Can we please stop using the word "lurker" to describe people who follow online courses but make little or no active contributions? The word has rather negative connotations that have little or no relevance to online learning, but for some reason taking a back seat is seen as a lazy or less honest approach. Active participation is seen as evidence of engagement and passive reception is viewed with suspicion.
At the same time isn't this the way most of us learn at first, by watching and listening to others and reflecting on that? It's hard to actively participate when you don't feel comfortable with the terminology, the environment and the other participants. Many people are more introverted learners who dislike the irritating complexities of group work and enjoy being able to get on with the process in their own way. Some like to reflect on what they read and hear and don't feel the need to ask questions or make spontaneous comments. They may not be posting comments on Twitter or in forums but that doesn't mean that there is no learning taking place. Learning doesn't have to be out loud. This phenomenon is of course nothing new. We've always had quiet students who sit in the back row and never say a word in class and the same is true online. Some of these back row students go on to get top grades and some of their more vocal colleagues drop out. But we need to respect both groups and encourage them to "cross over" now and again. The silent learners can benefit from some active participation and the "noisy" learners can benefit from quiet reflection too.
There's an interesting article by Donna Smith and Katy Smith on this theme in the latest edition of EURODL (European Journal of open, distance and e-learning), The Case for ‘Passive’ Learning – The ‘Silent’ Community of Online Learners. This describes studies made at the UK's Open University on non-active students in online courses and shows that silence and learning can go hand in hand and that this has implications for course design and teachers' strategies. There is such a strong focus today on getting students to be actively engaged in their courses that we may be forgetting the need to step back and silently reflect. Therefore we need to cater for participation as well as quiet absorption.
There may therefore be a tension: between institutions that expect students to ‘actively engage’ for all sorts of reasons, and learners who may not want to (at all, or some of the time). Institutions therefore need to explain the benefits of ‘actively engaging’, design modules where this is seen as useful by learners, make sure that those teaching the modules understand what is expected of students and know how to encourage participation and have undergone relevant staff development (something which also applies to those writing and designing online modules). Institutions also need to understand that some learners will simply resist engaging as much as possible (making the above strategies even more important, if activity is deemed essential by the institution).
"Passive" learning is maybe not a good term either since learning is an active process even if no noise is made. Maybe "silent learners" is better. We need to make the learning environment supportive and empowering to slowly nudge them towards more active involvement. Learning is at first all about watching, listening, absorbing, imitating and reflecting. As you do that you develop awareness of the issues and for many people that is enough. Awareness leads to reflection and can change the way you view the world. Not everyone wants or needs to take that any further, the internal learning has taken place. The step from awareness to participation is important but we can't force it. Let's give a nod of recognition to the back row. They may be working harder than the ones in front.