Lurkers, lurking and labels

Conic Hill from Drymen primary school

Our SRL-MOOC study has been getting some attention thanks to a post by Phil Hill which built on the categories I had assigned to learners in Change11 that were emerging from our data analysis. There’s been some discussion going back and forth in the comments (where I think it ought to be), but a comment from Debbie Morrison last night on my use of the term ‘lurkers’ might benefit from a more extensive discussion, so I have written this post.

Debbie wrote:

I realized from reading your comment your choice of the term of lurker was not in a negative context – however the term does have a negative connotation associated with it – to ‘lurk’ according to the Webster’s dictionary, ” to lie in wait in a place of concealment especially for an evil purpose”, though I realize a modern definition has been added recently, “to read messages on an Internet discussion forum (as a newsgroup or chat room) without contributing”.

And it’s this second definition here that is critical. The term ‘lurker’ is already used in the academic literature. Discussing lurking in traditional online courses, Rovai (2000) describes lurkers as “… learners who are bystanders to course discussions, lack commitment to the community, and receive benefits without giving anything back”. This is exactly what we observed, so while I thought about whether to adopt a different term (I played around with lurking, but found it unworkable).  I eventually concluded that Rovai’s definition described what we were observing.

Connectivist MOOCs (such as Change11) must accommodate learners of all types to satisfy Downes’ (2009) ‘Diversity’ and ‘Openness’ criteria. In practice, as long as there is a balance of these different types of learner, then lurkers can be accommodated, and the evidence from this study is that lurkers can learn effectively in connectivist environments: taking the knowledge they acquire to their external networks.

In contrast, in xMOOCs, where structures of peer-grading are put in place, or people are placed in small groups, then lurkers can be disruptive if they don’t participate in the designed learning environment.

Downes, S (2009) Connectivist dynamics in communities.  Available online February 26 2013. [changed – had previously posted the wrong Downes ref]

Rovai, A. P. (2000). Building and sustaining community in asynchronous learning networks. The Internet and Higher Education, 3(4), 285-297.


Author: Colin Milligan

Learning researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University, and living in beautiful West Stirlingshire.

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