Lurking, Active Learning and Legitimate Peripheral Participation #socmedhe18


Photo by Victorien Ameline on Unsplash

The first principle of active learning according to Bonwell & Eison (1991) is that it is more than passive listening. A rather negative note to start on perhaps, but we can see where they’re coming from. As we prepare, at #socmehe18, to debate the role of lurking and question the use of the very term, I would like to explore active learning and its relationship to Lave and Wenger’s (1990) idea of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). From this I will argue that lurking can exemplify LPP and suggest that what challenges the academic is that the learner is not only silent, but unseen. This may undermine the academic ego, but nonetheless, I argue that effectivitive lurking strategies can be seen to exemplify learning in a social constructivist philosophy. From this we can conclude that the challenge for the facilitative academic is not wanton student disengagement, but the challenge of developing effective lurking strategies, including peer support.

Let’s begin by setting out the key ideas a little more clearly.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation

LPP is part of Lave & Wenger’s theory of situated learning (1990) proposes that, given the right supportive environment, the novice learner moves from the periphery of a community to its center. In doing so, the learner becomes more actively engaged within the culture, eventually assuming the role of an expert or mentor.

Active learning

Bonwell & Eison’s (1991) other principles that circumscribe active learning make clear that, as the basis for pedagogic design, active learning has many more dimensions beyond non-passivity. For example, they highlight engagement in activities and an emphasis on applied skills and exploration. Pedagogic design is concerned with developing intrinsic motivation and how this is helped through integral feedback. Importantly, a student’s critical analysis of the learning sitiuation is fundamental.

Active learning also takes many forms, being versatile for the innovative academic intent on creating challenging, rigorous and stretching learning situations (Lave & Wenger, 1990). It is an imprecise term and that gives it strength as an adaptable philosophy capable of responding to any learning context. For example, ideas like Problem-based Learnng, Project-based Learning, Enquiry-based Learning, Authentic Learning, Scenario-based Learning, exploratory, experimental, and experiential learning, and many other notions of student-centred learning, can all be understood as active learning approaches.

Key here, though, are ideas of student-centred, deep and challenging learning activities designed to develop intrinsic motivation in the each and every learner.

Social media for learning framework

A few years ago Sue Beckingham and myself considered some of these ideas as the basis of a Social media for learning framework (Middleton & Beckingham, 2013) which I discussed at #socmedhe15. The framework demonstrates how well social media can be used to support an active learning philosophy. The framework presents seven design principles with example applications. The first principle highlights social inclusion: supporting and validating learning through mutually supportive communities of practice. A further principle highlights the co-operative nature of the social media learning space. The value of the open learning environment is also pertinent to our discussion on learning. In short, the framework as a whole reminds us that social media create a rich space for learning based on sound and established principles, but it is an innovative space that requires us as learners and academics to renegotiate our expectations of each other.

Nevertheless, advocates of social media for learning believe lurking (what Sue prefers to refer to as ‘silent participation’) is an issue worthy of debate. It is not a ‘non issue’ for me, but I wonder if concerns about non-visible, silent or hidden participation are overblown and misrepresented?

Lurking – what are we scared of?

Let’s try to break down what we mean by lurking, or silent participation.

It can describe an unknown presence. That is, it can assume a sinister meaning, that of the active, visibly committed learner being observed by undeclared others. What is more, because these observers are undeclared, ethically there is a danger that the effort and ideas of active participants will be ‘ripped off’, unacknowledged, or plagiarised. That would clearly be unfair. There is a danger, then, that this sinister non-presence may inhibit or even deter the engagement of the more vociferous, committed and evidently enthusiastic learner.

Alternatively, lurking may be thought of as ‘lazy learning’. A condemnation that some people benefit by always making life easier for themselves by not doing work if they can get away with it. Especially if, as is a common discourse in discussions of group work (Chapman et al., 2018), other, keener students can be relied upon to do all the work because they will always fill the gap, as in a pedagogic game of chicken.

Undoubtedly some of these concerns are founded. Facilitators will do their best to devise strategies to address them, especially in situations where the integrity of marking assessment tasks is likely to be undermined. However, I argue a principle of student-centred learning and learner autonomy is that each student must first assume responsibility for their own learning and this means understanding the benefits of their engagement. To some extent this requires the autonomous learner to manage the situation. There are many benefits to having more passive peers in the room, but now is not the time to go there beyond noting that audiences have a role in the active learning space and benchmarking oneself against others is a part of developing self-efficacy.

Lurking can also describe a known presence, and this brings us a little closer to ideas of LPP, learning through modelling, peer mentorship as a learning strategy and the active and positive use of scaffolding in Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978). ZPDs recognise that learning involves travelling a distance. Designing effective challenges and taking account of the learner’s proximity to their desired outcomes are important factors for identifying how a learner should be supported through the notional zone – from one state to the desired state. Lurking in this context is a legitimate strategy that can be adopted by the learner and, arguably, should be encouraged by the facilitative academic. In this state of emergent participation the learner actively analyses and assimilates knowledge, capabilities, and strategies that will result in effective contributions being made to the social context in due course.

A positive academic and a co-operative learning community will appreciate the value of learner transition through effective lurking and will support and devise supportive strategies for effective lurking.

Effective lurking

Effective lurking becomes an effective and acceptable learning strategy based on an understanding of the learner, and the learning community, and their being cignisant of it. It is a critical and active position, in that it involves the learner as a critical observer and listener, analysing the situation and thereby learning from it. Further, it advantages the who learning community which recognises it own role in scaffolding learning capability, and fostering and deriving benefit from a mutually beneficial communal situation.


Lurking as learning is an unknown quantity to academics and peers.That conclusion itself presumes that other forms of learning are known quantities to academics and peers. They are not. Ultimately learning is a deeply personal and dynamic experience which is partially hidden, unheard, and undisclosed; all learning involves a degree of ‘lurking’ therefore.

Effective lurking may be understood as an informed strategy adopted by any, possibly all learners, in an active learning space. when we say we are ‘learning by doing’ we are in effect learning by continually ameliorating minute risks, and in an active social learning environment, this amelioration involves letting more confident others (Vygotsky’s More Knowledgeable Others) take the lead.


Bonwell, C.C. & Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1). Washington DC: The George Washington University, Scool of Education and Human Development.

Chapman, J., Gillette, J., Dorneich, M., O’Dwyer, M., Grogan, B., Brown, J., Leonard, T., Rongerude, B., &  Winter, L. (2018). Off to on: Best practices for online Team-Based Learning. Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching Publications. 1.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated learning: Legitimate Periperal Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Middleton, A. & Beckingham, S. (2013). Social media for learning framework. In A. Middleton, ed. ‘Smart learning: teaching and learning with smartphones and tablets in post-compulsory Education. Sheffield: MELSIG and Sheffield Hallam University.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Active Learning, Belonging, Literacies and Intelligence, Open Learning, Scholarship and Research, Smart Learning & BYOD, Social Media for Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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