Inequality in user participation

I’ve been following Jakob Nielsen’s alertbox postings for a couple years now. One of the things I find fascinating about more “traditional” usability studies (which I associate with Nielsen’s work) is that they are very focuses on business models/websites. The more I read about them, the more I realize that educationally focused websites (specifically “course” or “lesson” materials) do not necessarily follow the same trends. For example, Nielsen just posted this alertbox about user inequality of participation on social networking and other “input” internet site like blogs (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html).

I think that educators learned this lesson really quickly with discussion boards. If we didn’t motivate students to post (ie, require a certain amount), the discussion would be very uneven. Now that I’ve switched to blogs, I have my students blogging regularly, because they have to. So, again, my interpretation of Nielsen’s warning is slightly different. He claims that since participation is unequal, we can’t rely on the feedback based on participants and participation statistics. Whereas, when studying technologies in my classes, I think I can rely a little more because everyone is required to use the technologies…they are not there by choice! My usability studies based on these users is not as lopsided; however, it is unbalanced in other ways…as are all studies.

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