Accepted Papers

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Lurking on the threshold: being learners in silent spaces

Maggi Savin-Baden, Christine Sinclair; Christine Chambers and Second Wind

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This paper presents our perspectives of being learners on a relatively new and innovative MSc in E-Learning. We explore our underlying reasons for undertaking this course, particularly as we are both fairly experienced academics, but perhaps more interestingly the paper also examines when and how we experienced ‘stuckness’, and the particular catalysts that resulted in stuckness.  In providing reflections on the same course from two different perspectives, we are able to highlight both shared experiences and very different responses triggered by the same catalysts.  

The paper begins by presenting our positions as both academics and learners.  We have come to this course with a variety of professional and personal motivations, including curiosity, the desire for personal learning and development, and research into the experiences of higher education.  Both authors use spatial metaphors in thinking about student learning, (for example, Savin-Baden 2008): as learners, our own encounters with new kinds of learning spaces have expanded those metaphors and given us new tools to interrogate the usefulness of ‘cyberspace’ as a concept.

We particularly explore the notion of ‘silence in online spaces’ and suggest that being an e-learning student can sometimes feel like being in a silent space.  Paradoxically, online spaces can also seem to be very noisy places, with many people ‘talking’ at once and using a language that may be alien in part. For example, Phipps (2005) has discussed the notion of ‘sounds’ in academia and argues that the changes in sounds is having a somewhat unhelpful impact on the quality of academic life experiences. Phipps’ work, although located in a deconstruction of sounds in many ways refers to the impact of noise on learning spaces. For example, understandings and constructions of the concept of learning spaces are seen not as just the creation of mental and physical dislocation from academic noise but as the location or creation of spaces in which one can hear things differently. We have had to try to work out for ourselves how we want to be in these spaces and how we want to communicate with others who are there already. Inevitably, we have sometimes got stuck.

The paper attempts to delineate the forms of stuckness we have experienced and to identify the catalysts for these forms.  We have been stuck as learners in a variety of ways:  we have had problems in accessing learning spaces; when we were in the spaces, we did not know what we ‘ought’ to be doing; we have had emotional responses to certain aspects of participation that prevented us taking them further.  The paper lists and analyses the following issues as potential catalysts to these feelings of stuckness:

  • Technical difficulties and understandings

  • Volume of links and information

  • Speed of communication and of learning

  • Pedagogical concerns – how knowledge is created and what the underlying pedagogy of the course is

  • Understanding the conventions of the media used

  • Feeling out of control (though in different areas)

  • Effects of exposure of prior assumptions and experiences and challenges to these

  • Our ability to relate all of the above to what we are reading both as learners and as academics, especially work on liminality, thresholds and identity (Meyer and Land, 2003; Waskul, 2005).

We suggest that the above catalysts are likely to be common experiences for students and not just in online spaces. This includes the final points where there are challenges to identity emerging from academic reading that may conflict with existing ways of viewing the world.

Such catalysts have promoted shifts into liminal states resulting in liminal identities, which for most of the course have resulted in ‘chronic uncertainty’ about our selves and our relationships to the new environment. The state of liminality tends to be characterised by a stripping away of old identities, an oscillation between states and personal transformation. Liminal spaces are thus suspended states and serve as a transformative function, as someone moves from one state or position to another. Engaging with liminal spaces may involve choice but in the case of troublesome spaces they are often more likely to be ‘stuck places’ (Ellsworth, 1997). Yet this conception of stuck places would seem to imply that stuckness is a place one travels to – whereas being stuck or disjunction is often a position one seems to find oneself in, often somewhat unexpectedly. There is little (if any) preparation and it may be because of this that disjunction is where people are before they reach a liminal space, prompted by a threshold concept or a new learning experience. Thus for us, having overcome the shock of the disjunction we find ourselves re-examining our position. Thus chronic uncertainty and liminal states should not necessarily be taken to be negative descriptions of where we are: the paper identifies an associated excitement and stimulation prompted by these conditions.

The final section of the paper will suggest that some of the stuckness we have experienced is related to a new form of lurking:  lurking on the digital thresholds in two key ways:

  1. Avoiding engagement in some activities because they seemed too hard and complex

  2. Over engaging in activities because they were fun and edgy; and challenged our assumption about our selves, our learning and our lives.

We have differing senses of what we were ‘ready’ to do: which learning spaces could be expanded and with what prompting.  Our examples include excursions into Second Life and following up links and leads provided by other students.  We have experimented with different features of online spaces in different ways and are conscious of the effects of our existing experience on our levels of engagement. 


Ellsworth, E. (1997), Teaching Positions: Difference Pedagogy and the Power of Address, Teachers College Press, New York.

Meyer, J. and Land R. (2003), Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On. Rust, C. (ed) OCSLD, Oxford.

Phipps, A. (2005) The Sound of Higher Education. Accompanying text of the closing keynote lecture given at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, 15th December 2005, at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Savin-Baden, M. (2008) Learning Spaces. Creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life. Maidenhead: McGraw Hill.

Waskul, D. (2005) Ekstasis and the internet: liminality and computer-mediated communication. New Media & Society, 7 (1) pp 47-63.

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updated 24 January 2007