Student engagement and lurking, are these mutually exclusive?

Student engagement and lurking, are these mutually exclusive? 

By Dr Robyn Brunton, Senior Lecturer Psychology, School of Psychology, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, NSW 2795  

As a higher education teacher who has taught online students for many years, student engagement with my online discussion forums (i.e., any online platform used for asynchronous teaching) has been a key focus of mine and an area that I often felt where I was failing. Discussion forums are a feature in many of our learning management systems and a common means to communicate and interact with online students (da Silva et al., 2019) whether it is formally for assessment requirements or informally to post messages and ‘keep in touch’. However often it is only a select few students that regularly post/respond and this non responsiveness to a forum post or a lack of posting can be interpreted as low or no engagement (Dennen, 2008), but is this really what is happening?  

To understand these dynamics (or lack of) we need to ask – what do we mean by engagement? When we teach on campus and a student sits in our classroom listening intently and taking copious notes, but not contributing to the conversation, they are seemingly engaged. This may well be the situation with forums but we cannot see this behavioural engagement virtually as we can physically in a classroom. This led me to think that perhaps we are misconceiving these so-called unengaged students (Brunton et al., 2022). Integral to this misconception is the distinction between participation and engagement (Douglas et al., 2020). Not all students want to participate in online forums but that does not mean they are not engaging with the content. Often students that do not choose to participate are called lurkers, which is a term that has a negative connotation as it brings to mind a dark and disembodied person (see Honeychurch et al., 2017 for a discussion on perceptions of lurkers). But students that lurk may well still be engaged and benefit from what they are reading on the forum (Brunton et al., 2022) 

 There are many reasons why students choose not to post on forums and these can range from feeling intimidated or silly to a sense of imposterism (Brunton et al., 2022; Griffin & Roy, 2019). However, some students, despite their lurking still achieve academically, likely because they are still consuming and benefitting from the content (Brunton et al., 2022). Perhaps now is the time to reconceptualise our thinking of these lurkers, who we prefer to call quiet participants, as students that are studying quietly, engaging with the content and learning in a way that is consistent with their preferred style. Learning management system providers can also potentially transform these online platforms into more dynamic teaching spaces that are suited to a wider range of learning preferences by enhancing their product with the inclusion of visible indicators that posts have been read or consumed, similar to being ‘liked’ on social media. As long-time teachers know, there is no one-size fits all approach to online teaching. 


Brunton, R., MacDonald, J., Sugden, N., & Hicks, B. (2022). Discussion Forums are they a Misnomer?’ Examining Lurkers, Engagement, and Academic Achievement. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 38(5).  

da Silva, L. F. C., Barbosa, M. W., & Gomes, R. R. (2019). Measuring participation in distance education online discussion forums using social network analysis. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 70(2), 140-150.  

Dennen, V. P. (2008). Pedagogical lurking: Student engagement in non-posting discussion behavior. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(4), 1624-1633.  

Douglas, T., James, A., Earwaker, L., Mather, C., & Murray, S. (2020). Online discussion boards: Improving practice and student engagement by harnessing facilitator perceptions. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 17(3).  

Griffin, L., & Roy, J. (2019). A great resource that should be utilised more, but also a place of anxiety: student perspectives on using an online discussion forum. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 1-16.  

Honeychurch, S., Bozkurt, A., Singh, L., & Koutropoulos, A. (2017). Learners on the Periphery: Lurkers as Invisible Learners. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 20(1), 192-212.  


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Tom Worthington
1 year ago

I am an enthusiastic participant in classroom, and online forums, to the point where I occasionally have to be asked to “dial it down”. However, as an international graduate student a few years ago, I found I was at a loss to contribute. I was, for a change, the minority, in terms of gender, background, parenting, profession, nationality, and language. As a result, I could not understand much of the informal discussion, nor have something to contribute. Each post would take me days to compose, be too late to be relevant, and be ignored. When it came to find teams… Read more »