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It seems like Stack Exchange sites would be a great resource for real-world open-ended research-and-answer projects. E.g., as a teacher I might select one or several recent good questions from an on-topic Stack Exchange site and have students actually submit their answers on Stack Exchange. For more advanced students I might have them find good questions on their own.

It's sort of a free peer-review system.

But I am not aware of this having been done. Is there a reason?

(I have a particular interest in why or why this might not pass academic muster because the recently-launched Law.SE has a built-in lack of experts, and the only likely pool of expert participants would be students and professors.)


Clarification: It seems that some people are reading this question and thinking of Stack Overflow. I'm thinking more of Stack Exchange sites like Law, Chemistry, or Cross-Validated, where there are a lot of good questions that are hard to provide with good answers because of the amount of time that has to be invested in a good answer. If only there were a source of people not only studying those subjects, but also compelled to spend extended time crafting good answers....

Also, I was thinking first of graduate-level students, perhaps down to advanced seminar students in an applicable major. Not shotgunning something like this out to an introductory lecture. (Although apparently you can use the latter approach to create your own SE site!)

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    I fear that a large influx of students wanting quick answers to "homework" type questions, most of whom probably won't contribute themselves, would break the balance of the system. Just glance at Stack Overflow – it's a mess. – Moriarty Jul 10 '15 at 21:05
  • @Moriarty: Yeah, that's already pervasive, and the STEM SE sites I frequent have norms for dealing with that. I was thinking of finding a positive and constructive way to encourage students to use SE. I don't imagine a professor saying something like, "I encourage you to participate in this SE in this fashion" will lead a bunch of students who never thought of it before to start posting homework questions. – feetwet Jul 10 '15 at 23:01
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    This question reminds me of that time that a university prof "urged the 1,900 students in his introductory psychology class to start adding content to relevant Wikipedia pages" and Wikipedia's mods couldn't keep up with the sudden spike of well-intentioned, but terrible, authors. (link to article). Perhaps SE with its upvote/downvote system is more immune to this than Wikipedia is? – Mike Ounsworth Jul 11 '15 at 0:12
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    Why downvotes? If the answer is "no", it should be spelled in the answers. – Piotr Migdal Jul 11 '15 at 18:17
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    Related here and here, both discussion about this topic on Mathematica.SE's meta. – Szabolcs Jul 15 '15 at 19:30
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as a teacher I might select one or several recent good questions from an on-topic Stack Exchange site and have students actually submit their answers on Stack Exchange

In the following, I will assume that you imagine this in a way that a teacher assigns a certain question to all students, and each student (or each of several teams of students) has to post an answer. As I will outline below, finding suitable questions could prove difficult, so using each question only for one student/team of students would probably be too uneconomical.

I would be opposed to this procedure:

  • For a homework question, submitting what you think could be a valid answer, if you are not reasonably certain, is fine. After all, you're "entitled" to an attempt at solving the problem. Actually, if you do not have any idea how to respond to a question, even an almost random guess is OK as a response to a homework question, if you see a small chance it might be at least partially true. And likewise, a partial answer is totally fine for a homework question, as you have to use your chance to show even the partial solution that you have found, if you cannot solve the whole task.
  • For a question on a Stack Exchange site, submitting any of the aforementioned "non-perfect" answers on purpose (especially on questions for which various more valid answers do exist) is unacceptable. Unless you are reasonably convinced that what you are posting is, in your opinion, a valid answer, you should not post it on a Stack Exchange site in a way that pretends to be an answer. Each posted answer takes time to read, and posting an answer that you know is quite likely wrong or incomplete (read: insufficient for the question) is simply disrespectful to all the people who take their time to read, evaluate, comment on, vote on and edit answers.

There are some further issues with your suggestion:

  • Stack Exchange answers are public. As soon as one of the students has posted a good solution, nothing will stop other students from copying any information from that answer. You may still be testing your students' skills, but not the skills at solving the problem, but the skills at individually presenting a ready-made solution they found elsewhere.
  • While votes on the Stack Exchange network indicate quality of the answers to some extent, there is no guarantee that this measurement works reliably for each answer. In particular, when there are many answers, my hunch is that most of the lower-ranked answers will never be read, while the top-ranked answers will be read repeatedly and receive ever more upvotes. To some extent, the same applies to comments, where the Nth answer is less likely to receive any helpful coments than the first one.
  • Many Stack Exchange sites are not friendly towards duplicate answers. Exact reactions vary from site to site, but on various of the sites, the answer that proposes a certain solution for the 5th time might get harsh comments and even receive downvotes simply based on the fact that their answer does not contribute anything new.

Therefore, I do not unconditionally agree with the statement

It's sort of a free peer-review system.

It is a free peer-review system in the context of people voluntarily submitting posts for "peer-review" who want to submit something based on various preconditions (perceived good ideas, ...). The "peer-reviewers" spend their effort because they expect to read posts by exactly these people, people who thought they have good enough ideas to post.

If you remove those preconditions, you are, in a way, abusing the system. You are adding considerable workload for the peer-reviewers, who will have to dig through loads of submissions by people who did not think they have a good enough idea to post, but who posted primarily because it is their chance for completing the homework task. This, in turn, might reduce the willingness of those peer-reviewers to invest much effort for the respective Stack Exchange site in the first place and thereby worsen the experience for all users of the site.

After talking about the answers, I also have some thoughts about the questions. You wrote

as a teacher I might select one or several recent good questions

and

For more advanced students I might have them find good questions on their own.

Both of these can be problematic, as they are not guaranteed to yield good results. This is largely coupled to the fact that various Stack Exchange sites have strict policies against duplicate questions. These are fitting to build a consistent core of Q&A-shaped knowledge on each topic, but it also means that sooner or later, the less exotic (read: case-specific, or otherwise unusual or not too generalizeable) questions on any given topic will all have been asked. Asking new questions on the topic that are comparable without getting closed as duplicates can be come nearly impossible, whereas the task of finding interesting questions gradually gets reduced to checking a ready-made list of core questions on a given topic that gets circulated among students.

In summary, I think it is not a good idea to use any Stack Exchange site for "free peer-reviews" of student submissions. What is realistically feasible, though, is to use questions from a Stack Exchange site you deem appropriate and ask students to submit their own answer to you, and then check all the submissions. This will still preserve the real-world connection by the actual Stack Exchange question without burdening the users of the Stack Exchange site in any way.


As another note on this topic, from a privacy-related perspective, I am very skeptical of requiring any student to use a third-party service outside of the university's realm of control as a part of taking a class. Asking them to register somewhere (possibly, if they so choose, with a fake address, etc.) to retrieve software required for the class might still be OK, but I would never require a student to register with a third-party site (even one that I personally quite fully trust, like Stack Exchange) to upload anything that sheds a light on their performance as a student.

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...real-world open-ended research-and-answer projects....as a teacher I might select one or several recent good questions from an on-topic Stack Exchange site and have students actually submit their answers on Stack Exchange...But I am not aware of this having been done. Is there a reason?

One of the reasons this hasn't been done is that Stack Exchange is not a venue for open-ended questions. In most Stack Exchange forums, the questions must be narrow, and, in technical subjects, are nearly all of this type: "I'm having trouble with technique X... here's my code... what am I doing wrong or missing?".

In general, I think it is a very bad idea to promote Stack Exchange as a venue for problems/questions that are appropriate for academic tests and homework. I have seen such questions, and it's clear that the person posting is a student. Effectively, the student is asking someone else to do all the work of answering the problem. There's another word for that: cheating.


However, it would be a interesting idea for a professor to take questions (and answers) posted on Stack Exchange and modify them to be more general, appropriately challenging, and thus suitable as test questions or homework problems. This procedure uses Stack Exchange as source material, but all the questioning and answering happen within the traditional classroom setting.

  • I think you might have misunderstood my question: The first level was to encourage students to find answers to existing good questions. – feetwet Jul 11 '15 at 0:50
  • I understand your idea/question. My answer stands. It would greatly help if you were more specific about your discipline and subject, and which SE communities would apply. If it's Computer Science and you are teaching Java, then SE is a great resource for overcoming specific difficulties, but a poor resource to learn how to be a good Java programmer using OOD and OOP methods. – MrMeritology Jul 11 '15 at 1:04
  • I just added a clarification to my question to address this. I really wasn't thinking of coding, although CodeReview would be a great place for programming students to spend time. Just choosing from the SE sites where I have experience Law seemed the most obvious, followed by Cross-Validated, Chemistry, Physics, and (with some extra curating) Engineering. – feetwet Jul 11 '15 at 1:12
  • In that case, you would do well to investigate Reddit, too, because it has discipline-based academic communities where people post general questions and credentialed experts give answers. – MrMeritology Jul 11 '15 at 1:20
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    "One of the reasons this hasn't been done is that StackExchange is not a venue for open-ended questions." - to be fair, the OP mentioned "open-ended research-and-answer projects", which at least I understood as "open-ended projects involving searching for and writing narrow and specific questions and answers", not as "projects involving searching for and writing open-ended questions and answers". – O. R. Mapper Jul 11 '15 at 8:14
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The best thought I have is that students might pick questions from SE, research them, and submit their answers to the instructor (perhaps after passing thru a student-level peer process), with only those answers the instructor has approved as accurate, well-written, reasonably complete and addressing the actual question being passed back to SE.

Admittedly this is a higher standard of pre-review than we hold the average SE contributor to. But you're proposing to address questions which are usually shut down with "you need expert local advice, not a web pundit no matter how knowledgeable, because the devil will be in the details and the consequences of getting it wrong are nontrivial." A student may know more than an experienced layman... or may only know enough to get the querant into trouble.

There have been programs that have used volunteer student researchers – I think Nolo does so, for example – but I believe they are relying on having the results vetted by genuine experts before being published.

Unreasonable? I don't know. But if you're going to publicize SE, I think you should also help to ensure quality of the results.

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I teach a course on software tools useful for math majors with no programming background:

A modern mathematics major should be familiar with software tools that are changing some of the ways we write, learn and do mathematics. This course, designed to be taken early in the major, introduces several of those tools (Python, LaTeX, Mathematica or sage) and provides opportunities to explore others like Matlab, Geogebra, Cinderella, Geometer's sketchpad and Microsoft Excel.

Mastering any one of these software tools takes much longer than the limited time available in an introductory course that presents all three, and more. So the focus is on understanding the kinds of problems each tool can address, on ways to approach new problems and on using the web to answer questions.

The various stackexchange sites are an extraordinary resource for students at this level. I encourage them to look there for answers - and to cite (in their homework) and upvote posts they find useful. Since upvoting requires some reputation, students can't do that unless/until they are at a level where they can contribute to the site. That may or may not happen during the semester.

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