The ‘Quiet’ Online Student: What it Means and How Educators Can Respond

“The opportunities for those who tend toward reflection, synthesis, and personal introspection [introverts] to participate in a course discussion or activity is dramatically increased, in effectively designed fully online and blended learning”. Dr. Curtis Bonk

41m0N7IIcsLAccording to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, at least one-third of the population are introverts. I just finished reading this superb, well-researched book. It was the title that piqued my interest. I classify myself as an introvert; I was curious about what power introverts might have. Though the book went beyond describing the power and positives of introverts. It provided far more than profiles or strategies—it provides rich insight about introverts living within a culture that rewards and favors extroversion. It also delves into educating introverts in the classroom, describing how peers perceive quiet students, and their teachers and parents. Cain describes what drives introverts’ learning and gives practical advice for educators.  Though In this post I focus on quiet online students in context of Cain’s analysis. I discuss online students, those that don’t participate, and contribute little to discussions. I’ve included strategies from Dr. Curtis Bonk that may help readers support and foster less quiet behaviours from their online students.

“The school environment can be highly unnatural, especially from an introverted child who loves to work intensely on projects he cares about, and hang out with one or two friends at a time”. (Cain, p 253)

Introverts in the Classroom
Cain has much to say on the topic of educating introverted students in the classroom. She provides a unique perspective about quiet students—those that don’t raise their hand, are soft-spoken or reticent to participate. Her book is filled with case studies of K-12 and college students, though one stands out, Maya and her struggle to participate in a group setting. Educators will recognize the scenario right away – one or two student leaders take charge, and the quiet student, in this case Maya, is not heard or encouraged. Cain provides thoughtful advice for teachers in chapter eleven on how educators can support introverted students that includes, 1) not thinking of extroversion as something that needs to be cured, 2) keeping groups limited to two or three for collaborative assignments, etc. (p 255).

The ‘Quiet’ Online Student
This book does prompt further thought about learning, and online learning specifically. Educators might ponder what learning looks like for introverts in online class environments. What do educators do about quiet students, or those who don’t participate, contribute to discussions or group work?  Some educators perceive non-participatory online students in a negative light—these students are often referred to as lurkers or passive learners. Putting labels aside, the question should be how does one encourage the quiet student to engage at appropriates timesHow can meaningful exchanges be fostered for deeper learning?   I’m not suggesting that students that don’t participate in online forums are all introverts, but rather I suggest we think about ‘quiet’ students in a new light.

Dr. Curtis Bonk professor of education at Indiana University and author of The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education suggests several strategies for online educators in response to a blog post on this same book, Quiet: Susan Cain on Introverted Students. Dr. Bonk describes why online learning environments can support deeper learning for quiet students, and what online instructors can do to support and further learning.

Benefits of Online Learning for Quiet Students by Dr Curtis Bonk

First, they have time to think. Much of the hesitancy among those deemed introverted or shy is that they want to fully form a response before commenting. Thoughtful responses and creative ideas often take time to formulate.

Second, they might also simply be courteous to those around them. Hence, others are allowed to go first and one who does such may be deemed more toward the introverted side.

Third, in online courses or discussion forums, introverted and shy students can refine their ideas before sharing. Many people strive toward perfection before allowing their ideas to be shared. Their standards may be higher.

And, fourth, if and when you do share, it is just ideas on a virtual napkin. If there is a typo or an misconception, that is a problem of that virtually shared space, not a problem with me or my brain. We can fix or adjust that shared idea. Unlike a live class event, we can edit it. The Web, in effect, become a safe harbor for sharing one’s thoughts and ideas.

Fifth, the tools for creative expression are amplified on the Web. You might have an idea in audio or video format instead of text. The use of VoiceThreads is a case in point.

Sixth, instructors can offer more options in a world of abundant course resources. Open education now offers a rich array of video, animations, text, and audio options. Those deemed introverted may simply just have more skill, passion, or interest in nontextual spaces. They may excel in an academic space rich in video or pictorial resources. Unfortunately, text continues to dominate in schools and universities. This is now changing, however. (May 3, 2013, Quiet: Susan Cain on Introverted Students).

As online learning becomes a viable modality for learning, determining how to engage all  students in meaningful learning activities, whether it be discussion, group work or other, will require further research and exploration. The starting point I believe, is viewing quiet online students in a different light, not as a passive, unresponsive individual but as a students with something to say and contribute even in a world that can’t stop talking.


5 thoughts on “The ‘Quiet’ Online Student: What it Means and How Educators Can Respond

    1. Lorna Love

      Yes, I’ve been meaning to post a reply to this too (thanks Sarah!). I’ve found that the conversations in the Facebook groups are more of a level playing field for both introverts (‘talk’ more) and extroverts (maybe ‘talk’ less!?).. Very interesting! CHeers, Lorna


  1. robertlfs

    Debbie, great post. What I like is how the “quiet” student demonstrates the utility of online learning for another demographic. That online learning is not the end all and be all for the future of education, but how a student “type” that might be ball in the cracks of the traditional classroom can thrive in an online context.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Robert. I agree! Online learning can be a boon to some learner types. One of the benefits I have found, for both extrovert and introvert alike, is the reflection aspect of responding to discussion board questions. Carefully designed questions can prompt thinking and analysis, rather than responding on the spot, learners must think and write. Introverts are comfortable with this approach, though extroverts can benefit from this asynchronous communication. Thanks for your comment!


  2. Pingback: The ‘Quiet’ Online Student: What it Means and How Educators Can Respond | online learning insights | Learning Curve

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s