economics of student attention

Picked up on this post at Dealmaker via Social Media on the "long tail of user attention," an apt combination of these two hot concepts. Essentially the premise is that every website has a small percentage of very attentive users and a long tail of less attentive users. Of course this is something that we see in the classroom all the time. Every teacher (and student) is familiar with the dynamic of the couple students in the class who always raise their hands and so on, coupled with the vast majority who are seemingly just along for the ride.

In pedagogy I think we tend to focus on ways that we can encourage students to be more engaged, to move them up the long tail curve, so to speak. Of course we do this in business as well, hoping that the occassional user will become the regular customer and so on. The article focuses on this, on building attention for one’s website. Engagement really works the same way in the classroom as it does on the commercial site: it’s about users who seem to identify with the purpose and ethos of the course/site. On Dealmaker, Robert Goldberg refers to these people as "zealots" in reflection of their fervent belief.

However I was thinking about this from a different angle. If the long tail theory holds, you’ll always have a large number of casual, even disengaged users–people who will come and go. This is common in academia as well–the students you only see once. They aren’t majors or even minors. They come to fulfill a gen ed requirement or for some related reason. Yes, it would be great to recruit some of these students, but only if they are really interested in your program. On the other hand, the regular stream of these "long tail" students form a necessary part of a program’s course enrollment.

So I guess I’m thinking that part of the deal is thinking about a "pedagogy of/for the disengaged."  If you’re building a website, you want your site to be accessible for that casual user, so that s/he can get what s/he needs. In the classroom we tend to make engagement into an ethical if not a moral responsibility. But maybe there is another way.

Maybe you don’t have to be, shouldn’t have to be, "engaged" in every classroom. I can’t say I was often an engaged student. I was more likely to take what I needed from a course and do what I had to do.

So there’s a different type of question here. It’s not "how do I encourage the disengaged student to become engaged?" but "how do I design a course to improve the disengaged user experience?" Perhaps these are the same question, that is, perhaps improving the user experience tends to increase engagment. But I’m thinking about making it easier for the student who wants to learn on his/her own terms through my course without engaging in the terms of the course as I define them.

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