tl/dr What specific policy changes or behavior changes do you think would lower the barrier to entry for new users represented by the current homework policy?
This essay is in response to a recent Stack Overflow blogpost "Stack Overflow Isn’t Very Welcoming. It’s Time for That to Change.". We've had some discussion in the h bar about the logic behind the post, but I'd suggest that we leave that aside for a bit and focus on the action points suggested in the post:
- Let’s shift from “don’t be an asshole” to “be welcoming.”
- Let’s do something about comments. (in particular about sarcastic, pointed, or overly terse comments that might tend to push new users away)
- Let’s make it easier for new users to succeed.
- Let’s stop judging users for not knowing things. (We’re a Q&A site!)
- Let’s reject the false dichotomy between quality and kindness.
Right now I'm focusing on the third on ``Let’s make it easier for new users to succeed'' in relation to the oft-discussed homework policy.
Summary of the Current State of Things
The current policy holds that we don't work individual exercises (without regard to whether they were assigned as homework or not), but instead are happy to answer questions about physics concepts and principle no matter the context in which they arise.
Why that policy?1
Roughly this is a compromise between a understanding among some users that homework-like question flood a internet help space and push out more interesting content on one hand and the desire of other users explicitly to provide help with the early stages education and development and to provide explicit outreach to the wider community.
The matter has been discussed over and over again, and while people are willing to take the opinions of others seriously and treat them respectfully they two points of view have never been fully reconciled.
However, there seems to be a widespread agreement that current policy is not achieving it's goals and improvements are needed. They haven't happened in part because of deadlock and it part due to burnout over the issue on the part of the active meta users.
The issue with the policy
The basic problem is that extracting the conceptual trouble from the middle of an exercise the student doesn't understand well enough to complete is an advanced skill: exactly the sort of thing that is still in front of beginning students.
I wrote about some of the techniques for teaching the difference in a post on academia, and I will emphasize that it can be a time consuming process that is often frustrating to the student because they don't understand why the things I'm asking them to do are better than the thing they are trying to do.2
In short the policy we have is almost the opposite of "Let’s make it [easy] for new users to succeed." At least when the new user is a beginner in our subject.
While on the whole I think it is not useful to focus on who is responsible for policy, but I need to fess up to being non-trivially responsible for the current situation. I've been (and still am) firmly in the "homework-help eats on-line communities" camp, and I pushed some ideas that contributed to the current situation.
What Can Be Done?
It's clear from the blog post that they are contemplating a "ask-a-question wizard" type of tool, but we won't see that on Physics in the short term.3
What Can We Do in the Meantime?
That is the point of the question.
The obvious answers seems to me to be
- Change the policy in a way that reduces the barrier, without opening the floodgates of venue-consuming low-level problem-solving.
- Provide more active and positive guidance (and outright aid) so that willing posters can get past any barrier that is still in the way. 4
but neither one is actually finished in this form. The details are still to be provided.
Question to be answered
What specific policy or behavior change do you recommend (or recommend against) and why?
1 My interpretation. Opinions doubtless vary.
2 And they are better.
3 Maybe we can do some spade work to earn a spot near the top of the list? Consider this a solicitation for input from the team.
4 I tried to work on this at the level of "helpful comment to guide the poster in the direction of finding conceptual stumbling blocks" a recent post: