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.

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.

Diving Deep into PLNs

This guest post by Miguel Guhlin was previously published in his blog, Around the Corner.

Photo: Derek Keats,  CC BY 2.0
Photo: Derek Keats, CC BY 2.0

Old ideas find expression in today’s learning environment.

This weekend, a colleague asked me, “What do you think of The Deep Dive video?” At first, I didn’t understand what she meant. What did this old ABC news video featuring IDEO have to do with personal learning networks (PLN) in schools?

A part of me balked at having to hearken back to an ABC news broadcast to help explain to a group of principals what Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) are about. In fact, I thought it was a bit of a problem. After all, those Deep Dive videos are old. Why couldn’t we just say something along the lines of….

Helping teachers build a PLN accelerates their learning and professional growth. The richness and variety of a PLN makes creating change that leads to enhanced teaching, learning and leading valuable.

I promptly started checking out PLN videos, but most of those focused on the how-to. In fact, that was the complaint I had for myself. In creating a PLN, when you focus on the interaction, you’re missing something. You’re missing out on all groundwork that went before…that groundwork includes relationship-building, building mutual purpose and mutual respect. I would venture that most of our time as leaders should be focused on those 3 core activities. It is a point that George Cuoros acknowledges in his blog entry:

I get a lot of emails asking about creating the conditions for change and recently was asked, “As a new principal, what is the first step to create a better learning environment in our school?”


Here is my answer…do nothing.


Too many times people walk into buildings and have some great ideas and they start trying to tweak this, and change that, etc., yet that often alienates the people that you want to get better.
What I would strongly suggest is that you sit back, watch, learn, and figure out what people are great at already and build from there. Source: The Principal of Change

As I reflected on The Dive Deep videos, it was apparent several ideas were core. For fun, here are those ideas with what I see as a potential connection to PLNs.

1) Defer to the person with the best ideas.
Unbelievably, we’ve seen that the twittersphere and PLNs defer to the people with the best ideas. It’s not the size of the megaphone that captures people’s attention (not over time), but rather, the quality of the ideas. In fact, it’s all about influence, not authority. The better your ideas, the more influence you have, even if you’re NOT the boss. While in the past, it would have taken a courageous boss to lift up a worker with great ideas, now, it’s very possible for workers to use social media (e.g. Twitter) to find or create ideas that are sticky and worth sharing.

2) Chaos is encouraged, and is perceived as constructive“This is where the crazies live.”
I’ve asked my secretary to make a sign with that sentence about crazies and put it over the door of our offices. Although a network is very ordered, the activity along that network can be quite chaotic and it’s that very chaos that provides the randomness, the variability that engages human beings. If you haven’t tried a “walled garden” approach to social networks, then you may not know that once students and staff have had the opportunity to play “in the wild,” connecting with people from around the world, they are hooked. There’s no going back.

For me, this is a personal experience made true by video games. For many years, I played ‘canned’ video games, games that required no Internet connection. However, now, I’d rather not play a video game unless I’m playing against other real people who happen to be connected. My son, an avid gamer thanks to my efforts, connects daily with people around the world in a way I could never have imagined when I was his age. And, he is richer for those experiences because learning is ALIVE, it’s CHAOTIC…it’s messy.

3) Status is who comes up with the best ideas.
As a veteran article publisher and presenter in Texas, I remember the first time this truth really sank in. It’s when I had to compete to present and submit articles against others from all around the world. Think about that. While I was once was “good enough” to be a Texas presenter, I soon found myself competing against people who were veteran authors and presenters from around the world. This really came home during a virtual conference where I had to compete against no less than Scotland’s Ewan McIntosh! What a terrific incentive it is for learners today that they have to compete, not just against those in their geographic area, but because of modern video conferencing technology, against people from around the world!

Of course, the flip side of that is that I also get to collaborate with people who have the best ideas, who aren’t afraid to make their ideas easy to access via social media.

4) Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of a lone genius. Fail often in order to succeed sooner.
“Has anyone done this before?” It’s a question I’ve asked often over the last year as I began a new job. If the answer was, “No,” I knew I had a better chance of achieving different results than had been in the past. As an avid PLN member, focused on sharing and garnering the benefits of being a connected learner, I’m able to often see what works, or does not. This has tremendous benefits for us as educators as people report how they interact with students, staff, others in ways that are both successful and unsuccessful.

That’s why I love blogging because it allows for transformative reflections that can result in change, if not for you, for others who may be reading. The resulting conversation about failure and success helps you achieve success even if you are a “Rank: Failure.” Why? Simply because it means you can find solutions that much faster and get the feedback you need sooner.

5) Teamwork
When you’re limited to the team that’s on the ground, you’re truly limited. Although you may have an awesome group of folks, your REAL team is out there on the Network, connected to you by ubiquitous technology that changes how you approach every problem and solution.

There are a lot of examples, videos on YouTube that illustrate these points. It’s absolutely genius to try “old ideas” to new ways of accomplishing things. We no longer have to be part of an innovative organization dependent on its employees with advanced degrees to be successful. Now, the world is our’s to explore, to learn from, connect and collaborate with.

Who wouldn’t want to build a PLN that helps them be smarter?

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Diving Deep into #PLNs #twitter #edchat #cpchat #hfsoars by Miguel Guhlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.