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There is a gap between the online help available on stack overflow and the offline help of real-world mentors, this is my modest proposal to correct that.

Here is a link to my original article: http://schneems.com/post/12513112113/stack-overflow-needs-mentors

Here is the content from said article:

First off, I love Stack Overflow. In the way that only someone who taught himself programming via outdated books, and old-school programming forums can. I think it’s the best way to ask most programming questions on the web, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get better.

Background: Today I just helped my girlfriend @rubyku signup for a stack overflow account. I did this because she found the exact answer to her question already answered on Stack Overflow and felt the person who answered the question rightfully deserved some recognition. After we got her signed up, we went to give credit where credit is due, and “up vote” the answer, when suddenly we discover wham! we can’t because she doesn’t have enough reputation points. So she closed the window and moved on. While she got the question answered, she didn’t engage with the community and was frustrated by the interaction.

Reputation: On Stack Overflow reputation is measured in points and does two things, it keeps spammers and people trying to game the systems at bay. It also encourages users to provide good answers and ask good questions. I think the reputation system does a great job to accomplish these things, but it inadvertently does something else. It discourages new users from becoming part of the community and engaging since someone who just started can’t fully participate. They first have to ask or answer a question to get reputation.

Solution: Use mentors to merge real life reputation with online reputation, since i’m mentoring someone in person, i should be able to mentor them on Stack Overflow. I can vouch that she isn’t a bot, or a spammer, and I can give her real world motivation and incentive to get involved online and off. It should (could) work like this: I give up some chunk of my reputation to this new Stack Overflow member, and in return I get notified any time they make an action. This allow the mentor to help guide a student’s questions, comments, and up votes as only a real live person can, while giving accountability to student. But why would someone want to be a mentor, give up their points, and be bugged constantly? Besides caring about someone and wanting to see them succeed, there is a greedy reason built in the system. Since a mentor gets notified about any post the student makes, they get first dibs on questions, and in the long run if they are consistently helpful and answer their student’s questions, then their reputation will increase dramatically more than if they had never given up points to become a mentor.

Whether or not Stack Overflow ever implements such a model, we as programmers should always remember that there was a time when we needed help and sometimes an IRC channel or forum post, just wasn’t enough. While many of us are “self taught” programmers the most successful of us had some help along the way. Stack Overflow is a tool to help someone become better at programming, but not THE solution. We need to start bridging the gap between people who care, and people who need help. The more we use technology to bring these two groups of people closer together, the more we all win.

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why the down vote? If you disagree be constructive. –  Schneems Nov 8 '11 at 16:12
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This is really beyond the scope of what SO is trying to accomplish. SO is for question and answers, no making a personal development plan or self-improvement. If that other stuff happens, GREAT! It's not what the site is for, though. –  JNK Nov 8 '11 at 16:12
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Downvotes on meta mean "I disagree" –  JNK Nov 8 '11 at 16:12
    
Downvotes work differently on Meta, people simply disagree with the idea...that is constructive. –  Time Traveling Bobby Nov 8 '11 at 16:13
    
thanks for the info @JNK about the downvote. While i can follow the logic about that not being the primary goal of SO, its a shame that it wouldn't be considered. Especially since SO has much of the mind share in this Q/A market. SO has a great opportunity and responsibility to the community of learning, not just Q/A. –  Schneems Nov 8 '11 at 16:20
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The more you try to make a tool do, the less effective it is. You can cut a steak with a swiss army knife but it's better to use a steak knife. You can make curtains with the scissors in a swiss army knife but it's better to use real shears. SO is pretty close to ideal for a Q and A site now. There's no need to dilute that with other functions. –  JNK Nov 8 '11 at 16:21
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All this just to get somebody the 15 reputation points required for upvoting? –  thorsten müller Nov 8 '11 at 16:25
    
@JNK close to ideal is the key, I teach classes at the University of Texas Austin, and one of my first assignments is to make students ask a question on SO. While a few come to love the site who have used other forums before, many of them get confused/turned-off all together. I've seen several rants about the on boarding difficulties of new members in the past and considered this a long standing well known problem. Either i'm misinformed, or its not a priority. –  Schneems Nov 8 '11 at 16:29
    
It's not a priority. Based on the fact that the site has 800k+ users, 3m visits a day, 2.3m questions, 4.9m answers, and 4k new questions a day, getting new users into the site isn't a problem. –  JNK Nov 8 '11 at 16:31
    
While those are good numbers i would like to see them go up. I would also be interested in activity numbers, what is the new user drop off. How many are still active 10, 30, 90 days out. What can we do to re-engage them? –  Schneems Nov 8 '11 at 16:45
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@Schneems - You make students ask a question on SO? It's hard enough to ask good questions as it is, but it's even harder to do so when you don't have a real problem. It might be permissible to mention SO as a resource, but don't require it and don't offload your teaching duties to Stack Overflow. Yikes... –  Kevin Vermeer Nov 8 '11 at 17:04
    
@KevinVermeer your tone is disrespectful, and no i don't MAKE anyone do anything. I'll pretend that you asked a question instead of posting an attack. Students today need to be able to utilize resources outside of the classroom, and become self learners and engage with the community before graduation. You disagree? Where will students go for questions after my class? Should they wait until class time to ask for help? Would you like me to discourage asking questions, since asking a good one is hard? Thanks for your "question", i'm happy to help you answer any more you may have. –  Schneems Nov 8 '11 at 17:24
    
It's an optional assignment worth no credit if you were wondering. –  Schneems Nov 8 '11 at 17:26
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"one of my first assignments is to make students ask a question on SO". That's what Kevin is responding to, and it's a poor use of SO, whether the assignment is optional or not. We want real questions, born of real problems. –  Michael Petrotta Nov 8 '11 at 17:29
    
@MichaelPetrotta thanks for explaining KevinVermeer's reaction and thanks for the heads up, i'll be much more reserved with my wording on SO from now on. If you want to see my full 8 week class as well as all assignments, videos, and slides schneems.com/tagged/…. If anyone has comments or criticisms of my class materials or teaching style please direct them to my blog, this is not the time or place. –  Schneems Nov 8 '11 at 18:04

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

since i’m mentoring someone in person, i should be able to mentor them on Stack Overflow

No. Every offline action doesn't need an online equivalent. Just do this out-of-band.

Stack Overflow is a tool to help someone become better at programming, but not THE solution.

Precisely! Stack Overflow doesn't need to be THE solution. It's fine that it's just a Q&A site.

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I've come to agree with this SO as a single tool, much like a unix utility. I would be interested in future support for pub/sub of questions as well as a write API. I could build this feature myself in an API app, but given the current API, it would fall short of my expectations. –  Schneems Nov 8 '11 at 17:30

The problem of beginners posting to the main groups is one reason why I would like to see a mentoring. match for every stackexchange site. Mentoring does have value and not everyone is fortunate enough to be in a location where they can have an in-person mentor. I'm not sure Q&A is a perfect format for that, but we ought to be able to have a discussion about what form good mentoring would take and see where it leads, whether Stack takes it on (as they've done for their Careers 2.0 site) or it leads to something else. Mentoring is a different skill set, and I would suggest a separate Mentoring reputation for mentors, as well as mentors being able to give recommendations (by giving student reputation points?) for the best of the up and coming.

A thought for a partial mechanism: questions from low-reputation posters go to the mentoring site, which mentors can promote to the main site if deemed worthy, which gives a boost to the poster.

It is rather disappointing to see the idea of mentoring being treated so negatively though - I expected at the very least a discussion on how it should be handled rather than a complete dismissal.

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