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I understand there is already a fair amount of discussion on shopping questions on meta and I've read through most of it, but the motivation for closing shopping questions is still opaque to me. This question I asked recently inspired my curiosity: Alternate university course allocation mechanisms.

Insofar as the ideal answer to this question is a list (a list of universities, no less), I agree that it could be called a shopping question, and I'm not arguing with those that flagged it as such. On the other hand, it's not what I usually think of when I think of shopping questions. I usually think of questions that ask for a list of programs that a particular person might want to consider or a list of journals that a researcher might want to consider for a submission. And the problem with those questions, to me, is that the answer is not generalizable or likely to be useful to other readers, not simply that the ideal answer would be formatted as a list. In fact, if you click on the discussion that is linked from the shopping question closure, it seems that most of the concerns on shopping questions are regarding the specificity of the request, not the list format of an answer.

My question, while it does ask for a list, is not just generalizable, it's already general. Obviously the answer is of interest to me, but it is in no way specific to me. It could absolutely be of interest to other users.

I understand that I could probably have it reopened by reframing the question to something like: How should universities assign courses to students? But that question is no more or less valid as a question than the current: How do universities assign courses to students? And it's the latter that interests me, not the former. Isn't this community an ideal place to answer it, and wouldn't members of this community find such an answer interesting? If it's really just a matter of it making the choice of an accepted answer arbitrary, then I think this can be resolved by having a community wiki answer, which is what i started. Or is it just an absolute aversion to lists?

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    A side note. Your question is a fine example on how far university cultures from different countries can be: I had to reread your question 4 times to understand what you were talking about, simply because we really don't have limited-enrollment courses. Limits can be, in exceptional cases, set for an entire faculty, but I've never heard in my country of limits set for a single course. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 18 '15 at 20:02
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    @MassimOrtolano That's fascinating. But surely lecture theaters only have a certain capacity. If more students enroll than can fit in the lecture theater, what is to be done? – Shane Nov 18 '15 at 20:15
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    Several solutions have been employed along the years. 1) You limit the enrollment for the entire faculty, so that no course in subsequent years can have more students than those enrolled from year 1. Selection is done with a test. 2) You run several courses (same subject) in parallel, and you divide the students among them alphabetically (this is typical for undergraduate courses in the first few years). 3) For really huge courses (say 500-800 students), that for some reason cannot be split (e.g lack of instructors), you rent cinemas (I saw it happen in the past in the humanities). – Massimo Ortolano Nov 18 '15 at 20:24
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    To clarify a bit the solutions above, it should be noted that in my country and probably several others, there is a strong opposition against limiting the access to courses in public universities, because of the cultural role that is recognized to this kind of universities. So, e.g., the solution 1) above is opposed by most people. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 18 '15 at 20:29
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To my mind, the core idea of a "shopping" question is the idea that a person is asking the internet to do a semi-subjective comparative analysis for them. These have three core problems:

  1. They are typically strongly individual and opinion-based (e.g., "Is Colorado State better than the University of Missouri?" Who knows, it all depends on how you measure!)
  2. They often show little work before asking and should be solved with five minutes on Google. (e.g., "Can anybody tell me what are some engineering schools in the US?")
  3. We want to stay neutral in such matters. If we don’t, we may become subject to all sorts of accusations, e.g., unprofessionalism and libel. Also, it could lead to unproductive “bashing” of institutions (e.g. “Everybody knows MIT has gone downhill since Marilee Jones left...”)

I don't think your question was a "shopping" question in this sense. It was, however, phrased in such a way as to solicit unproductive "list" answers, which would just say a bunch of schools and methods without saying why they were interesting. Your own wiki seed is a good example of why this is likely to be unproductive: it says things like "Wharton (Course Match, a bidding mechanism)." Why is this bidding system interesting, relative to your original question? What can be learned from it, relative to actual alternatives?

For this reason, I have edited the question to focus instead on what I think is more likely to be the real question underlying: the main mechanisms clearly are not the only possibilities, so are there others that would be good alternatives for particular uses, and what is interesting about them?

  • What makes a listing of alternatives unproductive? Given that we don't currently know what alternatives are being used, isn't a first step to discussing what is interesting, what is good, what is bad, and more normative topics to first establish what is being used? – Shane Nov 18 '15 at 18:25
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    @Shane Let me give an example from another domain: Question: "What are some alternative ingredients to flour, sugar, and water that are used in cooking?" Answer: "avocados, parsnips, panch puran, gizzards." Yes, these are answers to the question, but there is little value in the list since it doesn't provide any insight. Anybody with enough information to answer this much probably also can say something much more enlightening, and it's good to formulate questions to encourage that. – jakebeal Nov 18 '15 at 18:48
  • I suppose I agree. But as much as "avocados, parsnips, panch puran, gizzards" (nice list, by the way!) might not be a great answer, a ten paragraph answer on gizzards would be similarly problematic as an answer. There needs to be a balance between going too broad and going too deep. – Shane Nov 18 '15 at 21:27
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    @Shane: Questions that can be answered with a list of items are generally considered poor fits for SE sites. – aeismail Nov 19 '15 at 4:59

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