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What Teachers Can Learn from Web Designers

digitalwritingTeachers who want to engage students may be able to learn from successful websites. The Internet is rife with digital forums where people interact. These forums thrive on user-generated content, yet only a few visitors choose to create that content. Many visitors simply “lurk.” Websites, however, can be designed in ways that nurture active participation, and so can lesson plans.

In the current issue of College English, writing professor Rebecca Tarsa offers research on how a website’s interface affects visitors’ decisions to return to the website and to transition from lurkers to active participants. She interviewed 30 students at two colleges about their Web surfing and drew some interesting insights.

One conclusion Tarsa reached is that visitors’ decisions about whether to return to a given forum were driven more by the visual appeal of the forum than by the content. “What students remember most vividly about participatory spaces they no longer visit is how they looked,” Tarsa reports. “If an interface makes a bad impression, what it presents hardly seems to matter.” As one student she interviewed told her, “It’s not that I can’t figure it [the website Reddit] out. It’s that I don’t want to because I look at it and it’s so boring.”

If a Web forum looked appealing, visitors might linger and discover engaging content. But to participate in that conversation and add their own content, users usually had to create an account, an inconvenience visitors were only willing to endure when properly motivated.

Once users were motivated to create an account, did they jump into posting content? Not usually. There was still one thing needed for most visitors to make the transition from lurker to content provider: a stepping stone form of participation.

The most successful Web forums have such stepping stones in what Tarsa calls “qualitative affordances.” These are features that allow visitors to easily register their appraisal of the content they find. On Facebook, it’s the “like” button. On Twitter, it’s “retweet.” On Reddit, it’s “upvote” and “downvote.” Each of these forums offers some way that users, with a mere click or two, can applaud (or in some cases, can boo) the content someone else has provided, and this offers new users an easy way to begin participating in this new environment.

Not only is clicking “like” less work than typing out a full comment, it is also less risky. When you write and post content, you risk negative reactions. If you try to share information, you risk the embarrassment of being caught in a mistake. If you share an opinion or just try to make a joke, you risk being viewed by this new community as insensitive or oversensitive or biased or illogical or weird. There is less risk to simply clicking “like.” Even if people hate the comment you like, the brunt of their criticism will fall on the author of the comment, not on you.

These ”entry-level forms of participation” lead lurkers in the direction of fuller participation. Nearly all the students Tarsa interviewed created accounts in forums for the purpose of voting on content but then later came to add their own content as well. She concludes that “qualitative affordances … create higher levels of comfort with and investment in a site overall; and that students who displayed such investment wrote more often and more spontaneously than those who did not.”

These lessons can be applied to the structure of an English class. If we want students actively engaged, Tarsa suggests, we should give them low-stakes ways to respond to literature: “Create more opportunities for interactivity that fall between consumption [reading] and production [writing]. Allowing students to contribute content they come across in other contexts to a class compendium, for example, that would then be collaboratively curated into a digital bibliography for the course themes.“

Those working to engage students in reading and writing can learn a few lessons from those who have succeeded in getting Web surfers to read and write on their websites.

To explore this idea in greater depth, read Rebecca Tarsa’s complete article “Upvoting the Exordium: Literacy Practices of the Digital Interface.”