Rethinking Lurkers in the MOOC Experience

This guest post by Ken Ronkowitz was previously published in his blog, Serendipity35.

Photo: Ed Yourdon, CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo: Ed Yourdon, CC BY-SA 2.0

A discussion developed late in my “Academia and the MOOC” course about completion rates and “lurkers.” The term lurker has been used for quite awhile online. At first, they were people who went into discussions and chat rooms and just read/watched without participating. The term had a negative connotation.

The term carried over to online courses. Of course, in a class online with 25 students, anyone who does not participate is readily apparent. All the major LMS allow you to track student usage. In fact, it’s easier to monitor student participation online via the software than it is to monitor in a large face to face classroom.

In my own online courses, I will nudge lurkers. But in a MOOC with thousands of students, that may not be possible. I commented in my MOOC that at least 20% of registrants did not view any content. The LMS didn’t allow for me to get percentages for discussion participation for the class as a whole (only for individuals) but I could see that at least half of the other participants only participated in one of the four modules.
I suspected that some of those who used module one and then dropped out (or lurked) had decided the course was not for them. Now, I am having second thoughts about that.

As the discussion on this topic continued (and it has continued beyond the course in other places) and based on some 1:1 messages with participants, I realized that what I saw as lurking may be better described as auditing.

Module one was on the history of MOOCs and two participants told me that they were really only interested in reading that content. Although they may have looked at some of the other materials and posts, they entered the course to find out how MOOCs developed. They found what they wanted, and they left.

So, are they lurkers? I would say the term does not apply.

I had divided the second module into the roles of the stakeholders in academia that MOOCs affect – designer, teacher, administrator, support staff and student. I had contact with several people who told me that they were most interested in seeing what was posted about their role and participating in that discussion and less intersted in the other roles. I had hoped that people would enter all the discussions about the interrelated roles, but that may have been an unreasonable discussion on my part.

Again, someone who took the course to find out more about the instructional designer’s role in MOOCs may have looked at some history and looked at case studies from different colleges that touched on the designer role, but may nt have had the time or interest in the other sections.

It has been suggested that MOOCs might function more as a textbook online (content repository) that includes a way to engage with the author (teacher/designer) and with others who are interested in the topic. Since Canvas allows my course to remind online and accessible to the students who registered, it is possible for people to go in after the four week live run of the class and still read discussions (no posting allowed) that they didn’t get around to reading, and view the rest of the content.

So why not leave the course open for new registrations perpetually? Obviously, anyone jumping in now would be met with hundreds aof unread posts and no chance to post themselves and expect a response from the original poster who is likely to be done with the course. But there are MOOC providers experimenting with this idea and by having new start dates on a rolling basis, you could allow new groups of participants to use the material again and again with fresh discussions. Would it be necessary to have a facilitator in the course to keep things moving and revise the content? That is probably needed. My “course” was not typical in that it did not have assignments or grades, so anyone not posting in discussions was lurking/auditing. It wasn’t designed as a MOOCourse, but intended to be a MOOConversation, so not participating in the conversation would be, to me, a kind of failure. That may not be true for participants.

I came across a presentation on “Learning Theories for the Digital Age” by Steve Wheeler (see below) that contained these two slides. He suggests that lurking may be considered “legitimate peripheral participation.”


Where would we place the course auditor/lurker in his “architecture of participation?”


One of the participants in my course, Ann Priestly, has posted some thoughts on this topic on her own blog. She takes issue with my comment that “being engaged in any online course of any size means being involved in the discussions. It’s like web 1.0 and web 2.0 – read only and read/write.”

She is of the belief that there are many types of engagement including reading, reflecting and creating one’s own knowledge. She may be right. I am certainly coming from having taught for decades face to face and for more than ten years online in traditional credit bearing courses with always less than 25 students – and that just may not apply in the MOOC world.  I certainly have become “engaged” with books I am reading where there is no interaction between the content and myself or with other readers or the author. Was I lurking?

Ann included a link to another post on this issue of lurking that suggest these people might be called “listeners.” Still, as MOOCs become more accepted as legitimate courses for credit or advancement, the issue of what level of engagement will be required to complete a course successfully will become more important.

For now, my conclusion is that we need to rethink the reasons that people enroll in MOOCs and consider that lurkers have a legitimate reason for being there, and we might want to take that person into consideration in the course design.

I wish now that I had a required survey for students to register that included more information about what they wanted from the course and what their intention was in registering. (Typically, I see the question of how many hours do you plan to give to the course, which isn’t really a helpful number to me.) If 30% of registrants were there because of a particular content area or just to “experience a MOOC,” that would change your completion numbers from the start.

Learning Theories for the Digital Age from Steve Wheeler

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Rethinking Lurkers in the MOOC Experience by Ken Ronkowitz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Authentic writing practice through social media and news websites

I’m giving a workshop at Three Rivers TESOL on how we can use social news and media websites to help ESL students practice written English. It’s an especially exciting method of writing practice because it enables students to interact with native speakers through text. Of course, ESL students often get to interact with native speakers verbally, but opportunities for authentic written communication are more limited!

See my tips below for how teachers can take advantage of Twitter, Reddit, and to engage students in authentic writing practice.



1. For all students: Sentence practice.

Twitter is excellent for helping students practice specific vocabulary and grammatical constructions. Messages are limited to 140 characters, so they’re the perfect length for writing a few clauses.

Twitter also acts as an archive which allows students to look back and see the progress they’ve made over time.

Some specific tips:

  • Establish a hashtag for your class. (For example, Corey Earle’s course used #amst2001.) Hashtags act sort of like folders for tweets. When you search for your class’s hashtag, you will see every recent class-related tweet from each of your students, making it simple to compile and check your students’ work.
  • Consider giving corrective feedback directly through Twitter. Simply reply to the tweet with your feedback. That way, your feedback is always connected to the student’s original tweet.
  • Encourage students to engage and interact with one another. Students can respond to one another’s tweets or build up products collaboratively. For example, students might be assigned to write a story together on Twitter, with each student taking a turn to write snippets of the story one sentence at a time.

2. For all students: Hold a weekly Twitter chat for your entire program or department.

Hold a weekly Twitter chat for your entire program or department. Think of it as a virtual “language house” environment: everyone gathers together for 30 minutes to chat in the target language. To better direct and encourage discussion, have a different discussion theme for each week (families, hobbies, etc.) and ask a new discussion question every five to ten minutes.

3. For intermediate and advanced students: Participate in the larger Twitter community.

Unlike Facebook, which focuses primarily on family and real-life acquaintances, Twitter is a very “open” network which encourages its users to connect and interact with strangers. This makes it very well-suited as a starting point for English language learners to find native speakers of English who have similar interests. In addition, because messages on Twitter have a limit of 140 characters, they must be kept very short and simple. ELLs may find Twitter less intimidating than some of the alternatives.

4. Encourage students to post bilingually on Twitter and other social networks they use.

As a purely extracurricular exercise, students should try to translate their own native-language social media messages into English. Below are two examples of colleagues of mine posting multilingual messages:

example multilingual post
An American living in Germany and posting the same message simultaneously in English, German, and Esperanto.
An Icelander in America posting the same message simultaneously in English and Icelandic.
An Icelander in America posting the same message simultaneously in Icelandic and English.


Reddit is a social news site which enables users to submit websites and news stories to subreddits, which are discussion forums for specific topics. For example, the /r/science subreddit is for sharing and discussing science news and the /r/Pittsburgh subreddit is for sharing and discussing Pittsburgh news. (Subreddits also exist for teachers’ collaboration and professional development, including /r/education, /r/teaching, /r/TEFL, and /r/EdTech!)

Every news website has its own commenting system. The advantage of Reddit is that it aggregates all of those news articles into one place and thus provides a single, unified, third-party forum in which to leave comments and have discussions. In the context of an English language class, this means that all of a students’ writing is centralized on Reddit, rather than being scattered across the internet on several different websites.

The first step

Reddit is only useful in an educational setting if you can keep track of your students. I suggest that you create a systematic, anonymous formula for student usernames and then stick to it. For example, the first student on my roster in a course titled Writing 5S in school term 2141 might be assigned the Reddit username W5S214101. The teachers of /r/EFLcomics (see below) assign their students similarly-anonymous usernames like “11RB048.” Whether you take the time to create these accounts yourself is up to you. It might be better to simply hand out the name assignments to students on slips of paper and then let them create the accounts and passwords on the website themselves.

1. For beginners and intermediate students: EFL Comics

I’ve written previously about EFL Comics. In short, students use an online tool to create short comic strips, then submit them to a community of English language teachers and English learners at the /r/EFLComics subreddit. Feedback is provided communally in the comments section.

A bit of administrative impedimenta: Before doing this activity, you must create Reddit accounts for each of your students and then submit the list of usernames to the moderators of the /r/EFLComics community. According to the sidebar of the community, “[o]nly approved users can post to EFLcomics. If you want to post a comic, get in touch with the moderators.” As such, the overall setup time and lead time can be considerable.

Once you’ve cleared those hurdles, here are the steps to successfully leading students through this activity:

  1. Introduce students to a comic creation tool such as Dan’s Awesome Rage MakerLOL Builder, or Rage Generator. (Warning: every one of these comic creation sites contains some PG-13 material, including occasional bits of strong language. For example, one stick figure is captioned “F*** YEA.”)
  2. Students create a comic strip incorporating target vocabulary or grammar.
  3. Students save their comic strips to their computers.
  4. Students upload the comics to a free image host ( is the best) and submit them to /r/EFLcomics on Reddit. (On Dan’s Awesome Rage Maker, this can be done very easily: the “save comic” menu has an option to submit the comic directly to /r/EFLcomics.)

2. For intermediate and advanced students: Read articles and write responses

In this activity, students read an article on the Reddit website and then write a comment for other users to read and respond to. The goal of this activity is to practice authentic reading and writing while opening the door to interaction and discussion with native speakers. This activity can be conducted in either a controlled or very open-ended manner.

Strictly controlled activity:

  1. The teacher finds a good, level-appropriate article in a subreddit related to the topic of the current class unit. For example, for a unit related to the environment, the /r/environment subreddit is a good place to start. Consider pasting the article into the BNC-COCA-25 text profiler to analyze its vocabulary content and help you develop supplemental materials for scaffolding and assessment.
  2. Students read the article printed out on paper as a normal in-class reading activity, including scaffolding, comprehension questions, discussion questions, and so on.
  3. For homework, students visit the article on Reddit and type out their answer for one of the discussion questions. Students include any target vocabulary or grammar assigned by the teacher.

Moderately controlled activity:

  1. The teacher selects a subreddit—either a general one like /r/worldnews or a specific one related to the topic of the current class unit.
  2. Whether in a lab class or for homework, individual students select articles to read from within that subreddit. Consider having a minimum length requirement.
  3. Each student types a response to their selected article, including any target vocabulary or grammar points assigned by the teacher.

I did this version of the activity several times with a student I tutored over the summer. I let him select articles from the /r/worldnews subreddit. Here is an example of his work:

My student's response to an article about a train tragedy in Spain. His assignment was to use five gerunds or infinitives. I have highlighted the target forms he incorporated into his text. Note that an unrelated Redditor responded to his comment.
My student’s response to an article about a train tragedy in Spain. His assignment was to use five gerunds or infinitives. I have highlighted the target forms he incorporated into his text. Note that an unrelated Redditor responded to his comment.

Open-ended activity:

1. Individual students select from a list of teacher-approved subreddits to find a topic of personal interest. Here are some suggestions from among the most popular subreddits:

  • /r/worldnews
  • /r/science
  • /r/todayilearned
  • /r/space
  • /r/politics
  • /r/news
  • /r/soccer
  • /r/apple
  • /r/technology

Teachers might also consider allowing:

  • Subreddits related to the university, city, or region the ESL program is in
  • Subreddits related to students’ home countries or regions
  • Subreddits related to students’ academic fields

2. Individual students select articles to read. Consider having a minimum length requirement.
3. Each student types a response to their selected article, including any target vocabulary or grammar assigned by the teacher.

TED-Logo-Ideas-Worth-Spreading-Global-Good-discussion-GlobalGoodGroup-Reference is a free website which contains hundreds of short lectures on innumerable topics. It is an excellent source of lecture-style listening texts to play in the classroom. However, it also has a commenting system similar to that of Reddit, enabling its use as a forum for authentic writing practice.

For intermediate and advanced students: watch lectures and write responses.

This activity can be conducted in either a controlled or very open-ended manner.

Strictly controlled activity:

  1. The teacher finds a good, level-appropriate video. Consider pasting the video’s transcript into the BNC-COCA-25 text profiler to analyze its vocabulary content and help you develop supplemental materials for scaffolding and assessment.
  2. Students watch the video in class as a normal in-class activity, including any necessary scaffolding, comprehension questions, discussion questions, and so on.
  3. For homework, students visit the video on and type out their answer for one of the discussion questions. Students include any target vocabulary or grammar points assigned by the teacher.

Open-ended activity:

  1. Students select a lecture to watch. Consider having a minimum and/or maximum time limit, such as videos between 5 and 20 minutes long.
  2. Students watch the video in a lab class or for homework.
  3. Students log into and type out a response to the video. Students include any target vocabulary or grammar points assigned by the teacher. Students might also be assigned to comment on one or more other TED users’ comments.

How have you used social news or media websites to help your students practice their writing skills and communicate with native speakers? Share your ideas in the comments!

October 25, 2013Permalink 1 Comment

Freedom to imagine

This guest post by Steve Wheeler was previously published in his blog, Learning with ‘e’s.

Photo: Steve Wheeler, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Photo: Steve Wheeler, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Sir Ken Robinson has a lot to say about creativity and learning. The two are, or should be, inextricably linked. One of his remarks is that imagination needs to emerge as creativity, as a natural process. He goes on to argue that traditional school systems constrain or even negate this process. He argues that this is largely due to the mechanistic, industrialised approach schools have taken for many years. Other constraints are the logistical problems such as lack of time or space for play, exploration and discovery that are familiar in many schools. All children have great imaginative power, but gradually this ability to imagine can be eroded as they are processed through formal education systems. In short, Robinson believes school is killing creativity. But this may all be about to change. The teacher led nature of traditional education is being challenged, not only ideologically, but also as a result of the pervasiveness of new technologies.

One question that is often asked within this discourse, is whether technology can actually improve education by providing learners with opportunities to be creative.

For me, the answer is yes, in certain circumstances.

Give a child a games console and he will play a game on it. He will have great fun, but will he learn anything significant? Will he be creative? It depends of course on what the game is, whether it is linked to authentic learning, and what specialised support is on offer from trained educators. It also depends on whether he feels he is in an environment where he can take risks, and express himself freely. The same applies to any technology withing any formal learning context. In informal contexts, children are very expressive and creative through their technology.

For formalised learning, students require scaffolding, but the scaffolding does not necessarily have to take the form of a ‘knowledgeable other person’ as Vygotsky suggested. Today, technology, particularly technology that is personal and portable, can provide similar forms of scaffolding for learning. Increasingly, teachers are adopting roles as support for learning, and as facilitators of learning spaces. For creativity to be maximised, learners need to be free to imagine, discover, explore and play in spaces where they are psychologically safe. If they make mistakes, they will be able to learn from these, rather than being punished for ‘getting it wrong’.

Give a child a camera and she will be creative…. especially if she knows what she is aiming at.

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Freedom to imagine by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Playful Learning is here

This post was written by Lauren B. Collister, librarian-publisher and scholar at the University of Pittsburgh

Do you remember what it was like to play?

Playful Learning is a nationwide initiative to promote the the use of games in education, offering a free online portal for teachers to explore the use of games for learning. Wondering how games can be useful in educational contexts? Check out their justifications for the use of games in the classroom, including such mainstays as increasing student engagement and enabling trial-and-error “freedom to fail” learning.

The site has a brand new beta available for perusal, and although reviews and community content are scarce so far, you can see that this site is ready to be a go-to tool for including educational play in the classroom.



Playful Learning isn’t just a search tool — it’s a community of educators and game creators working together to incorporate games into the educational toolkit. Not only can you discover the games that can help in your classroom, but you can have access to lesson plans, implementations, and other resources created and shared by educators.

Over 100 games have been added to the database so far. They are categorized in roughly a dozen ways, including by genre, target age range, learning topics, cost model, typical play timescale, and even whether they provide some form of quantitative or qualitative assessment reporting tool. Start by searching for your field, using broad terms to get many options returned. Here’s an example search for games relevant to math:


From this page, you can click on a game to see information about it and get ideas for how to incorporate it into your classroom. For instance, check out the page for Civilization IV:


The landing page for a game includes screenshots of the game in action, a brief summary, a description of learning topics, and (eventually) reviews from teachers who have used the game in their class.

Scrolling down, you can find an example of how to implement this game in your classroom. This includes learning standards that the game can help achieve, goals for the use of the game in the classroom, and a step-by-step guide for creating a suggested lesson plan to use the game. It also includes ideas for assessment using the game as well as potential pitfalls. Finally, there is a discussion forum for educators to collaborate on creating resources to incorporate these games in the classroom.

Playful Learning includes both free online games and games that require a purchase or a subscription. It’s still in beta, but I encourage everyone to take a look and start contributing to this fantastic new resource.

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Playful Learning is here by Lauren Collister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.