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I posted the gist of this as an answer to the meta thread on faculty support during the corona virus, but it was suggested that it might make sense as its own question. What questions should be closed as “shopping”?

And then we have current posts where people are asking for lists of software that can be used to teach remotely, in light of the corona-virus closures. Here are three:

Two of these are closed, and the other has a close vote. These have been very slow to earn closure votes, with the still open one sitting at one vote for several days, which suggests a lot of the people who spend time in the review queues don’t see them as closure-worthy. But at the same time, the language on commercial software seems to directly relate. There are two related questions here:

  1. It seems to me, when I read our official documentation, that these count as shopping questions. Is there another interpretation I’m missing?

  2. Should we be closing these sorts of questions (if not off scope for another reason)? If not, does it require a change to the language in the rules?

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    Personally, I would prefer an end to all questions about software. The questions about ArXiv and Google Scholar are particularly useless and boring. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 13 at 5:43
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: If you find a certain type of questions boring, just don’t look at them or ignore the respective tags. It’s inevitable that in a community like ours, not everybody finds every kind of question interesting. I personally do not care about graduate admissions at all, yet I would not declare them off-topic for that reason. The more crucial question is whether such questions have any inherent problems when answered. – Wrzlprmft Mar 13 at 7:23
  • @Wrzlprmft I did not realize I could ignore tags. Thanks! Of course I will probably see the question before it is tagged. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 13 at 7:32
  • @Wrzlprmft "The more crucial question is whether such questions have any inherent problems when answered." That is not what determines our scope. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 13 at 7:32
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: That is not what determines our scope. – Well, if a vast majority of our community does not care about some question, that’s a problem, because there is no curation, community moderation, voting, etc. If you so wish, this is why we have a scope to begin with. But this is not why we close shopping questions: They are perfectly within our scope (in the common meaning of the word), but they cause other problems (described in the shopping FAQ). The existence of this question and the votes disagree with your assessment that nobody here is interested in such questions. – Wrzlprmft Mar 13 at 7:54
  • @Wrzlprmft None of the answers has more than two net votes so far. That's a tiny number. Six people voted for the question, but it's unclear what their position is. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 13 at 8:00
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    The current global corona pandemic is an event that is unprecedented in this age (you#d have to go back to 1920). And I hope it won't happen again for quite some time. In light of that, maybe a good idea is not to change what is allowed in general (shopping questions usually are bad), but allowing those questions temporarily for the coming weeks until the whole spook is over, then locking them with historic locks. This is a unique challenge for most of the world, a little bit of flexibility/lenience might help solving practical problems now that aren't necessary good Q&A for the future – Polygnome Mar 16 at 21:31
  • Before considering closing them, keep softwarerecs.stackexchange.com in mind – Franck Dernoncourt Apr 17 at 18:55
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(Disclaimer: I am the author of Alternatives to big-name proprietary remote-lecturing tools )

First of all: we make the rules

We are free to consider on-topic whichever questions we deem answerable or useful to academics. The fact that "no shopping questions" is a thing, in general, should not prevent us from accepting these questions. If we believe they are good ones, we can make an exception or modify the scope of the "shopping" definition.

Are these useful questions for academics? In my view, yes. Using software to teach, do research and write papers is a part of our work. These questions are intrinsically more answerable than university-shopping or conference-shopping questions.

Softwarerecs.se is a bad idea for specialized needs

I have already it written several times in comments, but I believe [softwarerecs.se] is a bad idea. Suppose you need to find a good linear algebra book; would you ask a linear algebra expert, or a "book expert"? Questions on the software needs of academics are much more likely to receive a useful answer from the audience of our site than from the audience of softwarerecs.se.

We people who use conferencing software for teaching have different needs than the other users in industry. For instance, I imagine that typically people in industry do not have a video-conference with one person speaking most of the time and 200 other passive users who are mostly listening and should not have their mics on all the time. They (often) do not need to share and record written notes, or to reproduce complicated mathematical formulas in chat.

To sum up, I think that this is the right site for this kind of questions, and that we should amend the definition of "shopping question" to make them on-topic if they are not on topic already.

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  • To clarify what the difference between your answer and mine is: 1) Do you disagree that questions seeking recommendations of software with a general target audience should be disallowed or 2) Do you disagree with categorising your question (and the other one) as my Point 3 (instead of Point 2)? – Wrzlprmft Mar 12 at 11:51
  • Option 2: I believe videoconferencing is specific enough to academics to have a place here. – Federico Poloni Mar 12 at 11:58
  • Okay, thanks. I had another look at your question where you explicitly say: “My requirements are just streaming my desktop's content and my microphone.”, which would be just private broadcasting and doesn’t seem specific to academia at all to me. (For example, I see this all the time for general non-academic computing conferences.) However, in this answer, you mention that you want student feedback (just not all the time). What am I missing? – Wrzlprmft Mar 12 at 12:07
  • Yes, student feedback would be appreciated. I will edit the question. I suppose also non-academic computing conferences have questions from the audience, though? – Federico Poloni Mar 12 at 12:40
  • Thanks for clarifying. I will edit my answer in reaction to your edits and not to use conferences as an example (because it is unclear). If I understand everything correctly, you should agree with it now. — I suppose also non-academic computing conferences have questions from the audience, though? – Yes, but those are usually from the live audience. I have never seen a specific technology for online questions (though I don’t doubt that it exists). – Wrzlprmft Mar 12 at 13:19
  • @wr Well, "symmetric" videoconferencing (everyone has a microphone and can speak) or chats handle questions just fine, for instance. – Federico Poloni Mar 12 at 18:16
  • "Softwarerecs.se is a bad idea for specialized needs" This is irrelevant, in my opinion. There is no rule that all questions must be on topic somewhere. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 13 at 5:45
  • @FedericoPoloni: Well, "symmetric" videoconferencing (everyone has a microphone and can speak) or chats handle questions just fine, for instance. – But not from a mass audience. You somehow need to moderate questions, etc. – Wrzlprmft Mar 13 at 7:24
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Status Quo

There has never been a clear consensus whether shopping questions extend to software. Hence it is missing from the shopping FAQ. Having a policy for this is long overdue. I suggest:

Suggested Policy

  1. Do not close questions on how to solve a practical problem that is specific to academia or teaching. If the answer is to use a software (commercial or not) with certain features, that’s okay. Such a software can be explicitly named, but a good answer provides a list of alternatives (should they exist). It is even okay to ask such a question if the answer is most likely a software.

  2. Do not close questions that seek recommendations of software for purposes that are specific to academia or teaching, for example software for managing grades, courses, citations. However, such questions must adhere to these established rules from Software Recommendations SE.

  3. Close questions that seek recommendation of software that has a more general target audience, e.g., software for general video broadcasting or collaborative editing. These are best asked on Software Recommendations SE. Very roughly speaking, telling people to use a software for collaborative editing is within our expertise and scope; telling them which collaborative-editing software is best is not (when they already know that they want a collaborative editing software, and have no further academia-specific needs).

  4. If possible, edit questions to those described in Point 1, i.e., asking how to solve a problem. This even applies to questions as described in Point 2.

Rationale

There are two purposes of closing questions (that are relevant here):

  • Avoid questions that we cannot answer or whose answers we cannot reasonably evaluate. The proposed policy limits questions to those which really need the expertise of academics (as opposed to general software specialists), so this is fulfilled.

  • Avoid questions that are not well suited for the Stack Exchange format in general, e.g., due to having no objective best answer. This is why we close questions shopping for journals, universities, fields, and similar. The existence of Software Recommendations SE shows that such questions can work – if they adhere to strict guidelines on the specifics of the software. Such questions are not anymore about “What is the best citation software in general?” but “What citation software fulfils fulfils my specific requirements?”. In contrast to questions shopping for journals or universities:

    • these requirements can actually be described within the scope of a question
    • there is little risk of the typical bad answers to shopping questions (e.g., from people blindly championing their field, university, etc.),
    • we are not giving anybody the illusion that we can reasonably make a life decision for them.

Your Examples

Point 4 avoids unnecessary closures, XY problems and the resulting comment explosions, and focuses questions on our main area of expertise.

“I agree with everything but Point 2”

Please feel free to suggest the respective alternative as a separate answer, so it can be voted upon. You can either copy my policy and modify the respective part or write something like “Wrzlprmft’s answer, except Point 2”. Ideally provide a rationale.

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    I like your point 1. Focus on the problem, not the software. For example rather than asking What software allows remote discussion? instead ask How do I stay in contact with students remotely? I'm not sure about Point 2 if point 4 cannot be met. – Richard Erickson Mar 13 at 16:06
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As you say, two of these questions are closed. The third seems like it might be salvageable: the title text (Creating a secure test environment for a lab practical) does not ask for a specific "shopping" recommendation, but the second paragraph does seem like it is asking for either a software solution (which is shopping) or technical help (which is off-topic). Perhaps someone will edit it, or perhaps it will be closed, but it seems like things are generally working as they should.

These have been very slow to earn closure votes, with the still open one sitting at one vote for several days, which suggests a lot of the people who spend time in the review queues don't see them as closure-worthy.

One possibility is that users found the resource requests useful/interesting even if they are technically off-topic, and so chose to "skip" voting on the question. Perhaps the recently-created chat will fill this need.

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    Personally, I don't think chat fills my needs. Chat is messy and hard to search. Any information you write on chat will be almost impossible to find one year from now. I try to avoid using SE's chat as much as possible. – Federico Poloni Mar 12 at 12:46
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I would like to focus on 2 out of the 3 debated questions, as I believe that 2 of them fall into the same category: "Software to live-stream presentations" and "Creating a secure test environment for a programming lab practical". The first, I voted to close as shopping question and the second I voted to leave open.

The guiding principle for me is what would constitute the accepted answer.

I think that the same rationale would also apply for the highest upvoted answer, but first for reasons of brevity and second, because we are talking about the closing of a question, it seems closer related to the OP than the upvotes, I base the following discussion on the accepted answer.

The first question asks for software recommendations for streaming presentations in an academic environment. Framed as such, natural answers would entail what the posters' experiences with such tools were in the past (e.g. Skype, Slack, Teams, ...). Suppose now it attracts three answers, each listing three suggestions with the rationale why the tool did work for the poster (i.e. we are looking at "complete" answers of similar quality). What would the criteria be for OP to accept the answer? What he likes best? What he ends up using? The first answer? In my opinion this ceases to be Q&A and becomes a forum post all inclusive with extensive chat-like commenting. Members of the community will tend to upvote based on their preferences and perhaps even downvote based on their bad experiences with the tools, again, because there is no other inherent quality that might differentiate the answers. Further, what would be the benefit for a prospective reader? Plagued with the same question, happy to have found it already answered, how would he interpret the answers? Simply put, such questions merit a discussion and lists of preferences. I guess that it also could be construed as opinion-based under circumstances, but either way, closing material.

Further, this is the epitome of "boat programming" question. I.e.: "As an academic, what tools should I use for live-stream presentations in order to facilitate lectures, office hours and exams?". The same tools are used in industry, family meetings, online role-playing games, etc. for a reason: the use cases are the same (need to communicate with a group, possibly with video support, share documents, present, etc.). So, the fact that the tool is for academia makes it in no way different or more special.

As for the second question, although it could be seen as a shopping question, there is a another question, more relevant to Academia SE, underneath: how do we secure the integrity of exams that are forced to be conducted remotely. A serious question which warrants serious consideration and quality of answers, which would also be applicable to other readers. This is also a good example, as one can compare the answers in both questions. So, at worst, this question needs some editing for clarification, but I wouldn't consider it a shopping question.

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Suggested Policy: Close questions that seek recommendations for software for teaching purposes, for example software for managing grades, courses, lectures, and citations.

Rationale: These questions are uninteresting to site users. Most of them will also be opinion-based, as the different software companies have mostly copied each other's features. Most people only have experience with their own institution's software licenses, so for proprietary software few people will have broad experience to inform their opinions.

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  • So, you are fine with questions on citation software? – Wrzlprmft Mar 13 at 8:16
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    If there is this meta question, it's because this kind of (main) questions are actually interesting to certain site users. Like graduate admission questions are interesting for certain users and totally uninteresting for others. But the point is not that of being interesting or not, it's that of being useful. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 13 at 8:30
  • @Wrzlprmft No, those are terrible questions. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 13 at 20:57

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