Participation inequality and e-learning

By Murray Bourne, 10 Oct 2006

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox article "Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute" has many implications for e-learning.

For me, a very important aspect of e-learning is the improvement in communication through discussion forums, chat, emails and so on. Such communication allows us to facilitate online learning and it makes the learning more visible.

However, one of the issues faced by many educational institutions in Asia is the unwillingness of students to contribute to the forums. Students may well go in and "lurk" (reading posts by others but not contributing in any way) and then there is no evidence that they have learned anything, or even thought about the issue. The problem is compounded if every student is waiting for someone else to start the ball rolling.

Nielsen argues that the best we can hope for is 90-9-1 participation, and I quote:

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don't have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they're commenting on occurs.

Nielsen's suggestions for overcoming contribution inertia are pertinent for e-learning:

Make it easier to contribute. The lower the overhead, the more people will jump through the hoop. For example, Netflix lets users rate movies by clicking a star rating, which is much easier than writing a natural-language review.

Make participation a side effect. Even better, let users participate with zero effort by making their contributions a side effect of something else they're doing.

The majority of lecturers that I talk to believe that students will only participate if assessment marks are allocated to the discussion forum. Nielsen is talking about improving participation in commercial websites, but it is interesting to consider his suggestion:

Reward participants. Rewarding people for contributing will help motivate users [...]. Although money is always good, you can also give contributors preferential treatment (such as discounts or advance notice of new stuff), or even just put gold stars on their profiles. But don't give too much to the most active participants, or you'll simply encourage them to dominate the system even more.

I like Nielsen's final suggestion best:

Promote quality contributors. [...] Give extra prominence to good contributions.

So the motivation comes from being recognised as a "quality" contributor. However, with students, this may be counter-productive, since it doesn't take very much to discourage them.

Good food for thought when considering e-learning participation rates.

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