, I often wonder who the people are who rate or recommend items in sites like Amazon, but still take the ratings into account!

My concern with online discussion forums, is how much or how little 'discussion' takes place in them.   Are asychronous online discussions the same as face-to-face discussions?  What guidance to we give to students about what to expect in an online discussion forum?   Wikipedia's definition of  an online forum is 'an Internet forum, or message board, is an online discussion site. whereas other definitions of forums include ; a place of public discussion.  The perception of an online discussion forum as a message board has very different connotations to that of a place for discussion or debate.


Rebecca Galley
2:44pm 22 April 2010

This is such an interesting question. Certainly as tutors we can drip feed the information/ reassurance we know that students will need at the times we can guess they might need it year after year - much more useful than putting it in a load of text at the beginning of the course. But that's not the same thing.

Ooo, interesting but no time today, I'll have to think this one through and piece some thoughts together tomorrow.

There must have been research into learning experience of students who do and don't participate in forums - surely the ones who participate learn more??

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