A Go-to Resource for Engineers
Participants in online forums not only share what they know but also generate new knowledge.
By Aditya Johri
Stack Overflow, a forum for software developers to seek help with problems they are facing, is the most popular site on the Stack Exchange and bills itself as “the world’s largest developer community.” It receives more than 50 million visitors each month. At any given time there are over 50,000 developers on the site, and the average user visits the site 7 times each month. Over 14 million questions have been posted on the site; cumulatively they have received over 19 million answers. Since the site started in 2008, developers have received help over 7.5 billion times. That is a lot of problem solving!
Since the advent of the Internet, users have leveraged it to communicate with others for fun and socialization but also to obtain information or help from online communities. Over time, these communities have emerged as a critical resource for problem solving across a range of domains—from health and wellbeing to software development and 3-D printing.
Over the past decade, my research lab has been studying how these communities work and what kind of help they provide users. What we and others have found is that online communities are an excellent resource for problem solving—especially for those working on engineering and technology-related problems. Furthermore, given the fast pace of technological development and the dynamic ways new knowledge is spreading, online communities are becoming the first line of approach, the go-to resource, for most engineers. These communities are able to support a large number of users by ensuring that they are efficient in providing help by leveraging a network of experts. We have found that they do not need a large number of experts—even a dozen or so motivated experts working in tandem can support thousands of people with questions.
Our research also shows that in addition to solving problems, some online communities create norms that go beyond providing a solution to also help a newcomer acquire knowledge on a particular subject. They are able to scaffold a newcomer’s learning process through shared understanding and ongoing diagnosis, slowly withdrawing their help in keeping with a user’s needs. Multiple resources are leveraged for scaffolding, and learners often receive personalized instruction through collaborative contributions of multiple experts.
In engineering, our research shows that over time, these interactive forums and communities become not just repositories of existing knowledge but a means of creating new knowledge. A community we studied in 2013-14, AllAboutCircuits.com, had dealt with 65,209 topics and had amassed 503,908 messages and 66,072 links to Web resources. More important, it had collected 45,579 unique file attachments, all contributed by members of the community. We found that the discussions were highly technical; 1,493,090 engineering terms were used matching words from a list of 12,379 engineering terms from the IEEE Dictionary of Electrical and Electronics Terms. Our analysis showed that the community was accumulating engineering knowledge through shared products and collaborating to create new knowledge.
There are, of course, challenges with online communities. There is trolling. Participants misbehave and abuse others. The user base is highly skewed towards men. Newcomers might find it hard to assess what information is worth exploring; online forums often reward those who already have some knowledge and can be selective in their use of information. The solution to these challenges is not easy, but through reputation and feedback systems and by establishing norms that are inclusive rather than isolating, some communities have been able to create a welcoming and productive environment.
From the perspective of engineering education, these online forums and communities provide a unique opportunity for instructors not just to keep abreast of the latest developments in engineering but also to leverage online communities as a “teaching moment” and provide students a window onto a world that will help them throughout their professional careers. Even though students might be aware of online sites, knowing domain-specific sites and knowing how to judge and participate in them are all useful skills to have.
To paraphrase the X-Files, the truth might be hard to establish, but “The Solution Is Out There.”
Aditya Johri is an associate professor in the Department of Information Sciences and Technology at George Mason University.