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.


LCL: The maps of My Childhood


The activity for session two of the LCL course is to read the forward to Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms (1980) entitled The Gears of My Childhood and ‘write about an object from your childhood that interested and influenced you‘.

My object is an Atlas. I have been fascinated by maps for as long as I can remember and though I didn’t follow a career path focused on geography, or become an explorer, that early and constant love of maps has provided a framework on which I have hung so much other knowledge in my life.

The atlas was only the centrepiece of an obsession with maps and flags which extended to jigsaws of maps, road atlases, the Ordnance Survey (see the picture of my wall in my old flat above) and the maps form the National Geographic. As a young child (of 7 or 8, see later in the post why I can be sure) I used to take the Atlas, and a table lamp and trace outlines of countries and continents on a glass coffee table we had. I’d then colour in each country with the corresponding flag. Different continents lent themselves to this activity to different degrees: Europe was a bit rubbish, as all the countries were small; Africa much more pleasing with lots of big countries; North America too boring with only 3 countries and South America good, but with the nearly insurmountable problem of fitting the flag of Chile.

This is a nice innocent activity, a good way for a not very artistic child to be creative. But the real value of the activity was that the constant repetition (I must have done each continent dozens of times in my pursuit of perfection) cemented in the positions and names of countries (along with lots of incidental detail) along with their flags. Having this knowledge of maps helped me begin to understand world events – I’ve got a strong memory of following the Angolan Civil War (1975 – so when I was 7 or 8), and recognising the Communist/Marxist imagery (a cog representing workers, the sickle representing the land, etc). These symbols, repeated across Africa in the flags of the other countries such as Mozambique and Zaire, gave me an awareness of the role which armed struggle had played in these countries’ emergence from colonialism (and that while much of the map was pink – British empire – large swathes of Africa had been Portuguese or Spanish. I also saw patterns in the use of Red, Yellow and Green in the swathe of countries further north, and how these were similar to those of many nations in the West Indies and surrounding the Caribbean  and how these in turn gave way to a different palette and set of symbols in the Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

From the combination of maps and flags I got a framework to hang new knowledge on but also a ‘way in’ to the political and historical changes that had occured not just in Africa but across the whole world – without ever reading a formal textbook or history book.

LCL2: Interest-based Learning


Writing deadlines mean I am a week (or so) behind in the LCL course, but I do still hope to keep up. Session 2 was about Interest-based learning and was based on the following readings:

We were asked to structure our reflections based on the following two questions:

  • What did you find most interesting or surprising in the readings? I liked all the readings for this week, and was particularly enthused by the very readable Papert piece (I’ll save my comments on that for a separate piece on ‘the gears of my childhood‘. My research interests are informal learning, so although I didn’t know the work I know the ideas, so it is interesting to reflect on the generalisability of the underlying concepts. For example, I’m struck by how the readings this week either explicitly or implicitly emphasise ‘affect’ as a key factor. In Joi Ito’s formal vs informal blog post, he asks: ‘is there a way to support and acknowledge the importance of informal learning …?’ I think the answer is yes (I’m thinking about Higher education contexts here). One way to motivate learners is to make learning meaningful for them – so rather than imposing a curriculum, try and negotiate it (as far as your quality procedures allow) and certainly personalise it – allow each individual student to own their own learning. That’s easy to say, but what does it mean in practice? Well, you could start by helping the students think about why they are doing the course, what they want out of it, how it will contribute towards their overall goal. Then, don’t just produce content for your students to consume – get them to contribute ideas, create new knowledge, make connections. Design assessments that allow them to demonstrate what they have learned (how they have changed during the course) and what it means to them in terms of their own learning and goals. This might be more work in terms of assessment, but you will have motivated your students and given them a learning experience that is valuable beyond exam time. I also liked the ideas in the Dubai post: unpredictability drives learning – it makes it easier to identify and articulate gaps in your knowledge and therefore to start planning to address them.
  • What did you disagree with or have questions about? In Papert’s ‘Gears of My Childhood’ piece, I loved the overall idea, but I was a bit concerned that he had overstepped the mark when talking about body knowledge, and the sensorimotor schemata of the child. I think I’d have to read the rest of the book to find out, but although it worked for his ‘gears’ it wouldn’t work for the thing that spurred my interest-based learning … maps.

Piloting the WLBK survey instrument. Help Needed

We have been developing a survey instrument for the ‘Work and Learning at the Boundaries of Knowledge’ project. ( and would like to test it out before sending to the main study participants. Would you be able to spend a little time piloting the survey for us.

The survey is at and includes space to provide feedback inline.

The instrument should hopefully help you to think about the learning you undertake at work.

We are interested in gaining feedback on:

  • Whether the survey functions properly (any broken questions etc)
  • Whether the questions make sense (the questions are aimed at knowledge workers)
  • How long you think it would take to complete (we have estimated 25 minutes, there are 50 items).

We will be collating any feedback this Friday (March 1st 2013). Many thanks in advance for your help.

Learning Creative Learning: kindergarten learning


The first week of learning creative learning ( is almost over. The course content consisted of just one paper and a google hangout, so not much to take in. I’ve not had time to watch the hangout: the format doesn’t really suit me, so i’ll probably miss it most weeks. I found some visual notes via twitter update from @ikbenjulie – From this, it looks like the hangout talks through the paper and introduced the course.

Anyway, onto the paper: Mitchel Resnick (2007). All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten. ACM Creativity & Cognition conference. [PDF]. I liked this paper, nice and simple, and thought provoking. The core idea of the paper is that the learning we encourage in kindergarten promotes exploration and creativity, but subsequent learning environments, at school and beyond are too focused on facts and measurement. Resnick argues that promoting learning approaches which focus on creativity should be extend to all ages, a simple cycle is presented: imagine, create, play, share and reflect, before a new cycle of imagine … begins.

Resnick then presents a couple of technologies which MIT medialab have designed to promote different aspects of the cycle. Crickets (physical programmable devices) and scratch (a programming toolkit) take a modular approach to promoting the type of free play and creation in kindergarten learning.

Some years ago I was involved in a project/ company / consultancy developing a software toolkit for producing educational simulations (some of the simulations are available from The idea behind the toolkit was to separate the model from its visualisation: so a single model calculating the position of the sun in the sky could be used as the basis to create an interface to help architects decide what blinds to specify for windows (based on how much sunlight might shine through them at what time of day) or a simulation to allow young children to explore how day length varies at different times of year (see the java simulations at The jelsim tools focused on empowering the teacher (to tailor simulations to educational need), but we recognised the ultimate aim of empowering the learner to create their own simulations: supporting true exploratory learning where a learner could build an interface to test a hypothesise. If we had reached that goal, the JeLSIM tools would have been a good example of kindergarten learning.

Learning Creative Learning: Goals

I’ve signed up for the MIT media lab course learning creative learning ( The course started this week and as an initial task, I thought I would define some goals for myself.

    First and foremost, I hope to learn about an area that I know little about. I’d like to learn about early years learning: although I am a workplace learning researcher, I don’t have a traditional education background, so have never read the core literature, or considered some of the fundamentals. On the plus side, having a child at nursery means I have some first hand experience to relate what I am reading to
    2. I’d like to take something back to my own work. I’m not sure I can predict if there’ll be anything specific (ideas about creativity perhaps) or whether it will be something more general (a broader appreciation of a range of learning theory).
    3. Having studied moocs and participated in some of the early connectivist moocs, I’d like to reflect on my participation in a mooc that’s not filled with people primarily interested in the process, but instead interested in the content. I’ll hopefully be one of the latter.
    4. Finally. I’d like to enjoy it.

Designing MOOCs


My previous post describing initial findings from our SRL-MOOC study got a spike of views yesterday suggesting that someone pointed at it (thank you, whoever you are). One comment, from Felicia Sullivan asked me to expand on the following statement from the conclusion of that post:

“While I don’t advocate creating rigid structures, I do think there are some simple things that could be done to make sure MOOCs such as Change11 are accessible by the full range of prospective participants.”

I’d been reflecting on what our study has told us about the design of MOOCs and an observation that (in Change11) while some participants found and joined networks without problems, others didn’t seem to find their place in the MOOC community so easily.

There’s an implicit assumption in this: that you need to find a network to succeed in a cMOOC. In fact I don’t necessarily believe this – we found lurkers – who chose not to attempt to interact with others. These lurkers used the MOOC as a source of knowledge, contributing back at their own level, but not expecting any particular level of engagement with other learners.  The group of participants I am most worried about are those who wanted to find a community, but didn’t. They’d write blog posts and get frustrated that no one responded, or attempt to engage with fellow MOOCers through commenting on blog posts, but get no reply. After a few failed attempts to interact, these participants gave up trying: the weak ties of the MOOC were too weak At the extreme, were those who expected the organisers to facilitate far more actively*, and those who didn’t contribute themselves (through blog posts, comments, or even tweets) but who still expected to benefit from the contributions of others.

What was the difference between those who found and didn’t find networks?

That’s complex. As the name might suggest, our study hypothesised that an individual’s ability to self-regulate their learning might impact their participation in a MOOC. We found that while ability to self-regulate is a factor, a number of other factors are also at play:

  • previous experience of MOOCs: people learn how to learn in MOOCs. We certainly saw a ‘type’ of participant who knew what to expect from the course, knew what they wanted from the course,and knew how to make their participation a success. Given its size, Change11 probably wasn’t a good ‘first mooc’ for people to experience.
  • pre-existing networks: one key element that people who had taken previous MOOCs brought to Change 11 was their pre-existing networks. When these people blogged, they already had an audience for their views, because they were part of a network that had been developed through previous courses. These networks though weak (you might never have met the people who read you blog, and don’t communicate with them at all regularly), are resilient: you’ll read blog posts from people in your twitter network, because that content has already been ‘filtered’ for you – your network is trusted. There’s another interesting observation here: that your network doesn’t necessarily have to consist of people who are studying on your course. We saw different patterns of engagement from respondents who didn’t actively try to set up new networks, but let them grow organically through the course, as well as those who were focused on creating an internal network of fellow participants.Both approaches were successful.
  • expectation and motivation: even among those who had never studied in a MOOC before, there were those who knew what to expect, and who could self-motivate and engineer learning networks. This is partly to do with technology, and partly learner disposition. I suppose the great unanswered question of our study (we still hope to answer it) is the nature of the inter-relationship between between a learner’s ability to self-regulate (planning, self-motivating, managing and reflecting learning) and digital literacies (being able to leverage digital tools and network to support ones learning).

Going back to MOOC design: how can MOOC designers create environments to accommodate the diversity (in background, motivation, skills, expectations) of learners who participate in these massive open courses?

So how could you achieve this?

I think the cMOOC concept and philosophy is great, but my observation from a number of MOOCs is that by definition, Massive courses bring in learners with a range of backgrounds, previous experience and skill levels, and it is therefore incumbent on the organisers to design a learning experience that accommodates these diverse learner profiles. I think this is particularly critical at the start of the course (in fact I would say that if you get the start right, then the cMOOC model should work once initial networks have established). The start of a MOOC is a big scary place, and providing some hooks for participants to hold onto might be all that is necessary. Here are a few suggestions.

  • cater for different interest groups: even in our relatively small sample (it was primarily a qualitative study, and we interviewed 29 participants) we saw strong evidence of people looking for people like themselves. This was particularly the case with different types of educators: on the whole, the HE participants tended to have the loudest voices (more used to blogging etc), and we saw evidence of k-12 educators becoming disillusioned with what they perceived as ‘noise’ on the network – they couldn’t find peple to identofy with, because their voices were drowned out by ‘confident’ participants form different domains. Creating spaces where people can find others they can identify with would be a really simple step – it might only be a set of hashtags: #change11-k12, #change11-workplace etc … but it might make all the difference in helping people find other’s who speak their language – reducing the initial complexity of the MOOC space. Of course you need to guard against homophily – where the great benefit of learning in a Massive Course is not realised because everyone is talking to people who are just like them – it is important to have cross-fertilisation of ideas from k-12 to higher education and vice versa, but this can come later in the MOOC, once people have found their footing.
  • goals: going one step further, finding others who have the same expectations of the course as yourself is key to continued motivation. Some of our other work has explored the possibility of using shared goals as a mechanism bringing learners together and fostering peer-learning and peer-support. Although some of our study participants expressed some resistance to defining goals, there were clear goal types and patterns evident and these could be used to seed self-organising communities. Getting people to articulate their goals is key to allowing them to find each other.
  • orientation:  Clearly, many people participating in MOOCs still need to learn how to ‘participate in a MOOC’. The Change11 mooc did provide some orientation, and there are good resources out there (I’m thinking for instance of this excellent youtube video from Dave Cormier), but this wasn’t enough for some MOOC participants, and I think a different approach might be useful. Encouraging participants to seek out others with similar backgrounds or goals (as above) would be one way of doing this, another would be to engineer interaction by setting tasks which demand that participants contribute to the course and interact with others. While these tasks might feel a little artificial (akin to icebreakers at dinner parties) they are essential in helping participants realise the importance of connecting, creating and contributing, in addition to consuming, in a cMOOC.

Returning to Felicia Sullivan’s comment, she asks:

“How do well designed structure, processes and resources aid in self-organization and connectivity?”

Last week we had a colleague Hans de Zwart (Senior Innovation Advisor for Global HR Technologies at Shell) visiting the Caledonian Academy. Hans is interested in DIY Learning (including MOOCs) and one key principle he espouses is that we should put as much effort into designing ‘experiences’ as we do to designing content. Learning is so much more than the content, and it is vital that in MOOCs, organisers create an environment where learning can occur for all those who want to learn, not just for those who already have the skills and literacies at the outset.

I hope this answers the question (or at least takes the debate forward). I’m currently writing a paper on this aspect of our study, so writing up some of the themes and implications here was useful (cathartic!) for me.

* I think for Change 11 (though not necessarily for MOOCs in general) that there is something in this. By having different presenters each week, the course lacked coherence. A greater degree of facilitation by the organisers wouldn’t have gone amiss. 

nb: this was quickly written … and as a blog post rather than a journal article, so please forgive any looseness – particularly in my near interchangeable use of the terms community and networks.