The question of the value of lurking is a common one for learning and teaching. Is it okay for students to simply sit quietly and listen, especially in an online forum? Should we “force” them to participate?
I’m currently reading Saba (2000) as a ploy to generate more insight into “what is research”. Saba (2000) has a section titled “Theory-based research”, which summarises some of the research done in distance education. The first cab off the rank is Fulford and Zhang (1993) and this research seems to suggest one answer to the question of lurking.
Learners’ perception of learning
Saba’s (2000) description of their research is that it studied the perception learners’ had of interaction. The conclusion was that such perception was a critical indicator of satisfaction. Saba quotes
overall interaction dynamics may have a stronger impact on learners’ satisfaction than strictly personal participation. Vicarious interaction may result in greater learner satisfaction than would the divided attention necessary to ensure the overt engagement of each participant
The recommendation then is to design teaching so as to increase the learners perception of overall interaction.
That sounds like to me as offering an answer to the lurking question. There is some benefit to lurking if through lurking the learner perception of the level of interaction increases.
The indicators project
Combining these with some other methods would seem to be a good way to test these findings. Especially given the evolution of distance education since 1993.
Should probably start with the other literature. According to Google Scholar Fulford and Zhang have been referenced almost 300 times. Should be some interesting stuff in there.
Beaudoin (2002) might be a good place to start, from the abstract
The data shows that these students do, in fact, spend a significant amount of time in learning related tasks, including logging on, even when not visibly participating, and they feel they are still learning and benefiting from this low profile approach to their online studies. However, preliminary analyses of course grades indicate that the mean grade is slightly better for high visibility learners than for no visibility learners. Findings suggest that further research in the area of the so-called invisible learner is a critical area of investigation to better understand the dynamics of asynchronous learning and teaching.
Looking at the invisible learner might be interesting.
Beaudoin, M. (2002). “Learning or lurking?: Tracking the “invisible” online student.” The Internet and Higher Education 5(2): 147-155.
Fulford, C. P., & Zhang, S. (1993). Perception of interaction: The critical predictor in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(3), 8-21.
Saba, F. (2000). “Research in distance education: A status report.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 1(1).