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Answer gardens mark 2

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

Ackerman's idea of an answer garden is to grow an FAQ through (social) interaction. The administrator creates (and periodically must re-design) a taxonomy tree for the area. The user with a query navigates the tree trying to home in on an answer to their question. Either they find a tip/leaf with the answer, or at that tip they post their question. An expert is associated with each subtree, and receives any query posted within it. They reply, and their answer goes both by email to the questioner, and on to the tree for future users.

Sloep's idea is that the user with a question simply expresses it in free text. Software analyses it using "latent semantic analysis" (similar to the full text indexing behind search engines) and matches it to stored library of documents (explained in a moment). The output will be not an answer but a new wiki, seeded with the question, with members consisting of the questioner plus a small number of senior students. The latter have been picked by looking at their records for courses they have done, and machine analysis of documents associated with the course contents. Perhaps, plus information about whether they are online at the moment, if there are lots of students, and to give it an "instant messaging" aspect. (Actually, they have more sophisticated ideas than this: see Kester et al., 2006.)

There are a million variations one can think of.
Terry Mayes suggests that the wiki itself is a documentary trace that can be the basis of awarding marks to contributing students: it shows and measures engagement. Students volunteering could write a short piece about what they had found most interesting about the course, which would be one of the documents feeding into the LSA. Could seed the wiki not only with the question, but with the wikipedia (or other web search) entry.

However the full web2.0 spirit suggests that this idea will work much better with a huge population, not a small isolated course. And that it will be much more appealing to questioners if the response is more or less immediate, which again suggests a huge population and using "being online" as a selection mechanism. It means then that the mechanism could satisfy Illich's vision of learning as depending on an instant ad hoc community (for learning), not some geographical or institutional one. Anyone learning about anything could post a query and find just a handful of people able, willing, and available to chat about it.

Might be worth trying on big first year courses. We have 600 in our psychology level 1 classes. That means there are about 1800 students at the university who did that course in the past, and might have an impulse to answer a few simple questions now and then.


Ackerman,M.S. & Malone,T.W. (1990) "Answer Garden: A tool for growing organizational memory" Proc ACM conference on office information systems pp.31-39

Ackerman,M.S. & McDonald,D.W. (1996) "Answer Garden 2: merging organizational memory with collaborative help" Proc CSCW'96 pp.97-105

Ackerman,M.S. & Palen,L. (1996) "The Zephyr help instance: promoting ongoing activity in a CSCW system" Proc CHI'96 pp.268-275

Liesbeth Kester, Peter van Rosmalen, Peter Sloep, Francis Brouns, Malik Kon & Rob Koper (2006) Matchmaking in Learning Networks: Bringing Learners Together for Knowledge Sharing

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