The expectations and reality of online teaching can be disheartening. You pose a question to a hundred students online, and only get 1 detailed reply and 9 fairish responses.   

What about the other 90 students? Why are THEY not participating? Is it the way you asked the question? Wrong timing? Anxiety? Or a sign they are in the wrong unit?  

Before you write yourself off as a ‘hopeless’ online facilitator, it might help to know that most online communities seem to reflect the statistics above. The famous ’90-9-1’ where 90% only read contributions, 9% contribute moderately and only 1% are active contributors seems to be true for many online communities (Sun, Rau, & Ma, 2014). And while the university context should (hopefully) encourage participation, it is still wise to expect that most students will NOT be inclined to jump in the online discussion and contribute to it.  

Why are they just lurking?  

There are many reasons why online participants feel reluctant to post and respond to others, such as unfamiliarity with the specific tools, lack of confidence, too many forum notifications, lack of incentive, etc. (Daud, Khalid, Ahmad, Abd Rahman, & Karim, 2016).  

And even though ‘lurking’ has been re-considered ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and ‘vicarious learning’(Cox, McKendree, Tobin, Lee, & Mayes, 1999), you might still yearn for more active participation and community-building in your unit, especially for online students.  

Last week I facilitated a discussion about increasing student participation and community-building (if you are still not a part of our podcast discussion club – feel free to join here. We meet monthly and discuss learning and teaching topics).  

Here are 5 top take-aways from our discussion.  

  1. It takes planning.  

Online participation and community building will not happen automatically – they need to be designed and scaffolded (see point 2). It is both reassuring as it shows that lackluster participation can happen to anybody and frustrating in that it also adds to our workload (it won’t happen unless you plan for it).  

It is also a good idea to start the first session by setting expectations, including those around netiquette and the timeliness of responses to queries, or, in other words, getting on the same page with the students to both encourage their participation, and pre-empt inappropriate behavior.  

  1. Start with ‘low-entry’ activities. 

‘Safe and easy’ activities are good ‘low -entry’ points to encourage participation / break the ice with technology.  

One example shared in the session was asking students to respond to a multiple-choice question of guessing the convenor’s hobby. Other ‘low-entry’ activities can include using emoticons (to indicate agreement, answers or the need for help) or typing in chat. Kahoot and Socrative were the most used tools among people who attended our podcast discussion. We also heard that are plans to pilot a new tool that can be connected to iLearn: FLUX will allow some of the same functionality but under MQ control and support, so watch this space! 

  1. Peer-to-peer. 

Peer-to-peer interactions might be less intimidating than asking the instructor. One participant shared that his 1st year students are more likely to ask a forum moderator (a student who was employed in the role) than himself. While not everybody has the luxury of a paid moderator, students can be actively encouraged (and potentially incentivised) to respond to other students’ questions. Other examples included setting up ‘just chatting’ forums. 

  1. Anonymous option. 

It seems less threatening to share thoughts/ideas/questions anonymously, and many tools, including the Active Learning Platform (MQ-supported tool) allow it. A good practice in this case might be to flag to students that while they will appear anonymous to other students, in the case of offensive or inappropriate behavior, the instructor will be able to identify offenders.   

  1. Size matters. 

It is more intimidating to share things in front of many people, which is why using ‘breakout rooms’ or small groups is a good way to kickstart participation and community. However, as a personal example of another participant showed, sometimes students might take the ‘breakout room’ time for Facebook browsing, etc., so it might be prudent to have some accountability measure, like asking students to post the summary of their discussion somewhere, e.g. a Padlet, iLearn forum or active learning platform. 

Cox, R., McKendree, J., Tobin, R., Lee, J., & Mayes, T. (1999). Vicarious learning from dialogue and discourse. Instructional science, 27(6), 431-458.

Daud, M. Y., Khalid, F., Ahmad, M., Abd Rahman, M. J., & Karim, A. A. (2016). “To Participate or Not?”: Identifying the Factors Affecting University Students’ Participation in an e-Forum. Creative Education, 7(18), 2791-2802.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation: Cambridge university press.

Sun, N., Rau, P. P.-L., & Ma, L. (2014). Understanding lurkers in online communities: A literature review. Computers in Human Behavior, 38, 110-117. doi:

Posted by Olga Kozar

I'm a 'long-term' Mq girl. I did my PhD here and taught on different courses, ranging from 1st year to PhD students. I now work in Learning and Teaching, which I love. I have 2 young kids and a dog, and I love meeting other Mq people, so give me a shout if you'd like to talk 'learning and teaching' or would like to brainstorm together.

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