How does Ask an Expert Stack Up against Stack Exchange—A Crowdsourcing Approach to Answering Questions and Solving Problems

Recently, I’ve come across a website called Stack Exchange a number of times—whether in a Google search, or in conversation with colleagues who use it regularly. As I explored Stack Exchange I realized there is one thing Extension does more effectively and for free—that is answering people’s questions.

What is Stack Exchange?

Stack Exchange is a website where people ask questions and other people answer them. The site is organized into 149 communities and there are 109 million unique visitors each month. Anyone can ask and answer questions. There is a robust system of badges and so called “reputation points” that reward those who provide highly rated answers.

Questions are also moderated so that they focus on problems. Stack Exchange recommends asking about, “Specific issues within each site’s area of expertise.” and “Real problems or questions that you’ve encountered.” “Chit-chat” is discouraged as is general discussion. The site focuses on getting answers to questions without having to filter through irrelevant information. The fact that questions are actually moderated also adds to the usefulness of the site. Not that discussion is a bad thing, but in my experience I’ve found that there can be a lot of fluff to sift through which is not useful when you’re actually looking for an answer to a problem or a question.

Uniquely, people also vote for answers they deem to be better and in this way, each answer is “peer reviewed” so to speak. Again, it’s true that the peers may or may not have advanced degrees. But maybe they do, and at least they may have some experience in the subject area.

Users also have a profile that describes their expertise. True, it could be fabricated, but if people use their real names, that’s probably not the case.

What is Ask an Expert?

Ask an Expert is eXtension’s tool that allows a clientele to use a form to “ask an expert” any question. Often that question is answered by someone in the same state or county. In 2014, about 3000 Experts answered more than 50,000 questions. Either the expert or the answer seeker can choose to privatize their question.

How does Ask an Expert stack up with Stack Exchange?

Stack Exchange

  • “[Stack Exchange’s] goal is to have the best answers to every question, so if you see questions or answers that can be improved, you can edit them.”
  • Anyone can answer questions–so called expert or not
  • 109 million unique visitors each month, 149 topical communities
  • Questions and answers are all public
  • Questions and answers are reviewed, improved, and voted for by users (peer reviewed)
  • A system of badges is used to reward engagement with the site whether it’s voting for better answers, answering questions, or asking questions
Ask an Expert

  • Goal is to have a local expert answer every question with research based information.
  • Anyone can ask a question, but only Extension experts can answer them
  • In 2014, about 3000 Experts answered more than 50,000 questions
  • Users and experts can choose to keep their question private
  • No public input on validity or relevance of questions or answers. No opportunity to rank or vote for answers.
  • Reward system is not directly tied to each action. Reward system is based more on overall job performance and is in terms of tenure

Questions for discussion or to ponder:

  1. Is it better to join existing networks such as Stack Exchange or to create ones that solely belong to Extension?
  2. If Extension maintains separate platforms or sites, what can we learn from highly successful websites such as Stack Exchange to be more efficient, widely used, and effective?
  3. Is there inherent value in answering a question one-on-one either by email, phone, or face-to-face?
  4. Is crowdsourced expertise and advice a threat to the previously held monopoly Extension has held on doling out advice—especially in certain areas such as agriculture and food preservation?
  5. Would a badge or other non-monetary reward system inspire Extension professionals to spend more time on national efforts such as eXtension?
  6. Bret Simmons talks about value in terms of “. . .what you can do uniquely well to help others address opportunities and solve problems that matter to them.” What if someone out there is doing something better than us, even if we’ve been doing it for a hundred years?

It’s not just about improving efficiency, but it is about that. One of Stack Exchange’s most valuable features is the mechanism to collaboratively improve and build on someone’s original answer. That improves the quality of the information. It boils down to increasing  impact–making high quality information available to the world or at least to anyone in the world with that particular question.

In this article, I zoomed in on Ask an Expert because it’s Nationwide and Extension’s counterpart to Stack Exchange. But these question could be asked in any Extension context that is involved in answering questions–probably just about everyone in Extension.

I hope you’ll share your thoughts and comments on this topic, below.

For further discussion on this topic, see Have a Question? Tweet the Crowd and The Wisdom of Crowds.


Photo by Guillaume. Some rights reserved.