Issues with engagement and participation
Thus far in the course we have been discussing the value of student engagement and participation in online learning. While it has been proven by many studies that engagement leads to improved outcomes for students (see Kahn 2014), a growing body of literature is questioning our understandings of engagement. Let’s take a look at some of these critiques, and then examine how they might influence our teaching practices in concrete ways.
To begin, Kahn (2014) highlights that student engagement as a concept remains somewhat under-theorised. He points out that the literature lacks investigation into the student’s own intentions and downplays student’s role in shaping their own engagement, and tends to focus on the role of teaching staff in fostering engagement. This is not surprising, as we ourselves have done this over the previous days of this course! In her comprehensive review of student engagement research, Trowler (2010:9) finds that, “The literature often has a normative agenda, characterised by discussions of gains and benefits while ignoring possible downsides, and at times a reductionist approach…” In many studies, student engagement is taken to be inherently beneficial and positive.
“The tyranny of participation”
Gourlay (2015) in particular offers a critical perspective on student engagement. She questions whether we are putting too much stock in engagement as the only measure of whether or not students are learning. The move towards active learning, with its emphasis on public, observable participation (such as discussion and participation in activities), is becoming increasingly widespread in Western higher education. This type of learning is easier to measure, to be sure. However, Gourlay points out that learning on one’s own, privately and through individual study, is not privileged in the accepted understandings of engagement: “Silent listening and thinking are assumed to be markers of passivity and therefore not indicative of engagement.” (2015: 404) She continues: “…There is a risk that the orthodoxy of student engagement may lead to practices which are quiet, private, non-verbal and non-observable becoming bracketed as essentially deviant and in need of remediation…” (2015: 405)
In fact, unlike active learning principles which emphasize engagement with peers, the most common type of engagement in higher education is engagement with texts, and this is not present in the discourse around student engagement. By privileging public and verbal ways of learning over solitary practices like silent study or reading, Gourlay points out that practices common in other educational cultures such as East Asia are seen as “deficient” in a student engagement model. She calls this the “tyranny of participation”, where prioritising verbal and textual performances of participation are seen as superior to individual, passive practices.
An example of this in an online context is Dennen’s (2008) study of student participation in discussion forums. As with Gourlay, Dennen points out that active messaging is implicitly valued as it is the easiest to see and measure, but she notes that students may be participating as “lurkers” – reading and reflecting on posts but not writing.
While lurking is usually seen as having negative connotations (benefitting from discussions without contributing to them), Dennen questions whether this is the case in educational settings. Alert physical attendance is noted as a marker of participation in face-to-face classes, and we acknowledge that not everyone will be able to speak every time. Can this not be true online as well? Those who do not post in forums are often still legitimate participants – it’s just that we don’t know that they are there (2008:1626).
Dennen’s survey of students indicated that lurkers had a variety of reasons for not posting: they did not feel the need, they felt they had nothing original to contribute, or they were having technical difficulties: “In class settings… lurkers may be silent due to confidence-related issues, afraid to do something incorrectly in front of their peer group, but still committed to learning.” (2008:1627-8) In fact, Dennen discovered that: “Students who participated solely to meet course requirements and who focused on posting messages more than reading messages had less positive impressions of the discussion activity’s impact on learning.” (2008:1624)
Connecting critique and practice
In this course, we’ve talked a lot about the value of engagement, active learning, and discussion. It’s something that is promoted and encouraged for academics to undertake– including by this course and its facilitators! So what do we do with these studies that question the role of engagement? Here are a few suggestions, and I welcome more in the comments.
- Look at what types of engagement you are including within your course, and try not to privilege one type of engagement (the active, visible kind). Are there opportunities for other types of engagement, including solitary, individual study?
- If so, how are these “measured” or valued by assessment, like active, verbal participation?
- Reflect on the context of your course and its students: what types of skills are required for this discipline? Where do the students come from and what might their needs be?
- How might you deal with the issue of lurkers in your course?
Resources and Further Reading
- Dennen, V.P. (2008) ‘Pedagogical lurking: Student engagement in non-posting discussion behavior.’ Computers in Human Behavior. 24(4): 1624-1633. Available: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756320700115X
- Gourlay, L. (2015) ‘Student engagement and the tyranny of participation.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4):402-411. Available: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13562517.2015.1020784
- Kahn, P.E. (2014) ‘Theorising student engagement in higher education.’ British Educational Research Journal, 40(6):1005-1018. Available: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/berj.3121/full
- Trowler, V. (2010) Student engagement literature review. Higher Education Academy. Available: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/evidencenet/Student_engagement_literature_review
You can respond to the questions above, but here are a few more to get you thinking as well.
- What do you think of Gourlay and others’ critiques of student engagement? Do you think active learning is the best way for students to learn or are you swayed by their arguments?
- How can we apply these theories to the work we’ve done in the previous days of the course?