Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Thread Analysis.

Back in the day, when I taught internet classes to senior citizens, I used to tell them to go out to the Web to see if the information they were looking for was there. If I were to teach those same classes today, I would tell them that the information is almost certainly there, the only question is whether or not they can find it.

I believe we are the last generation that won’t understand that the answers are all out there, right at our fingertips. All of them. Even the question of life, the universe, and everything has been answered .

The other day I was teaching a WebCT Vista class and one of the students lamented the fact that his particular site had over 150 links, and he didn’t want to bother checking them to see if they were all still active.

He, and a fellow instructor, both of whom were sitting in front of computers with a 100 megabyte Internet connection, talked about the possibility of hiring a student to go through the links to verify whether or not they worked.

It took me a minute before I realized that this was a question which had probably been asked before. I hopped onto Google and within a minute found a site that did this service for free. Somebody else had the same problem, and had already solved it.

Even while I’m writing this, a co-worker asked me what a ‘gray collar’ worker is. She was looking through her textbook, her computer sitting right behind her. I don’t know what gray collared means either, but in less than 10 seconds I was reading her a definition from a website. While she looked through her text book for the answer, I found it online. Sometimes I don't think about the Internet. I will write and ask my cousin for technical help, or talk to the techie down the hall. But when I do think to first search the internet, more often than not, the answer is out there.

The thread I picked to analyze is a perfect example of this; somebody asking a question, and somebody else answering it. In fact that is all that happens in this thread. It is two posts long. On the surface it appears to be a simple question and answer, but there is much, much more going on.


Our first person, JP, poses a question. In just a few lines, he explains his situation as a college student, asks for good deals or places to get a good laptop, and then mentions what his price range is.

The second post is by HTH, or ‘Anonymous Jack’. He spends 41 lines, or 456 words, answering JP’s question.

He first asks for a clarification of the question, and then without waiting for a reply, goes on to answer all possible scenarios. He gives him the low end laptops, and what they are good for. Then he goes into the middle grade, talking about Dell and IBM brands. Then he goes through several different types of specs that you need to watch for in a laptop including integrated network cards, modems, USB 2, hard drive and RAM storage, CDRW and DVD players. He talks about how buying your own RAM is cheaper as long as you ‘can use a screwdriver and follow instructions’. Then he gets into the processor speed, video cards, and even goes so far as to warn the student about the importance of backing up the system in case a “spilled beer, or larcenous roommate/visitor” might ruin a year’s worth of work.


There are two things we can surmise, or at least guess, from JP’s post.

First of all, it is likely that JP is not a full time member of this community (comp.laptops). He starts out by saying, “Hey folks”. His question in not addressed to somebody in particular, nor does he refer to any other topic or thread that relate to his question.

It is also possible that JP is not very technologically savvy. His original question is not specific, and he acts as if by stating that he is buying the laptop for college, the question can be answered with no further information. He also asks what ‘features’ to look for when buying a computer. This again shows that he probably does not frequent this site often, and is not an active member or even a lurker.

Anonymous Jack’s post is much more interesting. As well as the free market works, this is not why Jack is doing it. At no point does he attempt to sell JP a laptop, nor does he gain any immediate monetary benefit from answering the question.

So there is the question, and the crux of the analysis. Why does Jack do what he does?

I only had to look back 5 days (this appears to be an active thread) to find other posts that have been discussed by Jack. A quick search of the site shows 171 posts or references to Anonymous Jack. Clearly he is an active member of this community. In the two additional threads I looked at, Jack was again answering questions and showing a superior level or knowledge, and helpfulness. In one case he tracked down federal surplus auctions near a fellow user's home.

While it is clear he is not attempting to obtain money, can't it be argued that he is in fact obtaining another commodity?

Jack probably frequents this newsgroup for the same reason JP came to it. They are both looking for information. JP had a question and hoped that somebody could answer it. Jack can and does answer this question, but it is likely that he asks questions as well. Because Jack uses the community for information, he may feel a sense of duty to return information when he is in possession of it. "Sharing" is a large part of what makes the Internet so appealing and useful. When Jack answers question, he has in fact obtained 'reputation'. Several threads contained people thanking Jack for his answer or information. If those people are also members who frequent the site, when Jack has a question himself, can't it be argued that those 'indebted' to him will assist in finding the answer? It is in Jack’s best interest to help out others who may in turn someday help him.

Another possible reason for Jack’s involvement is that his profession might be tied to laptops, or knowledge about them. I argue that learning occurs when you solve a problem. Not an arbitrary problem on a worksheet, but an applicable, in-context problem. By solving and researching other people's problems, Jack is becoming better and better at using, fixing, knowing about laptops. This broad knowledge may secure him a better job, promotions, or contract work. Again, it is in Jack’s best interest to assist other members, especially when Jack is not sure of the answer.

Jack’s involvement may also be about ego. Maybe Jack just likes being worshiped by the other members of the community. "Ask Jack, he knows everything." This may serve as a motivation because the praise makes Jack feel good. Since Jack enjoys feeling needed, it is in his best interest to assist other members, especially those that heap praises on him.

For any of these reasons, it is important to note that Jack is not doing it because he is 'altruistic'. Both parties are self serving. JP got his answer, and Jack learned something new, or increased his status in the group, or stroked his ego. I do not mean this in a negative way. The success of the free market is based on greed, and the free market works just great. When Steve Jobs serves his own interest (makes a lot of money, solves a problem, explores an interest), he also serves many other people by giving them a viable alternative to Windows.

Because both parties are served, the Internet works. This is a fundamental concept. The Internet is not filled with altruistic people, rather people benefiting from what communication with others has to offer.

How does this tie back to instructional design in an online setting?

It tells me that self-interest is key to instruction. A student will learn better if they see the relevance to their lives. When teaching math, instead of just having them work problems, I would have them solve everyday problems that required math.

Another thing we can learn from online communities is that self-directed learning appears to work quite well. If I was to teach a class on how to use a GPS device, I could do it in two words. Click Here. I would tell the students that they needed to visit 25 sites and sign the log in each one. I would build a discussion board on the internet, and I would be willing to bet that by the end of the semester, most of the students would know just as much, if not more, than if I had prepared 15 lectures on the subject ob GPS operation. They would have learned by seeing a solvable, interesting problem, built strategies on how to solve the problem, assisted and learned from each other, and, I wager, ultimately succeeded. By learning and doing, rather than hearing and seeing, they would know more.

The last thing to realize is that learning takes place by those who interested about a certain topic. I would much rather learn about politics from those who are passionate about the subject. In fact I have been ‘studying’ politics ever since I did my undergraduate work in the political science. I have been a member of a discussion board that discusses anything from elections, to political theory, to current issues. I think it is safe to say I have learned as much in those four years as I did in the four years at college. Now when I scour John Locke, it is not because I’ve been told to by my teacher, but because I want to back up a point I am making on the board.

It just may be that the future of e-learning is highly specialized and you engage in learning with those who have similar interests, and have similar experience and expertise.

1 comment:

David said...

"It tells me that self-interest is key to instruction...It just may be that the future of e-learning is highly specialized and you engage in learning with those who have similar interests, and have similar experience and expertise."

Extremely interesting (to me, anyway). Self-interest is definitely key to *learning*, especially informal learning. I also think its interesting that you say learning will happen among people of similar expertise. What about the teacher or expert? To some extend their days are over: http://www.fastcompany.com/subscr/87/open_essay.html