Educating computer users: the need for community/author collaboration

Andy Oram
February 5, 2008

Every computing project that displays a heart-beat is out recruiting new users, because the trajectories of competing projects place them in a grow-or-die situation. Celebrating the project’s 100,000th download, noting increased traffic on its mailing lists, and boasting the release of a book about it—all these typical milestones implicitly measure success in terms of new users. It makes sense that the more effectively a project can educate its new users and turn them into masters, the more successful it will be.

Mailing lists and books represent the two ends of a spectrum of educational opportunities. On a mailing list, IRC channel, or web forum, questions and answers stream back and forth with a speed that reflects the fleeting quality of the current state of affairs. A book, by contrast, represents stability (not to mention opportunities for revenue). In between lie blogs, tutorials, wikis, FAQs, and a range of other tools for helping users mature.

Recently, the less stable end of this ecosystem has been destabilizing the other end, and this calls for a reassessment of their relationship.

The symptom: a shift online

More than a decade ago, O’Reilly realized that online content was gaining in importance. The company responded with high-quality edited content in the form of The O’Reilly Network and Safari Books Online. But readers continued to turn more and more to online sources of information that were anything but high-quality edited content.

Some of the free online material is pretty well-written. But the organization, pace, and tone are virtually never of professional quality. And even more significant, these isolated descriptions of particular tasks or how to recover from particular problems suffer from lack of context. Information that readers need is scattered over a dozen different sites, all written from slightly different angles and for different audiences. I’ve explored the strengths and weaknesses of online contributions in a series of articles.

One may ask whether top-notch quality could be achieved by volunteer input, bypassing the need for professional editing. The answer, in a word, is no. As I pointed out in a recent posting, professional editing provides a comprehensive and incisive view that uncoordinated volunteer efforts hardly ever can do.

Yet sales of most books on professional computer topics are declining. An occasional spike will appear in the book market when a new technology captures the public’s attention (for instance, Ajax) but after a year or so it fades. And such topics are becoming rarer.

The challenge: where value lies in educational content

Why are so many readers turning to free online content? The answers are simple:

What these familiar traits add up to is this: the value in educational content lies in context (what immediate problem the reader is trying to solve) and timeliness (what’s true today will be outdated tomorrow). Value no longer lies in the traits associated organization, pace, and tone as in traditional books.

Another way to put this is that the bulk of online material defies the need for professional authoring and editing. First, most web pages and postings are so short that they aren’t candidates for the careful pacing and organization that go into a good book; in other words, coherence is easy to achieve without professional help. Second, the content goes out of date so quickly that professional authoring and editing don’t pay off.

And of course, interactivity changes all the rules. Clear writing doesn’t matter much on forums and chat sites because the recipient of each message can ask for clarification.

This situation comes right out of Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. The day has arrived for low-cost (free, in this case) offerings that fall short of the quality standards treasured in the past, but that provide better quality when judged by their audience’s needs.

And they’re free (in terms of cost) because there’s no value in adding extra cost by polishing the text.

But research I’ve conducted presents evidence that online content is not meeting user needs. Impressive as it is—reflecting the time and caring invested by many people to build communities—it just doesn’t work as often as it should.

A study I performed on technical mailing lists, confirmed by a similar follow-up study, reveals three key points:

The community can’t do it alone. Self-organizing is wonderful (after all, half the questions do receive answers), but it’s not enough.

“Well,” you say, “perhaps you’ve established that mailing lists don’t solve all problems. But what about the other educational tools you mentioned: all those online manuals, articles, wikis, and blogs?” The presence of these resources, however, doesn’t solve the dilemma. The very popularity of mailing lists shows that the rest is lacking as well. If users could find the information in the online manuals, articles, wikis, and blogs, they wouldn’t have to bother with the mailing lists.

And if most online content is so short that intensive editing is not required, the problem of coherence moves from the stand-alone posting to the larger collection spread across the Internet. Documents don’t use the same terms for the same things, don’t fill in the gaps in background, and don’t adequately indicate the purposes and potential applications for the techniques they teach. The community is not solving this problem—but no professional editor can solve it either. I’ve suggested a technical approach to the problem in an earlier article.

A proponent of free documentation (actually, I count myself as one) might complain that it’s not the fault of the free documentation if users are too lazy to search for answers or too ignorant to understand the documentation. I can retort that it’s not the fault of O’Reilly books if users are too cheapskate or too indifferent to buy an O’Reilly book for every topic they need. OK, now we’re even. Let’s move on and try to meet the needs of computer users.

The context: membership dynamics and leadership roles

Every real-world and online community faces the same basic development issues. How do potential members view the community they’re about to join, and how can the community welcome them by giving them the competencies they need? What opportunities do the leaders have for training other members, and what responsibilities do they have to act on these opportunities?

When it comes to recruitment, communities always have unwritten and often unconscious rules concerning who’s in and who’s out. Although a tight-knit elite sharing common values is useful for a few tasks, most communities now understand that allowing the greatest possible diversity of potential recruits will bolster the community’s chance of success and bring in the strongest set of skills and ideas.

For this article, we’ll focus on broadening membership by helping new members master the skills they need to succeed. The first tutorial that a computer user tries when exploring a web framework may determine whether she becomes an enthusiastic success story or disappears from the site forever.

Difficulties in skill training abound everywhere, from businesses that must quickly train new employees in their legal and accounting requirements, to religious organizations that need to show new members their doctrines and rituals. Online communities contain experts willing to answer questions on forums, as well as tutorial and reference documents. But as I suggested earlier in a recent article, technologies ill-suited to membership training limit the opportunities available to leaders.

In addition, leaders often don’t know how to take advantage of opportunities, or aren’t rewarded enough for doing so. For instance, if attempts to help someone overcome difficulties in a technology lead to flames excoriating it for being so difficult, a leader learns to keep his head down and silently let the new member flounder—or worse, to become defensive.

On the positive side, communities who identify competent leaders and put them to use training new members can thrive in both new member development and leadership development. Nothing is more precious in education than the time and attention of a top-notch practitioner; this time and attention should be put to the best possible use by letting the practitioner hand the learner over to documentation at every available opportunity.

In short, leaders need the proper tools and encouragement in order to help new members. Among the crucial tools are good documents, but documents (like communities) can’t do it alone.

The solution: a community can invest documentation with new value

As stated at the beginning of this article, computer users have two types of resources: formal documentation (whether published books, manuals, wikis, or articles) and informal help forums. Together, these can be a powerful combination. They complement each other, and can fill each other’s gaps.

The first task communities can perform is to find information. People often come to mailing list and forums just to ask whether a document exists that solves their problem. And the answer is often a one-line message listing a book or URL.

The need for such exchanges clearly shows inefficiency in online content. The person asking the question has probably invested considerable time in a earnest search for the information, and others must interrupt their work to give the answer. Therefore, better tools, protocols, and community practices could do a lot to reduce the findability problem. I treat this issue in the other articles I pointed to earlier.

Another task that the community could perform is to interpret the information. Some users need to be trained to read the material. They may need to be told how to frame their questions productively and what to look for in the documentation. On forums, one occasionally sees a respondent successfully reframe the question this way. If members of communities invested time into guiding new users through a document, the communities might impart skills that would lift users to new levels of competence and self-reliance.

This task is very difficult. Current forums and mailing lists provide a poor foundation for it. People come and go pseudonymously. No one is nominated to be a mentor, and attempts to mentor can appear condescending. (How would you react to the offer “Let me show you how to read a document…”?) On the other side of the conversation, there is no way to tell whether a new entrant possesses the stick-to-itiveness to benefit from the investment of time required by the community.

So we need new, stronger ways to build communities. Experience with the social networks that are springing up all over the place may provide valuable insights. Social networks are oriented toward promoting the people who are best-connected and most highly respected. Perhaps these people could take the leadership role I laid out. But the social networks are not so kind to new entrants without impressive contacts of their own.

There has to be, first, a willingness to mentor and a willingness to be an apprentice. Trust must be established for this to happen. And then online tools need to bind mentors and apprentices more tightly and with richer interactive media than current forums and mailing lists allow. IRC is a tighter binding, but not a richer one. Virtual worlds may provide the right medium, along with collaborative tools such as the emerging online office suites.

During our focus on deepening the community experience, let’s not forget the other term in the equation: formal documentation. Basically, lessons that can help more than one person should be set down in an easy-to-find location and subjected to extra effort (even to professional editing). Documentation deserves further polishing if it is:

Tools that reveal how often a forum posting or blog has been read can reveal the first criterion, and authors can judge the others intuitively. Thus, they can decide when to put extra effort into formalizing a document.

And then some documents will rise to the level where professionalism is rewarded. The original O’Reilly ventures—high-quality edited content—prove their value after all.

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