The benefits of lurking in higher education

Student -2

flickr photo by CollegeDegrees360 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Inspired by the journal article Online Discussion Forums in Higher Education: Is ‘Lurking’ Working?, International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education Mazuro and Rao (2011), we take a look at the benefits of lurking in online learning spaces in HE.

Lurking to some may have negative overtones, but why is this? A lurker is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary simply as ‘someone who reads the messages in a chat room without taking part.’

Whilst this definition indicates a level of passivity in terms of overt engagement, it does not mean that learning cannot, or is not, occurring.

Elegant lurking

Many students benefit from lurking or ‘elegant lurking‘, a more positive term to describe the lurking learner coined by David White, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Arts in London, who believes that, ‘one effective way to learn is to use Social Media un-sociably.’

I’d like to propose the more positive notion of Elegant Lurking. This involves learners following key people in their disciplines (fellow students, ‘thought leaders’ practitioners, academics etc.) within Social Media to tune into the discourses within the subject. David White

Are you a lurker?

A large proportion of users in online communities are lurkers – 90%, according to figures by the Neilson Norman Group. You could be classed as a lurker too, if you do any of the following:

  • read a forum without posting a comment
  • catch up with friends’ feeds on Facebook without ‘liking’, commenting, or adding your own updates
  • find an answer to a question without leaving a thank you to the forum user who originally left an answer

Forum lurking

Students may not all be active in asking questions on forums. However, that’s not to say that for every question posted, 30 students haven’t benefited from reading the answer. You can use a forum in a virtual learning environment (e.g. Study Direct at Sussex) to reduce your inbox for questions that are asked frequently and don’t require a unique response.

Lurker learning may be invisible to you, but students frequently visit a forum with a question in mind and have it answered without leaving any indication. And thank goodness! Imagine an endless stream of ‘thank yous’ and ‘OKs’ every time somebody read something they found useful.

In Mazuro and Rao’s (2011) study of students discussion forum use, 18% of the 1188 students were found to be ‘lurkers’ as opposed to ‘posters’ (actively contributing to forums). The 214 students who lurked in a forum rather than participated reported doing so due to ‘a lack of academic confidence’ and those who did lurk learned from the activity.

The main reasons given by students for lurking rather than posting were:

  •  they got enough by reading the discussion forum
  •  they were still learning about the group
  •  some felt shy about posting a comment

Lurkers were seen to evolve into contributors too. After a short period of assessing a forum, students gained in confidence and start posting their own comments:

They may indeed ‘lurk’ for a time, and then eventually decide to participate if the forum appears ‘safe’ and they are less likely to ‘get things wrong’. Mazuro and Rao (2011) pp 366

Michael F. Beaudoin in ‘Learning Or Lurking? Tracking The ‘‘Invisible’’ Online Student‘ (2002) also found evidence of student learning in the surveying of online forum students. He uses an iceberg as an analagy to describe the learning:

It could be suggested that the image of an iceberg serves as a useful analogy here, in that most of its mass is hidden beneath the surface, just as is the case with invisible students’ learning.

So, if your Study Direct forum is looking a little sparse at times, don’t feel disheartened. It may well be that everything a student needs is there.

chief lurker

Guardian live chat Friday. Student learning: to monitor or not to monitor? flickr photo by paurian shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

If you would like to check, you can use the usage statistics in the Study Direct (dashboard>tools>user reports) to see how regularly your forum is accessed. And there’s the rub, if you do, you’ll be chief lurker – lurking on the lurkers, perhaps.

What do you think about monitoring students’ learning? Take part in the Guardian’s live chat on Friday, 10th July from 12pm – 2pm.

Forum tips

If you would like tips on encouraging engagement within forums, see the University of Waterloo’s tips for online discussions – an excellent resource which highlights the benefits of students engagement in forums, as well as provides a number of ways you can build forum activities into your course.

If you would like help in setting up a forum in Study Direct or to discuss any other technologies that might be used support collaborative learning, please get in touch with your school Learning Technologist.




Cath Mazuro, Namrata Rao (2011) Online Discussion Forums in Higher Education: Is ‘Lurking’ Working?, International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), Volume 2, Issue 2, June 2011 edn., : Infonomics Society.

Michael F. Beaudoin (2002) Learning Or Lurking? Tracking The ‘‘Invisible’’ Online Student. Internet and Higher Education 5 (2002): 147 – 155. Print.

The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities.

University of Waterloo: online discussion tips for instructors.

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