Teaching presence, PLN’s and lurking

I was happy to hear that an article I submitted to the Journal of Distance Education has been accepted and am grateful for some great anonymous constructive comments.  I still feel like more peer review is better than less, so I’m posting it here for critique and comments.  The article is about how instructors negotiated their teaching presence while teaching in international online courses.  In it I challenge how we currently think about and measure teaching presence, since from a sociocultural perspective it becomes necessary to examine other contextual conditions and factors that influence the practice of online teaching.  I suggest that positioning and identity are important concepts in understanding this practice.

This was  also where my head was when I commented on George Siemens’ thought-provoking post on PLNs.  His post generated a number of interesting comments but the topic of lurking was largely binary–lurking is good or lurking is bad, with some legitimate peripheral participation thrown in the mix.  I agreed with most of his post, with the exception of the second last paragraph, where it was suggested that lurking is negative, and that newcomers shouldn’t sit on the periphery.  There were several commenters who challenged this, pointing out that communities of practice are a process of moving from the periphery to the centre (Lave and Wenger themselves illustrated this through examples of the apprenticeship model of teaching learning) and that identity construction is a key part of this process.

As with online teaching, I think it is difficult to talk about participation however broadly defined–regardless of whether it is an online course with discussion board, a PLN, or a network–without talking about positioning and identity.  George’s response was thoughtful, pointing out that the rules and norms and expectations of PLNs vs. communities are different.  I suspect there is truth in this, since broadly speaking they may become cultural practices with rules and norms.  At the same time, I have to challenge this idea, since it begs the question for whom and in what context?

In my own reading of communities of practice literature (Lave and Wenger, Wenger) and even activity theory (Engestrom) they don’t account for how participants are positioned and positioned by others, or how identity/ies are negotiated in discursive spaces such as online communities, PLNs, or networks.  Critical to understanding this is getting at the why’s of participation, and more importantly non- participation/lurking/observing only.  Language socialization research has been on to this for a while, examining, for example, how ESL learners resist classroom practices, dominant cultural norms, and positioning by others as being deficient in the dominant language (c.f. Norton, 2001).   This isn’t to say that lurking is always a form of resistance, since as some of the commenters suggested, lurking can also be a learning activity.  Lurking may not be taking, and sometimes it may be good to be a lurker.  Lurking might be marginalization, as it might also be silent learning.  Lurking can be laziness, but it can also be the most active kind of participation that an individual can engage in if they are unable to contribute for whatever reason (eg. language).  As with online teaching, the dynamics of participation are constantly being negotiated, and without greater discussion of this, we may end up with a laundry list of PLN best practices, much like we already experience with online teaching.

One Comment

  • Clint Lalonde

    Important points, Tannis. There are dynamics at play in any kind of social relationship that need to be negotiated. In order to fully commit to learning, you have to be able to feel like you are in a safe environment – safe enough that you can push boundaries and, perhaps, fail. And if getting to that point of where you feel “safe” means that you are not visibly participating, then that should be perfectly acceptable.

    I also think there is another term that is missing from this conversation – social loafing. To me, social loafing is a better way to describe the behaviour of those who willfully do not participate and instead ride the coattails of others. To me, social loafing is unacceptable behaviour. But I don’t think it should be synonymous with lurking, just as lurking should not be synonymous with legitimate peripheral participation. The lines between all three seem to blur when discussions of this sort come up.

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