Asynchronous discussion boards are widely used as effective ways of facilitating learning and building online learning communities within online programmes in higher education (Levine, 2007; Lunsford et al., 2015). Large numbers of lurkers (non-posting students) are often considered problematic within these programmes for a variety of reasons. However, their non-posting behaviour means that it is difficult for practitioners to identify their reasons for lurking. This paper provided an integrative review of the main reasons identified in empirical research as to why some students lurk. Viewing these through an activity theory lens, tensions between the elements of the discussion board activity system were identified. These point to possible areas for intervention as well as suggesting a need for more qualitative research to examine the dynamic nature of lurking and investigate how tutors are responding to lurkers. It also identified institutional drivers which promote the tracking and monitoring of how much and how often students post and suggested that ways of tracking and capturing the less visible learning activity be explored.
Keywords: asynchronous discussion boards; online learning discussions; activity theory; lurking; non-posting participation
Part of the special issue Activity theory in technology enhanced learning research
Online education has shown significant worldwide growth over the past two decades. The rapid growth has not just been in terms of the number of students, but also, as Lee (2017) points out, in the number of fully online degree programmes being offered. These programmes are typically delivered through university virtual learning environments (VLEs) with the majority of VLEs having tool sets which allow for online interaction and collaboration between students and between tutors and students.
Across a wide range of subject domains and educational contexts, asynchronous discussion boards dominate other tools as sites for interaction and collaboration between tutors and students, who are often geographically and temporally dispersed. The use of discussion boards was considered “ubiquitous” fifteen years ago (Levine, 2007) and, more recently, Lunsford et al. (2015) suggested that they were becoming as omnipresent across a whole range of formal education contexts as blackboards had been in face-to-face classrooms in the past. One of the key reasons for the adoption of this tool is its enablement of cooperative, collaborative and constructionist learning approaches (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2003; Garrison and Anderson, 2003; Pawan et al., 2003), which are considered particularly effective in post-compulsory contexts (Brown and Duguid, 2000; Williams, 2004).
Although universities do not publish participation rates in asynchronous discussion boards, this information is easily accessible to internal stakeholders from VLE reports. Anecdotal evidence from conversations with a variety of administrators and academic staff within universities across the UK suggests that non-posting behaviour is widespread and of great concern, especially in contexts where discussion board participation is neither graded, nor compulsory. The main reason for the concern appears to be that posting is frequently taken as a proxy measurement for engagement, which is associated with higher retention rates (Banna et al., 2015), student effort to achieve learning outcomes (Britt, 2015; Pittaway and Moss, 2014), and student satisfaction as reflected in National Student Survey scores (Gibbs, 2014).
The limited number of research studies into participation rates in asynchronous discussion boards appear to confirm that large numbers of students within online programmes may not be posting, either because they are not accessing the discussion boards or because they are ‘lurking’, that is, reading but not posting. Kee Man (2014), for example, in research carried out at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, found that 52% of students self-identified as lurkers. Similarly, Fung (2004) in an analysis of discussion boards used in three M.Ed. modules at a university in the United States found that only 30% of students posted messages regularly and that the majority of messages were posted by only two of the 60 students enrolled. In a non-higher education context, Chen and Chang (2011), in an online learning programme for high school students in Taiwan, classified 56% of participants as lurkers.
Despite the interest in lurking students, researchers and practitioners have repeatedly called attention to the lack of empirical research into why such students do not post with the attention being rather on why posting students choose to post (see, for example, Dennen, 2008; Sun et al., 2014; Wilton, 2018; Wise et al., 2013). Of the empirical research which does exist, most of it follows a deficit approach with researchers focusing on identifying what is wrong with lurkers so that they may be fixed. By focusing on what is wrong with individuals, such deficit approaches frequently disregard the context in which the students are situated. That is, this research frequently separates the individual learners, the activity of learning, their purpose for learning and the mediating tools that are used.
Engeström (1999) proposes that activity theory can overcome the limitations of such research by considering the activity system as an integrated, interdependent whole. It is such an approach that this paper will take as it re-examines reasons for lurking, as identified in existing empirical studies, through an activity theory lens. It will aim to identify what tensions can be identified in the published literature into why lurkers do not post in asynchronous discussion boards in higher education contexts where participation is neither mandatory nor graded.
It is anticipated that this will lead to useful insights which will both contextualise the existing research and prompt further research. The findings will provide visibility of the contradictions which have led to the polarised views of lurking. They will also highlight where interventions and innovations can be made to address issues related to lurking, which will be of interest to a variety of practitioners, including university administrators, learning designers, module tutors and other stakeholders, including students.
Research into reasons for lurking often takes a stance that lurking should be minimised if not eliminated within online modules. This negative valence arises from lurking being interpreted as an indicator that the student is not engaged in learning activity. This can be seen in the language used by researchers who describe non-posting students as “inactive or invisible online participants” (Beaudoin, 2008), “bystanders” (Preece et al., 2004), “observers” (Ramirez et al., 2007) or “passive recipients” (Romiszowski and Mason, 2004; Knowlton, 2005). A growing number of researchers are, however, challenging the notion that there is a dichotomy between those who produce content and those who merely consume it (Muller et al. 2010). Salmon’s (2003) classification of students is useful here. She identifies student behaviour within discussion boards not simply as ‘consuming’ or ‘producing’, but also both. Engaging with discussion boards is a multi-step process. Before a student is in a position to make a post which provides a meaningful contribution, they have to analyse the prompt, carry out any necessary research and/or reflection, and take into account what other students may have posted.
If students do not produce, they are often classified as lurkers, but if students who post do not consume the content in the prompt or other students’ posts, then they can be considered non-interacting posters. Both forms of behaviour are portrayed as being problematic. However, the majority of attention is on the non-posting student and the perceived problems associating with lurking. As an example, although Dennen (2008) found that students in her study were more likely to be active message posters than active message readers, it was the non-posters or slow posters that received her attention.
One of the reasons that lurking receives more focus as being problematic is that the non-productive activities associated with consuming content are invisible, untracked and unmeasured within VLEs, and, as such, are frequently devalued and ignored (Hrastinski, 2008; Wise et al., 2013). In contrast, posts can be measured in terms of frequency, length and quality. Several researchers have suggested that this ease with which posting can be tracked and measured has led to it being equated with learning itself (Chen and Chang, 2011; Wilton, 2018). This partially explains why some believe that lurkers are not engaged in learning and why their non-posting would be considered problematic. There is limited empirical evidence to support this view, however. For example, although Nagel et al. (2009) found a correlation between posting and end-of-course grades, their study only involved 22 students. Other researchers have found that frequent posting does not correlate with improved outcomes (see, for example, Ebner and Holzinger, 2005) with Wilton and Brett (2015) pointing to reading, or consuming, rather than posting being key to a deeper understanding of subject matter.
Another reason why non-posting may be considered problematic is the impact it has on other students. Chen and Chang (2011), for example, describe the way in which, by not contributing to the discussion board, lurkers are sometimes considered to be stealing knowledge from the active students. Such a position, although not typically expressed in such emotive language, is often held by researchers who hold social constructivist positions and who focus on how interaction on discussion boards contributes to knowledge co-construction (see, for example, Hew et al.’s 2008 review of 50 such empirical studies). However, as Scardamalia (2002) suggests, it is the variety and diversity of contributions which are important for knowledge building. By focusing on the quantity and frequency of posts from all students, this aspect may be overlooked.
As lurkers, by definition, do not post, their reasons for lurking are often assumed by academic staff, and university administrators. The different interpretations of lurkers evident in conversations with stakeholders can be identified in the literature.
Lurking is a phenomenon which extends beyond the field of online education. In many online communities, lurking is viewed negatively. Lee (2015), for example, describes the view that lurkers “take for themselves without giving to others. Non-lurkers tend to view lurkers as lazy, greedy freeloaders”. Such a negative view also exists within education contexts where non-posting students have, similarly, been described as “free-riders” and “passengers” (Nonnecke et al., 2003). This can be seen to result from the privileging of producing over consuming as outlined above.
An alternative view is held by those who compare lurkers to those students who sit silently in face-to-face lectures and seminars and then do well in assessments; this perspective is also evident in the literature (see, for example, Beaudoin, 2002). Those who take this position typically foreground the nonvisible activities involved in discussion board participation, referring to those who lurk but do not actively post as “quiet participants” (Wilton, 2018), “active lurkers” (Orton-Johnson, 2007) or “silent learners” (Creelman, 2017). Although the reason for lurking is portrayed as a preference for observation by the individual (Yang and Richardson, 2008) just as it is with the “free-riding” perspective, in this case lurking is not necessarily seen as something that needs to be eliminated.
Researchers considering lurking within the framework of Wenger’s social theory of learning regard lurkers as legitimate peripheral participants, newcomers to the online community who are spending time watching and learning the norms and structure of the community before they feel comfortable posting (Lee et al., 2006; Soroka and Rafaeli, 2006; Honeychurch et al., 2017). Researchers who hold this perspective generally avoid describing these students as lurkers, instead referring to them as “peripheral participants” (see, for example, Zhang and Storck, 2001). Rather than lurkers needing to be fixed, lurking is seen as a natural part of the process of becoming fully-posting community members.
In contrast to the above views is a perspective that students who lurk do so not through choice but because of interpersonal, procedural, technological and/or cultural barriers that they are unable to overcome (Ardichvilli, 2008). Again, we are faced with the perspective that lurking is a problem associated with the learners themselves. Fung (2004), for example, describes how these students are often regarded as needing to “develop appropriate coping mechanisms” (p.137), making it clear not only that full participation is desirable but that the onus for overcoming any obstacles that may be preventing this is placed on the students themselves.
Whether lurking is seen as a behaviour, a characteristic, or a result of one or more barriers that the lurker experiences, these reasons for lurking are ascribed to non-posting students by module tutors, other university stakeholders and even researchers. What is missing from the research is a consideration of the context within which the learners and learning are situated both within and outside the system of discussion boards and the mediating tools used to facilitate participation impact lurking.
The tasks and activities that are characteristic of discussion boards are consistent with social constructivist approaches to learning where students interact with each other, within a socio-cultural context, in the co-construction of knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978). Within a social constructivist approach, the tools used in the discussion board interaction are regarded as social objects and are seen to have a mediating role. The most obvious tool here is the external, physical tool of the discussion board itself, but this is in turn dependent on other tools, such as the internet, digital devices, and learning artefacts. Its use is also governed by internal tools, or rules, which guide the interaction (Verenikina, 2010). Through participation in discussion boards, it should also be noted that the students themselves are co-creating artefacts, which may be the point of the task or activity, but which can also be seen as including the discussion board threads themselves. Such artefacts, together with those provided in the course materials, will mediate their learning.
In its simplest form, this can be summarised using a first-generation activity theory model (Figure 1). Such a model is a reformulation of Vygotsky’s model of mediation, showing a triadic representation of subject, object and mediating artefacts or tools (Engeström, 2001).
A second-generation activity theory model is chosen here as a lens through which to explore lurking within discussion boards in higher education because it provides a means of considering the context, situation and practice of the whole activity system (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006). According to activity theory, an activity system revolves around goal- or object-oriented activity. The model consists of an internal triangle of subjects, objects and community; the subjects and objects are mediated by the tools, the subjects and community are mediated by implicit or explicit rules, and the objects and community are mediated by the division of labour (Engeström, 2001).
The elements of discussion board activity systems can be assigned to each of the different points of the triangles (Figure 2). This initial analysis will act as a framework for analysing the findings from existing empirical research into lurkers and the mapping of tensions which can be identified between the elements.
Despite the somewhat static metaphor of the iceberg which Engeström (2001) uses to describe the triangular structure, activity systems are to be understood as open systems which interact and intersect with other activity systems. The mediation which occurs is constantly (re)negotiated and the activity systems themselves are overlain by a constant interplay of dynamic contradictions (Daniels, 2004; Engeström, 2001). Indeed, it is these contradictions that Engeström (2001) regards as being key to understanding learning and development. Although the term ‘contradiction’ typically has negative connotations, in this context, contradictions are welcomed as opportunities for transformation rather than undesirable disturbances to be purged from the system (Wenger, 1998). The presence of such tensions in activity systems catalyses the continued innovation of those systems (Barab et al., 2002) and provides opportunities for intervention.
This paper aims to use the four different levels of contradictions between elements of the system, as proposed by Engeström (1987, 2001), as a lens through which to analyse existing data as to why some students lurk in online higher education programmes.
Primary contradictions are considered to exist within the activity system itself, embedded within each element of the system, and manifesting through secondary contradictions (Foot and Groleau, 2011). These are often value-system conflicts (Bligh and Flood, 2015), typically resulting from practice being situated within socioeconomic systems.
Secondary contradictions take place between the different elements of the activity system: subjects-tools, subjects-rules, subjects-community, subjects-objects, subjects-division of labour. Unlike primary contradictions, secondary contradictions can be resolvable and, as such, may point to opportunities for intervention and/or innovation (Barab et al., 2002).
Tertiary contradictions occur as a result of new elements being introduced into a system which then create tensions with the established elements and practices. This adds a temporal element relevant to any empirical research examining the effects of interventions and innovations on discussion board participation rates.
Quaternary contradictions acknowledge that tensions do not just exist within activity systems, but between activity systems too. Contradictions may occur when elements of the central activity system, the one being focused on, intersect and interact with juxtaposed ones. Just as activity systems do not exist in isolation, neither can they be considered in isolation. As such, it is anticipated that quaternary contradictions may arise in the research findings.
The methodology adopted in this paper is an integrative review. It will identify relevant primary studies in the published literature as to why lurkers do not post on discussion boards in online programmes and will then seek to explain their findings. This approach has been chosen as it allows for the inclusion of empirical studies which employ diverse methodologies. This is in contrast to other methods of combining empirical evidence from primary sources which regard quantitative and qualitative studies as being mutually exclusive (Whitemore & Knafl, 2005).
To identify suitable empirical studies, the following search process was employed.
A provisional protocol was established prior to carrying out an initial search. Three sets of key phrases and associated abbreviations and permutations, based on the research problem, were used to facilitate the search. These were:
Set 1: higher education, university;
Set 2: lurker, silent participant;
Set 3: discussion boards, discussion forums, asynchronous discussions.
The search was carried out in January 2022 using the Scopus abstract and citation database (https://www.scopus.com) and Google Scholar web search engine (https://scholar.google.co.uk). The two databases yielded 505 and 1,354 results respectively. This led to a total of 1,061 non-duplicate results.
The titles were then screened by applying the following exclusion criteria:
The context of the study was not online discussions within higher education programmes;
The study focused on social media rather than VLE discussion boards.
This led to a list of 123 articles.
The abstracts were then reviewed with expanded exclusion criteria:
There was no empirical study;
The study did not address asynchronous discussions on VLE discussion boards
The context of the study was not higher education (N.B. this included the exclusion of articles about discussion boards in MOOCs);
The empirical study did not explore reasons given by students for non-posting behaviour;
Participation in the discussion board was assessed and contributed to the final grade.
This led to a shortlist of twenty-eight articles, provided in Appendix A.
Following this, a second review was carried out of the full articles, applying the same exclusion criteria. As a result of this, fourteen articles were identified, three of which were subsequently excluded at the data analysis stage for not including reasons why non-posters do not post, but instead focusing on why those who post do so.
The resulting list of eleven primary sources was as follows:
[A] Beaudoin, M.F. (2002). Learning or lurking?: Tracking the “invisible” online student. The Internet and Higher Education, 5(2), 147-155. https://doi:10.1016/S1096-7516(02)00086-6
[B] Dennen, V.P. (2005). From message posting to learning dialogues: factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion. Distance Education, 26(1), 127-148.
[C] Dennen, V.P. (2008). Pedagogical lurking: student engagement in non-posting discussion behaviour. Computers in Human Behaviour, 24(4), 1624-1633.
[D] Doyle, J. and Nieuwoudt, J. (2021). Is lurking working? The role of non-assessed discussion boards in an online enabling program literacies subject. Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, 3(2), 158-175.
[E] Fung, Y.Y.H. (2004). Collaborative online learning: Interaction patterns and limiting factors. Open Learning, 19(2), 135-149.
[F] Hughes, G. (2013). Identity and belonging in social learning groups: The importance of distinguishing social, operational and knowledge-related identity congruence. British Educational Research Journal, 36(1), 47-63.
[G] Küçük, M. (2010). Lurking in online asynchronous discussion. Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2(2), 2260-2263.
[H] Lee, J. and Martin, L. (2017). Investigating students’ perceptions of motivating factors of online class discussions. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(5), 148-172.
[I] Orton-Johnson, K. (2007). The online student: lurking, chatting, flaming and joking. Sociological Research Online, 12(6).
[J] Robinson, J. (2011). Assessing the value of using an online discussion board for engaging students. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport & Tourism Education, 10(1), 13-22.
[K] Vonderwell, S. and Zachariah, S. (2005). Factors that influence participation in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(2), 213-230.
A summary of the process is provided in a PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) diagram in Appendix B, and the characteristics of the articles in the final list appear in Table 2 in Appendix C.
Despite synonyms being used during the search stage and reference lists of articles being examined to source further articles containing suitable studies, as with all systematic and integrative reviews, it is possible that some studies were missed. The likelihood of this is increased because the search was limited to only two databases and only one person was applying the exclusion criteria.
Another limitation is that the quality of research articles was not considered as part of the exclusion process. This was due to the relatively small number of papers identified. This goes against the advice of some researchers, such as Cooper (1998) and Walsh and Downe (2005), who emphasise the importance of only including trustworthy research. However, others, for example, Whitemore and Knafl (2005), suggest that, where there are diverse empirical sources, studies should not be excluded based on quality criteria and that, in such situations, methodological quality should be considered if any discrepancies in the findings are identified.
Following the identification of suitable primary sources, the reasons why lurkers do not post were analysed by coding, comparing, categorising and summarising the reasons provided into a unified and integrated list (Cooper, 1998), taking into account similarities and differences in language and concepts used across the studies (Sandelowski et al., 1997). This was carried out through an iterative process. In some cases, assumptions had to be made because methodological quality had not been taken into account in the inclusion/exclusion criteria and there were ambiguities in some of the papers. For example, in the questionnaire used in Küçük’s (2010) study, “long delay in response to posting” could be interpreted by students as waiting for fellow students to respond, or it could be interpreted as waiting for a prompt response from a tutor. Similarly, “not enough time” could refer to a need for more time to digest content before being expected to respond or it could mean that the students felt that they had too many other commitments. Such ambiguities were resolved by cross-referencing with the reasons given in the other studies and, as can be seen, both interpretations were included in these cases. The collated list of reasons is depicted in Table 1.
1. DBs not seen as supporting learning
1.1 Online discussion does not benefit learning [B], [C], [E], [G]
2. Lack of time
2.1 Too many other demands on time [A], [C], [D], [E], [G], [I], [K]
3. Lack of interest
3.1 Topic(s) not interesting or relevant [A], [G], [I], [K]
4. Lack of confidence
4.1 Unconfident about sharing ideas in (online) discussions [A], [D], [E], [G]
5. Lack of content knowledge
5.1 Nothing relevant to say [A], [C], [G], [I], [K]
6. Lack of knowledge of posting conventions
6.1 Still learning about the group [G], [K]
7. Lack of input from module tutor
7.1 Module tutor not sufficiently visible in the DB [B], [D], [F], [H], [K]
8. Lack of engagement from other students
8.1 Other students not posting [D], [E]
9. Barriers to using DB platform
9.1 Problems posting messages [E], [G]
10. Not mandatory
10.1 DB participation not assessed [D], [J]
Table 1. Identified themes and sub-themes in reasons given for why lurkers do not post; the letters in square brackets reference the articles analysed (see Table 2 in Appendix C)
Once the data had been reduced in this way, a deductive thematic analysis was carried out to map the collated list of reasons to the tensions between those elements of the activity system of discussion boards as outlined in Figure 2 above. This resulted in five tensions being identified resulting from secondary contradictions within the activity system:
Subjects-divisions of labour
In addition, quaternary contradictions and an underlying primary contradiction were identified. These are explored in more detail below.
Although discussion boards are included in online programmes to facilitate learning, in four out of the studies, non-posting students felt that just reading/browsing was enough (reason 1.2). This appears to support the idea that non-visible “silent participation” also has value.
Amongst these students may exist a sub-group who may post in the future. That is, they may be peripheral participants. That such a group exists is supported by those lurkers who say they are still getting used to their group (reason 6.1). For these students, possible interventions would be the provision of clear onboarding and guidance in the form of technical support and moderation to allow them to become more familiar with and confident of group and posting norms. One approach to this is Salmon’s (2000) five stage model, which suggests that discussion board prompts be structured over the course of a module to require increased interactivity from the students over time.
It also appears that some students were experiencing an opportunity cost between posting and other activities. That is, they may have felt that reading was sufficient, bearing in mind other barriers. Orton-Johnson (2017) points to this as she describes how lurking allowed her to silently participate in discussion board threads when she did not have sufficient time (reasons 2.1 and 2.2), knowledge (reason 5.1) or interest in a particular topic (reason 3.1). At other times, however, she was able to fully participate and post, although she suggests that the level of concentrated involvement required to do this was not sustainable. This points to a need to establish student workload requirements for participating in discussion boards and monitoring this throughout the module and across modules.
A third group of students are those who do not believe in the benefits of online discussions at all (reason 1.1). It is not clear from the studies which highlighted this reason (Dennen, 2005, Dennen, 2008, Fung, 2004 and Küçük, 2010) whether those students were actively reading, and thus subsumed within the group that felt that reading was sufficient. It is also not clear whether this was module-specific or whether students would hold this belief in all circumstances. To address this requires identifying why the students perceived that they would not benefit from participating in discussions. However, none of the studies explored this. Although explanations to the students about the purpose and benefits of discussion boards could be provided, it may also be that the nature and purpose of the discussion board prompts themselves should be considered.
The lack of clarity about why students did not value discussion board posting suggests that more research is needed, especially research focused on the non-visible activities which some students appear to value. Research focused on both consumption and production activities for lurking and non-lurking students would provide a richer picture of how students are participating. To a certain extent, how students are engaging with discussion boards can be revealed through VLE tracking data. However, as Maltby and Mackie (2016) point out, solely examining tracking statistics cannot provide insights into the reasons for online learning behaviour. This requires research which gathers deeper insights from the students themselves.
As the previous section shows, from the perspective of some of the lurking students, posting is not valued as an activity. This can result in tensions between them and other actors within the activity system. One group of actors of note here form the university administration. Discussion boards can be perceived not just as a tool and site for learning, but also as a way of making learning visible and, therefore, monitorable and measurable. As Salmon (2002) points out, “VLEs are NOT neutral” (p. 8). Indeed, Dawson (2006) suggests that students’ online behaviour may be influenced by whether they perceive it as being surveilled by the university administration and teaching staff. This suggests both primary and quaternary contradictions, which will be considered below.
That the research studies examined here mostly take a position that lurking is problematic suggests that many in the research community share the perspective of the university administration, although not necessarily for the same reasons. Of the studies reviewed, only Orton-Johnson (2017) took a different stance. The reason for this could be seen as being tied to the methodology she adopted. As an autoethnography, hers was the only study where the research agenda was set by a student with experience of lurking. Seven of the other studies included quantitative approaches to data gathering and analysis and Wilton (2018) suggests that such approaches naturally privilege the measurable contributions of posting at the expense of other forms of participation.
Tensions between subjects and tools can be seen as relating to barriers leading to lurking. Four such barriers were evident in the reasons given in the empirical research.
Technical barriers to discussion board participation associated with the tool itself (reasons 9.1, 9.2 and 9.3) were mentioned in three of the studies (Dennen, 2005, Fung, 2004 and Küçük, 2010). The nature of these barriers was not explored. It could relate to students’ unfamiliarity with the platform or hardware and bandwidth problems. Another reason, however, could relate to whether or not the discussion board platform they were using, and the associated prompts and materials, were accessible to all students, including those with diverse hearing, movement or sight abilities. Although some of the technical barriers may be overcome by support and guidance in the form of orientation activities and clear guides, it seems prudent to anticipate the diverse needs of students. Although the three studies identifying these issues are over ten years’ old, it would also be advisable not to make assumptions that all students today are digitally literate and have access to the necessary hardware and devices such that these barriers to accessing and participating in discussion boards are no longer relevant.
A strong theme through all of the studies is a lack of time as an obstacle to students posting on the discussion boards. For at least some of the students, the lack of time related to the time taken up by the non-visible tasks involved in discussion board participation (reason 2.2). This is a reason often associated with synchronous rather than asynchronous contexts as discussion board tools certainly give the opportunity for time to be available before students contribute. However, this reason is perhaps best interpreted as relating not to the technical tools of the discussion board platforms, but to the discussion board prompts and associated course material which mediate the interaction. These can directly impact how much time students need before they contribute. The lack of time could therefore be mitigated by adjusting the workload, pace and flow of discussion board activities.
In addition to the lack of time, some students expressed the feeling that they had nothing to say that had not already been expressed by other students (reason 9.3). This could point to prompts being poorly constructed so that the likelihood of students responding in a similar way to others would be high. It should be noted that some discussion board platforms provide the option of hiding others’ posts until the student has made their initial posting. Such a technological solution—to what is potentially a problem with the discussion board prompts—can be seen as reinforcing the view that the discussion board’s purpose is to make learning visible rather than to promote collaborative learning and learning community formation.
A final barrier evident in the empirical studies relates to students feeling a lack of confidence. In six of the studies, this related to a lack of confidence in how to express themselves, especially if they were non-native speakers of English (reason 4.3). Others lacked confidence in sharing their ideas online (reason 4.1) or in large groups (reason 4.2). Although support and guidance could be provided to encourage these students to post by providing posting guidelines and positive reinforcement through comments when they do post, it should also be noted that some research has found that students who lack confidence to speak up in face-to-face contexts are more comfortable posting in online discussions because of their asynchronous nature (Uysal and Bayyurt, 2005).
In the studies considered, posting was not mandatory. That is, no grades were attached and there was no requirement to make a certain number of posts. Only Doyle and Nieuwoudt (2021) and Robinson (2011) identified this as a reason why students chose not to post. It can be assumed, however, in all studies that regular posting and responding was, to varying extents, an implicit or explicit rule that the students were, for the other reasons given, choosing not to follow.
This leads us to the well-established debate around whether or not posting should be mandatory, enforced through grades. Arguments have been advanced on both sides such that Williams (2004: 2) refers to it as “something of a thorny question and I suspect there is no one answer”. On the one side, making participation mandatory can ensure that those students who do participate do not feel like they are in a one-sided conversation. Indeed, slow response times from other students to initial posts (reason 8.2) and other students not posting at all (8.1) are reasons why some students choose not to participate. On the other side, however, there is a feeling that by forcing students to post, they may be tempted to focus on quantity rather than quality (Bullen, 1998). The risk associated with this is illustrated by the perceived poor quality of other students’ posts leading to some students not posting (reason 1.3). As a thorny question, it appears that there are no clear solutions. However, it appears imprudent to make discussion posts mandatory without addressing the underlying reasons for non-posting behaviour.
Discussion boards are embedded within institutions which require an approach where tutors set assignments, students complete them and then tutors grade them (Boyd, 2008). This division of labour is reified in the tool itself with separate ‘student’ and ‘instructor’ roles. The ‘student’ role provides users with the right to post, view other posts, and potentially receive notifications about posts. In contrast, the ‘instructor’ role allows for the monitoring and tracking of all of the interactions that students have with the discussion board. This can lead to a tension between the tutors’ role in the discussion board as facilitator and their wider role as grade-giver. This in turn could result in discussion boards following the “teacher-dominated, unidirectional discourse of traditional classrooms” (Lapadat, 2002, p. 11) or for tutors and students to have different expectations about the tutor role. This could explain why some students felt a desire for more visibility of tutors within the discussion boards (reason 10.1) and more prompt feedback from those tutors (reason 10.2).
Opportunities to address this may lie in a clarification of the division of labour and the tutor’s role within the discussion board activity system both for tutors and students. Just as students may feel the need for more tutor responses than anticipated, so may tutors interpret the facilitator role such that they are, in effect, lurking themselves. Alternatively, this may point to opportunities for redefining the tutor role with tutors sharing responsibility for setting, providing feedback and potentially grading tasks and assignments with the students.
Underlying many of these contradictions has been the dual role of the discussion board as a means for facilitating learning and a tool for monitoring and tracking all interactions. Like the VLE itself, discussion boards can serve a panoptic function (Ellaway, 2014) with not just the module tutors but also the university administration able to observe the posting frequency and quantity.
This points to an unresolvable primary contradiction. The value that participating in the discussion board has for the students themselves is that it can lead to more successful outcomes. However, a tension exists because these achievement rates have value not just for the individuals but for the higher education institutions themselves. In addition, lurking behaviour is frequently considered an indication that students may be at risk of dropping out and the monitoring of participation and identification of lurking can lead to the early identification of at-risk students (Kai et al., 2016). Higher achievement and retention rates for programmes make them more marketable. This ties to the ever-increasing commodification of higher education (see, for example, Harting & Erthal, 2005). It is likely, therefore, that the interest in measuring participation by the university administration will continue to rise.
The dual tutor role outlined in the previous section and in the section above on the tensions between subjects and community suggests a quaternary contradiction where discussion boards are also part of a separate activity system which seeks to monitor students, whether that is for the purpose of identifying those who may need extra academic and/or pastoral support or for monitoring and evaluating students, and even module tutors and the programme itself. It is not only the discussion boards which belong to separate activity systems. The students are also subjects within other activity systems. This can explain why all the studies highlighted a lack of time as a reason for lurking (reason 2.1). Although this could be addressed through a consideration of student workload and the managing of student expectations about the time requirements of the programme, this lack of time could be compounded if there were limitations associated with discussion board tools which restricted when and where students could study, belying the promise of anytime, anywhere learning (Lee, 2017). Most VLE discussion boards are accessible across devices. However, usability varies, time restrictions are frequently set, and content is not always easily downloadable to be reviewed offline.
Lurking is an invisible activity within discussion boards. Although tutors can identify lurkers by monitoring participation rates, as they do not interact with these students, they are typically unable to identify their reasons for lurking.
This review has identified reasons in published literature as to why lurkers do not post and viewed them through an activity theory lens. This has highlighted the context in which the students are situated by considering the learners in relation to the activity of learning and the mediating technical and non-technical tools used. Rather than leading to the foregrounding of any of the various constructs of lurkers or reasons as to why they lurk, this has shown how they co-exist within the activity system of discussion board participation.
The research shows that some students are not buying into the importance of posting on discussion boards and others are unable to post because of barriers. Many students, however, appear to engage in lurking as a matter of opportunity cost. That is, lurking may be situational, a state that students may shift in and out of depending on other factors. A student may be a lurker in one discussion board but not in another, within one programme but not in another, or, as Dennen (2008) suggests, experiencing a temporary state of lurking before feeling ready to post. The factors determining whether or not they will participate result from other tensions within the activity system and also from contradictions with other activity systems. In the literature, however, lurking is typically treated as a trait. More qualitative studies and the gathering of richer data would provide information about the contexts in which lurkers are more and less likely to actively post and interact.
Whether this non-posting behaviour is interpreted as free-riding or quiet participation depends on the perspective of those who have positions of power within the system. From the perspective of the students themselves, lurking would likely be interpreted as quiet participation. Whether module tutors would agree with them appears dependent on whether or not they equate posting with learning and the extent to which they acknowledge the non-visible activities involved in discussion board participation. Further research here would shed light on what determines tutors’ attitudes towards lurkers, especially in fully online programmes, and how they then choose to respond to the presence of lurkers within their modules.
However, even if quiet participation is regarded as a legitimate way of learning by tutors and students (Wilton, 2018), the panoptic drivers of the system and the requirements of the university administration, as identified through the primary contradiction, may not allow for this. Those needs to track and measure posting quantity and frequency are such that pressure will remain to increase the levels of students’ visible activity within the discussion boards; that is, non-posting behaviours will continue to be regarded as problematic. Although suggestions have been made in the discussion section to minimise the likelihood of lurking, a complementary approach would be to examine how the currently nonvisible activities associated with discussion boards could be tracked and measured to meet the requirements of the university administration.
This paper draws on research undertaken as part of the Doctoral Programme in E-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.
Joanne Roxburgh, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom.
Joanne has over twenty-five years’ experience working within the higher-education sector. She spent the first 15 years of her career working for universities in South-East Asia and the Middle East in materials and curriculum development roles. After returning to the UK in 2011, she led content and product development projects at various multinational education organisations and publishers. In 2018, she began a PhD in e-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University. She complements her studies with consultancy and advisory work, for universities, edtech companies, and NGOs.
Article type: Full paper, double-blind peer review.
Publication history: Received: 05 October 2021. Revised: 28 February 2022. Accepted: 10 March 2022. Published: 28 November 2022.
Cover image: Badly Disguised Bligh via flickr.
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Articles used in the analysis are marked with a plus (+) sign.
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+ Beaudoin, M.F. (2002). Learning or lurking?: Tracking the “invisible” online student. The Internet and Higher Education, 5(2), 147-155.
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+ Dennen, V.P. (2005). From message posting to learning dialogues: factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion. Distance Education, 26(1), 127-148.
+ Dennen, V.P. (2008). Pedagogical lurking: student engagement in non-posting discussion behaviour. Computers in Human Behaviour, 24(4), 1624-1633.
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+ Fung, Y.Y.H. (2004). Collaborative online learning: Interaction patterns and limiting factors. Open Learning, 19(2), 135-149.
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+ Hughes, G. (2013). Identity and belonging in social learning groups: The importance of distinguishing social, operational and knowledge-related identity congruence. British Educational Research Journal, 36(1), 47-63.
+ Küçük, M. (2010). Lurking in online asynchronous discussion. Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2(2), 2260-2263.
Lee, D., Rothstein, R., Dunford, A., Berger, E., Rhoads, J.F. and DeBoer, J. (2021). “Connecting online”: The structure and content of students' asynchronous online networks in a blended engineering class. Computers and Education, 163.
+ Lee, J. and Martin, L. (2017). Investigating students’ perceptions of motivating factors of online class discussions. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(5), 148-172.
Nguyen, T.-M., Viet Ngo, L., Paramita, W. (2022). Turning lurkers into innovation agents: An interactionist perspective of self-determinant theory. Journal of Business Research, 141, 822-835.
+ Orton-Johnson, K. (2007). The online student: lurking, chatting, flaming and joking. Sociological Research Online, 12(6).
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+ Vonderwell, S. and Zachariah, S. (2005). Factors that influence participation in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(2), 213-230.
Wise, A.F., Hausknecht, S.N. and Zhao, Y. (2014). Attending to others' posts in asynchronous discussions: Learners' online "listening" and its relationship to speaking. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 9(2), 185-209.
Wise, A.F., Speer, J., Marbouti, F. and Hsiao, Y.-T. (2013). Broadening the notion of participation in online discussions examining patterns in learners’ online listening behaviours. Instructional Science, 41(2), 323-343.
The following diagram summarises the screening process of the articles identified and subsequently excluded or included through the selection process.
Lurkers and non-lurkers
Foundation of distance education programme for online Masters’ students
Questionnaires – closed and open-ended questions
Undergraduate and graduate students
Undergraduate and graduate students
Questionnaires – Likert-type questions
Doyle and Nieuwoudt (2021)
‘Learning, curriculum and assessment’ module of M.Ed. programme
Questionnaires – Likert-type questions
Third year undergraduate IT, sports science and education students
English Language Teaching programme
Questionnaires – checkbox items
Lee and Martin (2017)
Questionnaires – Likert-type questions
Distance learning course
Third year hospitality management undergraduates
Vonderwell and Zachariah (2005)
Graduate online course on ‘planning for technology’
Student-to-instructor email transcripts and end-of-course reflections