Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 32 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Touch me, or I might lurk… or “like”


Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 32 seconds

I’m always interested in the discourse that welcomes/invites/loves “lurkers”, and I am always torn. Always.

First of all, let me be clear on this: I have no illusions. I may be the most active participant in some circles, but I, too, lurk in some contexts. Everyone does (Lou Northern thinks so, too).

Think about it. You cannot possibly comment on every single article or blogpost you read on the web, or even every tweet. You won’t post a blog and ping back to every interesting thing you’ve read this week, you can’t possibly.

Next best thing: you can “share” it with a few words, via email, facebook, or twitter, to explain why you liked it. Sometimes this sharing goes back to the original author; oftentimes it doesn’t, right?

Next best thing: you liked it, couldn’t comment, couldn’t think whom to share it with, but you wanted to express that you “liked” it – and that’s what those like and favorite buttons are for (though the twitter one is confusing coz it can mean “bookmark to read later” or “agree” or “I’ve seen your tweet”. But never mind. The idea is, even though some people hate “like” buttons, they are a way to participate or express oneself (albeit lazily). I noticed that some people’s blogs don’t have that “like” button. This actually forces me to comment if I liked it. I’ve noticed one particular person who has this, and I think she gets more comments than most people because of it!!!

Next best thing: you bookmark it on something social like Diigo, or (which I think pings back) or bookmark it on your computer

And sometimes – you read, you find useful, enjoyable, then you do nothing. Nothing online, anyway.

You may still discuss it with a colleague, for example. I have f2f colleagues who sometimes in a conversation bring up blogposts I wrote weeks earlier. It’s a little eerie, but I got used to it, got used to realizing that some people (who know me) read my blog and don’t regularly give me feedback on it. Some people are just not comfortable interacting online altogether.

Think about it. Before the internet, you wrote something and it got published. In a newspaper, you might get a response on letters to the editor. In an academic publication, you might get feedback years later as others started citing your paper. But all in all… you didn’t really get that much direct feedback from readers. Unless it was a book and it sold really well. And people wrote good book reviews. But a book review in a newspaper is nothing compared to an amazon review. No, seriously 🙂 I’m not talking quality, but the sheer quantity and diversity of people whose feedback you can get online is immensely different.

So if you read Amazon book reviews but never post your own? You’re a lurker, right? And that’s totally alright, right?

If you (like several people I recently met) look at twitter and facebook but never post anything original, that’s OK, right? [I mean, it’s a shame but it’s OK, right?]

Now let me go back to online learning. The reason lurking has this sinister negative connotation, I think, is because in the early days of online learning (turn of the millennium when I was doing my Masters online), people learned in small groups. Our group were somewhere between 3 and 10 people each “module”. If half the people participated and the other half didn’t … was that OK?

Let’s step back a minute. In f2f classes, students complain if their teachers expect them to participate every single class. Depending on the size of the class, the length of the meeting, and the topic as well as how much time there is for discussion, this is usually a reasonable complaint. I don’t expect every single student to participate unless:

  1. The class is relatively small – like 10 students
  2. The time is relatively long – more than an hour
  3. The topic is something every student will have something to say about

I don’t want students to talk just for the hell of talking, right? Participation is not taking up earspace with nonsense. Participation should be substantial, and add value. That value can be new knowledge. But that value can be community-building, supporting colleagues, challenging them, etc. It could also be asking the professor or questioning her. Those are all good ways to participate.

But here’s the catch: some people have really useful and substantive thoughts in their heads, but they don’t share them. Why? Many reasons, including shyness, lack of confidence, lack of ability to express themselves well, fear of the reactions of their colleagues, or they’re just simply quieter people (unlike me who can’t stop talking).

But here’s the other catch: is it fair that some people are talking all the time? The people talking all the time are doing one of three things:

  1. Taking up “space” which prevents others from talking (i.e. they may be the reason others aren’t talking – you know that feeling when someone steals the words right from the tip of your tongue and you’re forced to swallow yours?). That’s not fair to the silent ones
  2. Sharing knowledge – they’re “giving” something to the group in the class, they’re doing an indirect teaching role – and by doing so, the others are learning from them. This means the others who are not participating are “taking” but not giving back. That’s not fair to the talkative ones.
  3. Changing the class dynamic as they lead the discussion in directions that suit their own agendas, whether explicit or implicit – and this isn’t fair to anyone, really, but…???

Look again at all the numbered lists I’ve got above, and think about them for an online class. Previously, online learning “good practice” was to have small groups discussing things. It made sense since they were all credit-seeking students that they all be expected to participate at some minimum substantive amount, even if it were not explicitly required. It’s just courtesy. Online, the “time” and “space” issues blur if we’re talking asynchronous stuff, so asynchronous allows the space and time for more people to participate without taking up the space of others).

But when you’re talking about MOOCs, that’s just a scale that would burst if everyone participated, right? The problem is, the more connected/connectivist a course is, the more of the imbalance of power comes in (the second set of bullets). Sure, space is seemingly infinite, but you also can have someone who’s almost spamming the twitter stream (Ahem, apologies whenever I’ve done that). But points 2 & 3 are important in MOOCs as well.

On one hand, it’s not fair that some people are pouring out their thoughts/feelings on their blogs and sharing all they’ve been learning and so on, while others read, and never respond or do the same. OK. Like I said earlier, though, this is completely normal when we talk about the web in general. Until I started #rhizo14 I rarely got comments on my blog. But I got loads of views (for a new blogger at least). I don’t usually blog about Egypt and politics, but the most read post on my new blog was one written on that subject (I bet mostly read by Egyptians) but most of the comments I got on it from fb and the blog itself were from friends who either know me f2f or online.

It’s just that in a learning situation, I think reciprocity is only fair. But MOOCs are not your typical course. You can’t force commitment. Like I said, I can be really active in one context and really not in another. Usually, I’m not even lurking, I’m just too busy to even look in. But sometimes I do look in but don’t participate. It happens.

If I were an instructor, I’d like to know that there were people benefiting without participating. That’s a great thing. I definitely love it when I know people are benefiting from reading my blog even though I don’t know them, or discover later about it.

But do you know what’s really sad? It’s number 3 and something else. Number 3 in the sense that people who are not participating aren’t getting their “voice” heard. And getting one’s voice heard isn’t necessarily everyone’s life goal. Some people aren’t trying to get their voice heard. Maybe they don’t think they have something substantial to say. Maybe they are scared to share their thoughts with the world (but are comfortable sharing with smaller groups, more privately). Maybe they don’t have confidence, maybe they’re too arrogant. But maybe it’s arrogant to believe you have something to say that’s worth hearing. Blogging is both arrogant and humble, in that you’re arrogant enough to think someone might want to read this stuff you’re writing (for oneself in my case) and yet humble enough to put yourself out there, make yourself vulnerable, have your words up for scrutiny by the world and be ready to deal with it.

I’m not a “pure” social constructivist. I’m pretty sure a lot of learning happens right inside our brains as we reflect or interact with objects without actually having to learn socially. I don’t think dialogue is the be-all and end-all (though Sidorkin may convince me yet).

The number 4 that isn’t up there is this one: if you’ve always lurked and never participated/connected, I’m so sorry for what you’re missing out on; I’m not angry AT you, I’m sad FOR you… because the most beautiful part, the most meaningful part of all of my online and social media life is that part when I connect with someone. When it’s someone new, and I’m discovering them, or when it’s something new they’ve written and we’re discussing it. The beauty of that dialogue… that’s what it’s all about. For me.  I realize it’s not the same for everyone, though.

But that’s why I hope, as a pedagogue, that people won’t lurk in every context. That they will sometimes venture out and try to “connect”. It can be invigorating.

Looking forward to connected courses. Will you start, already? 🙂

This post was inspired by @dogtrax on Twitter:



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