Friday, August 2, 2013

You say 'attendee', I say 'participant'

You say ‘attendee’, I say ‘participant’

Rachel Burnham writes: I recently read an interesting article all about how you could make use of exciting new technology to make your L&D sessions more interactive.  It was full of examples of how this could be done.

What struck me the most though, was the way the author referred to the learners in these sessions.   The term used was ‘attendees’.   And that got me thinking about the language we use to refer to learners and what this says about our mindset as L&D practitioners.
There are lots of different terms that we can use to refer to learners: participants, delegates, audience and so on.   Each term comes with a slightly different connotation.  Each suggests a differing level of involvement and responsibility for what happens.   Each suggests a different relationship with the learning and with those organising the learning.  Each might even suggest different ideas of what success for this L&D activity looks like. 

You can put these terms onto a sliding scale.

  Attendee        Audience        Participant        Collaborator/
                                                                    Fellow Learner

Consider what each of these terms means to you.   With ‘attendee’ I’m immediately focused on physical presence, issues of attendance and crudely ‘bums on seats’.  There is no emphasis on the learner doing anything but turning up!  

With ‘audience’ it’s a little different – I’m immediately thinking about listening, being an appreciative or good audience and responding to the ‘lecturer’ or ‘presenter’ and their humour, stories and information.  I suspect that for many of us the picture includes an effective presentation, with ‘Powerpoint’ or lets be radical perhaps even ‘Prezi’.  The role of the learner is still fairly passive and based on receiving from someone who’s considered to be ‘an expert’ or at least an expert speaker.  And in this situation, the role of the L&D professional can sometimes feel more akin to being an entertainer, than a facilitator of learning.

Moving along, ‘participant’ feels a lot more comfortable to me.   This is probably the term I use most readily.  It brings to mind learners actively engaged in the learning process, discussing, sharing ideas, asking questions, moving around the room, doing lots of activities in many different formats.  And identifying their own learning from these activities.

I found it a lot more challenging to identify a term for the fourth point on this scale.  Two came to mind – ‘Collaborator’ and ‘Fellow Learner’ both of which pick up on the shared responsibility and ownership of the learning process and content.   At this end of the scale, it is harder to pick out who has the expertise and this may be much more fluid within a single L&D activity.   The learning here may be much more exploratory and open ended than with the previous points on the scale. As a facilitator of learning this feels both exciting and can also feel a little scary!

If we genuinely want to make our L&D sessions and in fact all our L&D activities, as effective as possible in terms of impacting on performance in the workplace, then we need to make them more interactive and learner-centred. So a good starting point is to change is the way we think and speak of learners.  This is our key technology, though perhaps not the easiest to change!

I thought I would share some of my thoughts around this subject with you.  They are very much first thoughts and I’d be very interested in your responses to these points.  Please do add your comments to this blog.

Rachel Burnham
1 August 2013

Burnham L & D Consultancy specialises in the development of L&D professionals, blended learning and evaluation
Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD


  1. This is such a great point and well presented Rachel!
    For me participants captures it well - better than attendees, but I love the concept and the image it conjures to use 'collaborator' or 'fellow learner'.... I think I will start using those terms and try to influence others to do the same!

  2. Thank you for your comments, Kurshalia.