Thursday, December 16, 2010

Who is to say what is active participation?

The online discussion that George started by his post on lurking on #PLENK2010 made that Helene and me at NRC wanted to know a little more on how people perceived themselves to be: 'lurkers' or 'active producers', what determined their choice and how important lurking or actively producing has been for their learning as this really goes to the heart of learning on MOOCs. That’s why we produced the surveys.

People who have read my blog posts and earlier comments on George's and Jenny's blogs know that I researched 'lurking' in the past and already know that especially self-directed learners will fall into the lurking category. Of course we should not forget that the majority of PLENK participants are mature adults with a high level of education and a predisposition to self-directed learning through their natural development as human beings, so it is not surprising that only 40-60 people chose to be active producers on the course and all others (around 1550) chose not to during the 10 weeks that PLENK ran.   I also found the paper by Nielsen (reference by Eduardo Peirano as one of the comments on George's blog post) on lurking on the Web illuminating as it confirmed that the numbers of 'lurkers' in PLENK are no different from the numbers in other online networked engagement. 

The basis of MOOCs has always been four activities: 1. Actively aggregating, 2. Actively relating these aggregated resources to earlier experiences and knowledge, what Stephen Downes calls remixing,  3. Actively repurposing; producing a digital artifact with this mix of thoughts, and 4. An actively sharing stage. 

If it is true that people don't require the producing activity for their learning, we might have to reconsider if it is necessarily to promote it as strongly as it has been done at the start of MOOCsin the past. Of course as some people mentioned in the discussion, if nobody is an active producer, there is not much to base the remixing stage on. It also takes away a lot of the creativity that people showed through the artifacts they produced and that we all discussed, admired and used to develop our own ideas and thoughts.

Ctscho (commenting on Jenny's blog), I agree with you that George was wrong to add negative connotations to the activities of most of the PLENK participants, as of course the ‘lurkers’  have been actively engaged in the course through the other three activities: aggregating, remixing and sharing. And our research so far shows that people were actively engaged in these activities, although the sharing took mostly place outside the PLENK course structure and sometimes after the course had finished because people needed time to think about the high level of resources and information they had to digest during the course. It would not surprise me if George did this to provoke the discussion ;-)

If the majority of PLENKers think that their active participation, without the producing stage, is legitimate (and the empirical evidence that we collected so far clearly points in that direction) it might be that George has to eat his hat ;-), and reconsider his ideas, beliefs and feelings regarding what type of activity is required for learning on a course of this nature.  Current theories of learning show that activity is conductive to learning, but luckily they do not prescribe what type of activity this would have to be!

 Another issue that needs to be considered is if the format of the course, which has not changed much since the initial MOOC CCK08, is really conductive to people actively engaging and producing.  It came up throughout the course that the active producing and engagement in the course might be stimulated by a higher level of ‘strong’ rather than ‘weak’ ties amongst participants. Of course this will always be challenging in a course with this high number of participants (1614). People suggested for instance a ‘buddy’ system, where old-timers would be encouraged by facilitators at the start of the course to form some groups to support new-comers. It was also highlighted that the latter were least likely to have the confidence to produce, and the closer ties might create an atmosphere of trust that would make people feel more at ease than on the wide open open course.  The Second Life group also turned out to be perceived as a place to make people feel comfortable. Of course it cannot be denied that in a course like this there were some strong characters and power-plays between participants (and facilitators) as in any other place where humans congregate that might have influenced engagement and participation.

For the development of our PLE, it is important to get as much feedback from you as possible on this as we have to decide what features we can or should build into our PLE to create the best possible environment to support learning. The surveys are still open and so far 68 people have filled out the lurking one and 28 the active producer one. Comments on other issues are also welcome, in the surveys or on any of the blogs and discussion forums with the #PLENK2010 tag.


  1. Hi Rita,

    First of all, apologies for the semi-cryptic name—Wordpress logs me in under ctscho (which I am on Twitter!). Hereby attaching my full name☺

    Regarding the course surveys: While I question whether the inherent nature of lurking might create difficulties for the survey sample group, I also can see that, at this point, any information is better than no information on why people choose to do what they do. Beyond basic surveys, I have started to wonder if it might be possible to combine voluntary personal/ethnographic/narrative accounts of people’s perceptions or participation in MOOCs with a modified Delphi survey process.

    I also am really reluctant to make anyone’s individual opinion (and we are all entitled to have one) the focus of any type of discussion going forward. I’m very cautious about the potential for applying a double standard here—claiming my personal learner autonomy, for example, while still pointing at “leadership” and crying foul, for example. I do think that the particular juxtaposition of events in this case, however, was unfortunate, and it might be hard to determine how this affects current and future surveys and MOOCs.

    Carmen Tschofen

  2. Hi Rita,
    Here is my response
    Your sharing is spot on, and I think we have come to some common understanding through our researches.
    Thanks for your excellent post here, full of new insights.