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Opening up lifelong learning

Shalni Gulati
City University, UK

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 33rd annual conference, University of Wales, Bangor, 1-3 July, 2003

We often assume that learning ‘has a beginning and an end…that it is best separated from the rest of our activities, and that it is the result of teaching.’ (Wenger 1999, 3)

How would the world appear if we took a different view? (Wenger 1999, 3)

In today’s presentation, I explore the need to realise the influence of the dominant discourses in learning that may be preventing actualisation of the lifelong learning rhetoric. I will do this in context of the ongoing literature review for my doctoral research in exploring effectiveness of emerging online learning pedagogies.

Recent years have seen a gradual increase in the uses of information technology (IT) in education. UK state policies have identified IT and learning as the key socio-economic drivers (Hazemi and Hailes 2001, 14). IT and electronic networking are seen as obvious enablers of lifelong learning and flexibility in learning (Elliot 2001, 14). According to Selwyn et al (2002), online learning is seen as an opportunity to ‘free learning from the traditional confines of educational institutions’.

Influenced by this discourse, I started my literature review in October 2003, with the question that: does online learning enable lifelong learning, for learners who may not actively contribute to formally organised online discussions. Early-on in the literature, I found a gap between what was idealised as lifelong learning, and what was being justified in formal online learning practices as lifelong learning. As evident in the discussion below, I found that formal online educational view of lifelong learning was restricted to participation in formal online practices, which continue to ignore informal participation and engagement.

The discussion here attempts to call for formal online education to acknowledge informal learning. The discussion will draw upon the literature and observations gained through discussion with various UK Universities, to identify the gap between the rhetoric for increasing online learner participation versus the practice of increasing online surveillance. An example from an online-tutor meeting is used, to explore how the narrow interpretation of learning in formal education is leading to the growth in monitoring and controlling online learner behaviour. Within this monitoring discourse, there is an increasing use of the label ‘lurkers’, with the view that engagement in learning can be assessed through visible online participation. It is argued that invisible, silent and informal learning activities labelled as 'lurking' need to be acknowledged by formal educators. This is important, if formal online education is to have a role in accomplishing a broader perspective of engagement in lifelong learning.

Online learning practice

The online learning rhetoric identifies the Internet as a learning interface that allows increased access and informality in learning education (Twigg 2002, 3). Online educators have been working on realising this rhetoric, through incorporation of online networking and collaborative opportunities that enable learners to scaffold, share and construct their knowledge (Salmon 2002, 29).

In a typical online learning scenario, a tutor designs online tasks that often require compulsory or non-compulsory participation in online discussions. An online activity may begin by reading given learning material, followed by instructions for an online discussion task. Interaction is encouraged by asking learners to reply to others’ contributions. This is a popular strategy to promote reflection, collaboration, and discourse (Conrad 2002).

In a typical course, there are some enthusiastic participants in discussions, some who will occasionally participate, and some 'non-participants' (Salmon 2000, 72). At first glance, these differences in participation are not different from any face-to-face session. However, the emerging online tutoring rhetoric has responded to the issues of learning by ‘lurkers’ (Salmon 2000, pp.80) or 'non-participants' differently. ‘Lurking’ is defined by Foldoc (2003) as, ‘the activity of the silent majority in an electronic forum, posting occasionally or not at all, but reading the group’s postings regularly’. Although ‘lurking’ or 'surfing' online is an acceptable practice, in educational asynchronous learning contexts it has gained a negative reputation. Online educators question if ‘lurkers’ are learning (Beaudoin 2002, 148).

‘Lurking’ is an issue for educators who have extended the use of online discussions to meet formal assessment and learning requirements (Derounian et al 2003). Where as others who perceive the importance of informality in learning (Boardman et al 2003), may not have concerns about 'lurking', Salmon (2002, 80) discusses’ how active online participants may fear that silent learners are ‘stealing their ideas’. In her five-stage scaffolding model for online socialisation, she identifies the need to encourage contributions from ‘lurkers’ (Salmon 2000, 25). The practical application of this online participation model assumes that all learners construct knowledge through similar processes. It also assumes that by simply contributing to online discussions learners are engaging in learning.

The example observed in practice in the following section, shows how this limited view of learning has led to formalising and assessing online contributions, and has widened the power differences through fixation on involving 'non-contributors' or ‘lurkers’ in formal discussions.

Monitoring 'lurking' behaviour

During my observations at special interest group meetings between online tutors at 5 UK Universities, I have found online tutors’ actively disapproving ‘lurking’ behaviour. They approve the need to closely monitor and track learners to encourage participation in discussions. Many tutors are using phrases like ‘need to control the discussion’, ‘to track learner activity’ (Anderson et al 2001), ‘make sure the discussions are posted by a certain date’ and penalise non-contributors’ (Sener and Humbert 2002). The possibility that increase in online surveillance and emphasis on compulsory participation, may have a negative effect on learners with varied preferences, is not considered as an issue.

The following example demonstrates that increase in monitoring of the one-dimensional participatory discourse assumes online learning is a neutral process, with limited realisation of the power relationships that may effect participation in discussions and engagement in learning.

In one of the university meetings, I observed a tutor describing experience from a postgraduate online course for qualified teachers. Online contributions in this course are monitored with controlled release of online learning material as the course progresses. The power relationships between tutor-learner are apparent, as learners are required to complete closely monitored tasks. Facilitators in this monitoring role focus on ‘lurkers’ who do not contribute. During the meeting, one facilitator exemplified participation as below:

Majority of learners tended to contribute online, nearer the deadline. The facilitator suggested that this was because all learners are full-time teachers, and may leave completion to the last date. The course facilitator shelved this as an understandable issue for full-time working adult learners, and did not explore the influence of time and flexibility on engagement in learning. On one hand, the course was viewed as open, easily accessible for busy full-time professionals. On the other hand, specific dates and defined tasks were narrowing flexibility.

For these learners, flexibility was defined either by the course designer, the curricula with deadlines, time afforded by the employer, or personal circumstances. Despite this, formal educators continue to view ‘being online’ as the key strategy for flexible learning.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that lack of flexibility may have an impact on attrition rates of online learners with professional, domestic responsibilities and social/healthcare issues (Sener and Humbert 2002). Adult learners who are more concerned with the learning, and have limited interest in gaining qualifications (Moreland and Lovett 1997), may also be put off.

In the above example, the facilitator also observed one learner who contributed on the cut-off date, and demonstrated a deeper understanding. The facilitator acknowledged that the delay in contribution may have allowed more time for engagement, but did not consider this conclusion as an implication for online teaching strategies. This learner did not get a response from anyone else in the group. The facilitator concluded that this may be due to the lack of depth acquired by other participants. However, the time restraints did not allow the facilitator to consider this as an opportunity to facilitate group discourse and depth of understanding.

Another learner, who contributed nearer the beginning of the allocated task, demonstrated surface understanding of the subject. This learner received many responses.

Marton and Saljo’s (1984, 39-44) research on conceptions of learning that showed differences in learners goals, processes, and approaches for engagement in learning (deep or surface approaches), is apparent in the above example. Marton & Saljo (1984, 52-55) concluded that participants may have different perceptions of what is required of them, i.e. varied conceptions of learning. Therefore, it may be misguided to monitor and assess online contributions as a measure of knowledge construction, as they are merely a small part of the greater learning process.

In above case, two learners did not contribute during the module, but passed their final assessments.

For the facilitators focused on meeting the needs of the dominant formal educational rhetoric, the issue of ‘lurking’ appears problematic, as they expect all learners to respond in the predicted manner. Facilitators justify this by saying that they need to know if all learners are learning.

In their study of teacher presence in online discussions, Anderson et al (2001) confirmed that in the desire to maintain their class leader role, online tutors are increasingly focused on the monitoring, controlling and steering online discussions. Tutors feel uncomfortable about not being able to display their pre-defined roles in an online environment. Anderson et al (2001) concluded that tutors and learners in an online environment are holding on to their expectations and roles, developed in traditional formal learning.

Such an emphasis on participation in a tutor-led context of learning has a limited appreciation of the social theory of learning proposed by Wenger (1999, 6). Online surveillance practice views of participation in learning merely as online contributions within tutor-defined activities. Teaching practices that advocate online surveillance may fail to appreciate that learning also takes place outside the controlled and monitored discussion environments.

The label ‘lurker’ within a narrow definition of situated learning, has an impact on the silent online participant, as quoted by one in Nonnecke and Preece (2000, 130) study:

'May be it’s a sign of my own mild discomfort around being a lurker, but I found it reassuring to recognise myself and my behaviour within the continuum you describe, to see lurking treated seriously, with both acceptance and respect. As a lurker, I’m used to observing from the sidelines and participating vicariously, and it’s strangely gratifying to read an article that speaks directly to that experience. It’s almost like suddenly feeling part of an (until-now) invisible community of lurkers.’

Assessed monitoring online contributions may further formalise the learning experience and strengthen the power differences between tutor-learner and learner-learner. Facilitators monitoring learning practices, focused on formal learning outcomes, may fail to notice the influences due to the power differentials. The power differential implicit in these online learning practices is best explained in Foucault’s (1984) discourse of normalisation through policing. This is particularly apparent where online contributions are made compulsory, to ‘police’, and repress ‘outlaw elements’: the ‘lurkers’. This may seem like a severe analysis of emerging online learning practices, but Foucault’s perspective allows the surfacing of the unseen facilitator perspectives, which may be unwittingly policing or coercing compliance from individuals who prefer to ‘lurk’ online.

Although online tutors are as innovators, many have yet to challenge the implicit controlling influences of formal education based on a narrow view of where and how learning takes place (Twigg 2002, 4). Application of learning technologies remains explicitly linear, structured, controlled and formal, while learners may have different conceptions and preferences for their learning. These applications have a 'closed' view of learning that ignores, normalises, controls or marginalise's learning experiences.

Wenger (1999, 7) identifies that communities of learning exist everywhere, and calls for the need to rethink what it means to engage and participate in learning, to refine our practices, in context of the multiple communities that influence our learning. The next section justifies the need to surface the insurgent and informal discourses in learning, and to challenge the normalised formal discourses that marginalise some learners.

Engaging and ‘lurking’

The current view of online education may exclude ‘lurkers’ who do not conform to their participatory view of learning, either through attrition or through assessment and surveillance.

In the realms of effectiveness studies (see on online collaborations, researchers have identified positive learning influences for active contributors, but these fail to consider the non-active contributors. Aviv (2000), an online researcher who set out explore the impact of online discussion contributions on learning, was surprised to find that ‘quiet’ learners had a greater depth of understanding than some ‘active’ learners.

In a study of drama education, Warner (1997) demonstrated that levels of engagement go beyond what is seen in practice. Warner (1997) studied depth of engagement in drama. She concluded that individuals engaged in drama at different times of the event, and their depth of engagement varied according to their personal and social preferences. She classified her learners into four different categories:

1. Talkers: Appeared to engage very quickly by talking and getting involved, but on interview it was found that their engagement in their role was superficial. They felt the need to demonstrate their ability through action.

2. Participant Observers: Appeared to take some time before engaging, but interviews revealed they had greater depth of engagement than talkers. They strived to achieve best performance.

3. Processors: Most difficult to identify as they rarely took part physically or verbally. Interviews revealed they were more engaged than others, had a deeper understanding of the story and said that they could "feel" the different roles. They were not concerned with performing, but enjoyed the involvement.

4. Listeners / Observers: Never engaged physically, verbally or emotionally.

Warner’s (1997) results in drama cannot be directly applied to online learning. However, they do highlight the need to consider the varied levels of engagement in learning, due to the roles learners may adopt, during a learning process.

Prevailing discourses prioritise participation and engagement in learning, with an emphasis on qualification and performance. They ignore the depth of learning that may be encouraged through informal learning like ‘lurking’. The next section calls for the need to recognise informal learning and broader opportunities for learning (Wenger 1999).

Informal learning and 'lurking'

Despite the lifelong learning rhetoric, formal education has done little to explore and acknowledge holistic learning opportunities including informal learning. The term informal learning is mostly referred to as ‘learning that takes place outside the structured formal educational contexts’ (Moreland and Lovett 1997). So, why should formal educators be concerned with informal learning?

Firstly, despite limited research there is ample anecdotal evidence that informal learning may be a preferred method for learners (Moreland and Lovett 1997). According to Tough’s (1993, 31) survey, most learning is informal and learner-initiated, and this remains unacknowledged by formal institutions. Consideration of informal learning may enable formal educators to make all learning more inclusive, and place greater emphasis on learning than on measurements and controls.

In the online context, Beaudoin (2002, 154) identifies ‘lurking’ as an informal and auto-didactic learning activity. Nonnecke and Preece (2000, 130) state ‘lurking’ is ‘non-public participation’, is normal, i.e. ‘everyone is likely to be a ‘lurker’ at some point’. It goes on all the time, when we are reading, observing, listening, reflecting, deliberating, thinking, surfing. These informal ‘lurking’ and ‘non-public’ activities already form important ingredients for successful engagement in learning. Therefore, if formal online educators were to acknowledge a broader perspective of learning, it may allow for informal interactive opportunities to ‘lurk’ and share ideas, and reduce power differentials between participants.

Secondly, ‘lurking’ is an activity where learning takes place with minimal support from the formal context. It is not reported and seen by the tutor. Acknowledging ‘lurking’ may offer us an opportunity to move towards a broader view of learning that views formal and informal learning together, not at two extremes of a continuum. This view would suggest that formal learning environments could create and support but may not assess informal learning opportunities, and vice versa. Therefore, as a learner-initiated strategy, ‘lurking’ could provide grounds to open up the lifelong learning rhetoric, to challenge the dominant formal education discourses that continue to define online pedagogy and socially exclude learners.

Thirdly, all learners are different. Therefore, in recognising ‘lurking’ it is incorrect to assume that learners who do not contribute online, are either learning or not. The issue remains complex. On one hand, ‘lurking’ activities such as reading and reflection may suggest depth of involvement in learning. On the other hand, labels like ‘lurkers’, ‘passive learners’,and ‘non-participants’ carry negative assumptions based on a narrow definition of learning, and continue to be used to marginalise diverse behaviours. The use of such terms needs to challenged within a wider context of learning that view informal and formal learning together. Hence, the focus of my doctoral study is to explore the implicit and informal engagement of 'active' and 'silent' online learners.


This discussion has explored the influences of the prevailing discourses on the emerging online learning practices. The impact of formal education continues to limit the flexibility and learner choice in online learning, through increased focus on surveillance and compulsory participation in online discussions. This has in-turn led to marginalising ‘silent’ online learners. I have argued that if we are to realise a lifelong learning society, and to enable self-reflexivity and innovation, then we need to challenge the limiting influences of the dominant educational discourses. We can begin this challenge by opening up learning, acknowledging silent, unmeasured learning, and redefining participation (Wenger 1999). This may allow for an open understanding of adult learning within a broader context of their lives.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 26 June 2003