How should MOOC designers respond to student silence?

I just finished doing a PGCert in Digital Education, and I thought I’d post a few of things I wrote for it here. This essay was written in April 2016 for the course Introduction to Digital Environments for Learning.

anechoic chamber

A teacher in a secondary school classroom raises her voice above the chatter.
“Ok everyone, settling down please. Pens down. Eyes to the front. Jordan, pen down please. Thanks.”
The talking goes quiet but the teacher can still hear a whispered conversation. She widens her eyes at the whispering student, who instantly goes quiet.
There’s a pause as the teacher lets the silence fill the room. Comfortable that she is not speaking over anyone, she is free to talk to her students with a measured pace and a confident, relaxed tone.

Down the hall, another teacher is trying to lead a class discussion about two images of Elizabeth I.
“What differences do you notice between these two paintings?”
No response. Instead of moving on, the teacher waits for a few seconds. The silence is painful for everyone, and the teacher instinctively wants to break it. He could ask a follow-up question, pick on someone, give a hint or two. But this teacher wants to use the silence, turn it back on the class. Sure enough, a student hesitantly raises their hand to volunteer an answer.

Silence is a powerful tool for a teacher. In the first of the two examples above, the teacher uses silence to demonstrate her alertness and authority. In the second, the teacher uses a technique known as Wait Time (Lemov, 2010), harnessing the awkwardness of silence as a way to draw an answer out of reluctant students.

Both of these examples are taken from the physical environment of a secondary school. In this essay, I focus on the role of silence in digital environments, specifically Massive Open Online Courses. How is silence relevant in this context? Is it a problem if students on a MOOC “sit out” of class discussions? In particular, how should course designers respond to the silence of many MOOC participants?

Defined simply and literally, silence is the absence of some expected sound. This is clear enough in the classroom examples above, where student talk is expected but not occurring. However, it is not difficult to complicate such a simple definition. John Cage’s composition 4’33” famously highlights the fact that any absence of sound is soon filled with ambient noise. Cage once visited an anechoic chamber, reporting that he could still hear the workings of his nervous system and the movement of his own blood (Cage, 1955). Examples such as these suggest that despite our ability to talk about it, complete silence is not something we ever experience. When we talk about silence, perhaps we are not describing an actual vacuum of sound so much as drawing attention to the sounds that are missing.

I have provided two examples in which literal silence might have a practical use in a physical classroom. Beyond this instrumental use, it is worth bearing in mind that shared, collective silence also has a spiritual dimension. This is the silence we hear in a Quaker meeting house, in a Buddhist meditation centre, or in a football stadium following a tragedy. This silence can induce a state of thoughtful reflection, something that is of immense value to an educator. Monash University run a MOOC on FutureLearn called Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance, and it is conceivable that a course like this would require literal silence on the part of the participants. However, in most cases, it is hard to see how the literal silence of students may be of general use in online education. In any case, most participation in MOOCs is already silent. Students are far more likely to contribute through text than through audio.

Moving away from silence as a literal auditory nothingness, the concept is frequently used metaphorically to highlight the absence of voices or speech, and by extension, a person or group’s absence from an area of discourse. This metaphorical silence has clear application to online educational environments. In these cases, we might describe a “lurker” on a forum as a silent participant, reading posts but not contributing themselves. In what follows, I would like to use this wider, metaphorical definition of silence.

MOOCs are frequently analysed with a distinction being drawn between xMOOCs and cMOOCs (Daniel, 2012). xMOOCs are characterised by content delivery and automated testing, following a behaviourist educational philosophy where knowledge is broadcast to students by expert teachers. Student discussion in xMOOCs is not required, but may be encouraged as a means to clarify and learn that knowledge. By contrast, cMOOCs place greater emphasis on students participating in a community or network of learners. cMOOCs draw on connectivist theories of education, which typically highlight the importance of students co-creating knowledge (Siemens, 2005). We would therefore expect instructors on a cMOOC to encourage discussion among students as a means of meeting that end. In cMOOCs, student silence might be seen as more problematic than the same phenomenon occurring in xMOOCs. If the aim of a cMOOC is to promote dialogue and discussion, instructors might see student silence as a worrying indication that the MOOC is failing in some way. Are the forums not welcoming enough? Are we not stimulating debate as well as we could?

For MOOCs, there are three problems that are the direct result of student silence. First, silent students are missing out on the educational benefits of active participation. Passively watching a video lecture is pedagogically inferior to watching the video and then entering a conversation about it afterwards (Hobbs, 2006). It is through entering discussion that the student reflects on and engages with what they have watched. In theory, the thought required to participate should both improve retention and lead to deeper understanding of the subject matter (Willingham, 2009).

Second, student silence makes it harder for an instructor-student dialogue to take place. In a traditional classroom, the majority of formative assessment occurs via conversation. Through informal questioning, teachers quiz students and identify gaps in their knowledge. This type of one-to-one dialogue is clearly impractical for a MOOC with 10,000 enrolled students. But without hearing the voiced misconceptions of their students, instructors have nothing to correct. The only misconceptions they hear will come from the more vocal participating students. These voices may not be illustrative of common misconceptions across the cohort.

Third, silent students can be seen as detrimental to the course as a whole. Silent students reduce the feeling for others that a course is inhabited; following Lombard and Ditton (1997), we might say that their silence leads to the course environment lacking “presence as social richness”. In addition, the same silence reduces the positive network effects that we see emphasised by the connectivists. This particular point was made forcefully by in a blog post by Siemens (2010):

“Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state. I’ve ranted about this before, but there is never a good time to be a lurker. Lurking=taking. The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative. Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding.”

In the same post, Siemens argues that cMOOCs operate on a gift-economy basis, where we receive the benefits of sharing, and should therefore share our contributions in return. Participation becomes a moral obligation, part of the deal for anyone who wants to enrol on a cMOOC. Knox (2016, p108) uses this argument to draw out a tension arising within the connectivist community. On the one hand, we have Siemens advocating a kind of obligatory participation that leads to a strong and active network of learning. On the other hand, defenders of lurking argue that enforced participation puts individual autonomy at risk. This is ironic, because learner autonomy is one of the most prized characteristics of MOOCs. You can learn what you want, when you want, where you want. This emphasis on autonomy does not sit well with an instructor trying to choose for you how you participate in the course.

Gulatti (2008) investigates how constructivist online pedagogies deal with the issue of student silence and enforced participation. In particular, she highlights the power relations that come into play in courses where students are not allowed to remain silent. Drawing on Foucault (1979), Gulatti points out that any enforcement of silence requires surveillance, and that surveillance leads to the watchers having a disciplinary power over the watched. Like Knox, Gulatti helps us see that enforcing silence is at odds with the more egalitarian approach to an instructor’s role that we see in certain online pedagogies. The “guide by the side” approach, adopted by superstar online tutors such as Sal Khan and Keith Devlin, is friendly and non-threatening. It might be difficult to reconcile this with the message that all students are being watched, and that a failure to participate will carry unpleasant consequences.

Part of my current job has involved supporting the University of Edinburgh’s online MSc programme in Epistemology, Ethics and Mind. The courses that make up the programme all require participation in forums, with 15% of the final grade based on a student’s level of participation. Taking part in these discussion forums is effectively compulsory; if a student wants to get a good grade, silent lurking is not an option. The same department has also produced two large-scale MOOCs, “Introduction to Philosophy” and “Philosophy and the Sciences” (Part 1 / Part 2), both delivered through Coursera. The MOOCs follow a similar pedagogy to the online Masters programme, and are largely made up of video lectures, readings and discussion forums. The Masters programme includes small group seminars held through videoconferencing software, while the MOOCs have a greater use of automated multiple-choice tests. In all cases, there is an emphasis on learning how to do philosophy as opposed to simply learning about it. The forums exist as a playground for students to challenge ideas and have their ideas challenged in turn. Silent students may learn about philosophical writings as a body of knowledge, but it is hard to believe these same students would show much improvement at the practice of doing philosophy. For that, they would need to break their silence and take part.

I am currently involved in the planning and design of two new MOOCs produced by Philosophy staff at the University, and it is with this in mind that I turn to the question of this essay, “How should MOOC designers respond to student silence?”

There seems to be a spectrum of possible responses. At one end – call it the disciplinarian end – we could require participation as a necessary part of our Philosophy MOOCs. If students haven’t posted in the forums by, say, the third week, they get thrown off the course.

This might seem overly strict. Moving along the spectrum, we could choose to encourage participation rather than require it. Perhaps a student’s final grade could be partially based on the number of forum posts that a student has made throughout the course. Students might then try to get around this by posting a high volume of low quality posts. In response, the grade could be informed by a measure of how many upvotes a student’s forum posts received from their fellow classmates. In this way, we would establish a course with an active culture of participation, which as discussed above, benefits both the students themselves and the student cohort as a whole.

At the opposite end of the spectrum – call this the libertarian end – we could leave the decision of whether to participate entirely up to a student’s personal choice. I believe this is the best option for the following reasons. First, rather than going against the grain, this approach works with the culture of student autonomy that has grown up around MOOCs. This culture extends to the culture of the web at large. The web presents us with a huge amount of choice, and typically does not require much commitment. We drop in to websites as we choose and drop out when we’re done. This was a shock for many following the first round of MOOC hysteria and there was much hand-wringing about the drop-out rates of MOOCs, which would be shocking in the context of formal education. However, this drop-in/drop-out aspect of MOOCs is coming to be accepted as a consequence of how people treat online environments.

Second, by not requiring participation in a MOOC, we are freed from the burden of having to measure it. This is no small matter, because measuring participation means we have to restrict that participation to a particular platform; for example, the forums within Coursera. This means we are effectively penalising students who choose to explore external avenues for participation. A student who stays silent in a Coursera forum might be actively discussing the subject matter on Twitter and Facebook. Furthermore, they might be taking the discussion to offline environments: others in the home or workplace might be taking a course at the same time, for instance. Knox (2016) devotes some pages to the phenomenon of being a popular way for MOOC students to get together and discuss their work in person.

I would like to conclude by saying that student silence should not be assumed, even when it seems clearly apparent. The problem may not be that our students are silent, but that we don’t know that they are talking. I write this with online education in mind, but there is no reason why this should not apply to brick-and-mortar classrooms. The silent student may very well stop being silent once they are out of the teacher’s earshot. Any response to how we deal with silence needs to bear that in mind.


Cage, J. (1955). “Experimental music: doctrine” in The Score (June).

Daniel, J., (2012). “Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility”. Journal of Interactive Media in Education. 2012(3), p.Art. 18. DOI: <; Available at: <;

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books.

Gulati, S. (2008). “Compulsory participation in online discussions: is this constructivism or normalization of learning?” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 45(2): 183-192.

Hobbs, R., 2006. “Non-optimal uses of video in the classroom”. Learning, Media and Technology 31(1), March, pp.35-50.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the MOOC: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.

Lombard, M. and Ditton, T. (1997). “At the heart of it all: The concept of presence.” The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(2) [Online]. Available from <; [Accessed 7 May 2016].

Siemens, G. (2005) “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.” International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 No. 1, January. Available from <; [Accessed 7 May 2016].

Siemens, G. (2010) “My Personal Learning Network is the most awesomest thing ever!!” [blog post] December 1. Available at:
<; [Accessed 7 May 2016].

Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey-Bass: San Franscisco

Image credits

Anechoic chamber

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