Equitability and dominance in online forums: an ecological approach

Rosewell, J. P. (2009). Equitability and dominance in online forums: an ecological approach. In: CAL'09 Learning in digital worlds, 23-25 Mar 2009, Brighton, UK.

URL: http://www.cal-conference.elsevier.com/


It is a common observation that participation in online forums by individuals varies greatly. A few students post many messages, some post a few, and many only read. A rough ‘rule of thirds’ is one way of quantifying this (for example, Mason 1989), but it is likely that this rule of thumb hides interesting structure and differences between contexts. Large scale statistical analysis suggests patterns of participation that are not captured by this rough rule of thirds.

However, similar patterns can be seen when analysing the abundance of species in ecological communities, and ecologists have well-established measures to capture these patterns. It therefore seems plausible that indices of ecological diversity could also provide a useful characterisation of an online community. Such indices can unpick both ‘species richness’ (here number of participants) and equitability / dominance.

There is also an ecological literature which uses these indices to characterise community types and it is possible that the same indices could provide useful insights into the structure and dynamics of online forums. In particular, it is possible that factors such as group size, topic focus, optional/compulsory activities, etc may control or correlate with measures of participation and equitability.

To explore this, 36 forums containing 27,000 messages were analysed to see if an ecological approach to online communities could offer useful insights. In particular:

* Can simple indices capture useful features such as richness and equitability / dominance of forum contributions?

* Do such indices vary in a consistent way across different types of forum?

Some implications raised are:

* Can forum organisation be manipulated to produce forums of differing richness and equitability?

* Are there measures that could usefully be extracted automatically to provide educators and moderators with indicators of the ‘health’ of online communities?

Mason, R. (1989) ‘An evaluation of CoSy on an Open University course’, in Mason, R. & Kaye, A. (eds.), Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Education, Pergamon Press, pp. 115-145.

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