We recently had a brief discussion in chat about this question which asks for learning materials (specifically, online video courses). I feel that such questions are not a good fit for the site because:

  1. They are not about a problem. The SE network specializes in giving specific solutions to specific problems, this type of question is either "too broad" or "opinion based".

  2. Any answers given will become obsolete very quickly as the courses change, links die, the institutions or individuals giving the courses update or change them etc etc. Answering this kind of question seems to invite link rot.

Now, I may be influenced in this by Super User where one of the close reasons is:

Questions seeking product, service, or learning material recommendations are off-topic because they tend to become obsolete quickly. Instead, describe your situation and the specific problem you're trying to solve. Here are a few suggestions on how to properly ask this type of question.

I feel we should allow questions requesting books which, as physical objects, are likely to stick around longer than random links to online resources. Requests for online learning material, on the other hand, are more problematic. Forget books as well, the same basic issue applies, there is no single authoritative answer, asking for books can very easily degenerate into a long list of references, making it very hard to choose one answer as the 'correct' one.

So, what do we feel about this here? Should we add the above to our list of close reasons?


UPDATE 23/11/2014: A new close reason has now been added the the list of off topic close reasons:

Requests for learning materials (tutorials, how-tos etc.) are off topic. The only exception is questions about where to find official documentation (e.g. POSIX specifications). See the Help Center and our Community Meta for more information.

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I don't agree about the book exemption on the grounds that a) there is still a subjective assessment about their relevance (especially given that the questioner is invariably looking for "the best", or "the most thorough", etc), and b) I find it ironic that a wiki would discriminate against other online media. :) –  jasonwryan Jan 8 at 19:50
    
Books IIRC are now specifically disallowed on SO... and I think this is generally the same scenario. Personally though I'm not sure I agree with the general SE stance, sure materials might disappear... sure books /may/ get outdated, but I've gotten some awesome reads from long closed book threads on SO, because the /great/ resources tend to be long lived. –  xenoterracide Jan 8 at 21:28
    
@jasonwryan yes but I think I'm with xenoterracide on this, books are different somehow. First of all, if I recommend a book, that book is still likely to be available a few years down the line. It may be out of date, but at least it s not a link to a dead webpage. It is not a matter of discrimination but of connectivity. Links die, books don't, at worst, they just become obsolete. Whatever, I'm not so hung up on books, of we decide they're not a good fit for the site, then fine. I just feel we need to have an "official" stance on request for learning materials. –  terdon Jan 9 at 1:57
    
@xenoterracide you might want to reread my answer about "list of books", that could be translated to "shopping list" (I didn't added this factor in my answer). The problem with those question asking for books is that there will be people writing new books about the same thing everyday, in this same moment. We are arguing 3 things: 1. the relevance of the list in the future 2. the authoritativeness of the answers given 3. and that it doesn't evolve into a list with time. If any of those points are not meet, then the question is no good for SE as whole. –  Braiam Jan 9 at 2:14
    
@Braiam I'm just giving my opinion on this sort of thing in general. I've found that the /good/ books don't get that outdated ( e.g. K&R is still relevant for C ). –  xenoterracide Jan 9 at 2:38
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@xenoterracide : Yeah, the S.U. stance about learning materials becoming "obsolete" too quickly to be useful is a borderline illiterate one. S.U. is a source of "learning material", so there is something inherently contradictory in saying "We can't recommend learning material, because learning material goes out of date and as learning material, we want our material to stand for eternity, therefore we must avoid reference to learning material because it inherently becomes obsolete and we don't!" Really, really dumb tish, honestly. I'm against recommendations though, for other reasons. –  goldilocks Jan 9 at 9:28
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@goldilocks agreed, the question of whether they become obsolete is secondary to me (though it is a problem for web-based resources). My main issue with this kind of question is that it's not very interesting. I feel we should be a place to get answers. Not a place where we find out where to go to get answers. Personally, I am 100% in agreement with what you wrote in your answer, the only exception I would make is for primary sources like the POSIX spec etc. –  terdon Jan 9 at 23:45
    
It seems that some other sites allow this, Math.Sx for example –  Kartik Jan 10 at 13:25
    
@terdon I absolutely agree requests for primary sources are fine, maybe that wasn't clear? Anyway, for arguments sake, even taking into account web-based resources, the "obsolescence" premise is still non-nonsensical, esp since S.E. is a web-based resource. I don't ask a lot of questions, but I end up consulting existing ones every day, and if the question is, e.g. "How do I do this with that API?" I of course take the date on the question into account, because the API may have changed since then. Etc. There is no way around that... –  goldilocks Jan 10 at 18:25
    
...So in short, S.E. itself is irreversibly and intrinsically subject to obsolescence, nothing is eternal, and saying you can't have answers because they may be obsolete in the future is, well, absurd. There are various good reasons for disallowing requests for resources, putting a bad reason at the top (or anywhere on) the list is just a bad idea. –  goldilocks Jan 10 at 18:26
    
@goldilocks yes and no. Link rot is a valid concern. Actual info on the site is different, after all, it can always be edited. And, yes, your position on primary sources was quite clear, I was just agreeing with you is all. –  terdon Jan 10 at 18:27

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Questions asking for lists of resources tend to degenerate into lists of items, as opposed to answers. They tend to become a poll rather than a question with its answers.

Stack Exchange does not work well for polls, where each answer is a separate items. Voting on the answers results in a score that does not at all reflect the quality of the item mentioned in the answer, but primarily who posted first and secondarily how well-known the item is.

Asking for tutorials or other resources has its place somewhere on the web, but Stack Exchange is not that place.

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My major problem with recommendations for outside material is they are by nature inevitably very weak questions. As terdon says, there is no real problem: it is not as if such material is hidden in some secret place requiring some special knowledge to find. If you can log in to an S.E. site, you can use a search engine, and that's exactly what a search engine is for -- searching for material. There's also usually a plethora of opinions, reviews, and comments already available for stuff that is static and publicly distributed. If you have problems understanding the material you find, great, ask a specific question.

An exception I'd make to this is a request for primary sources. In context, that means the original documentation for foobar. Questions about that have a clear and objective answer, and, as opposed to secondary sources (such as "Online course that covers Unix/Linux Systems programming", or Stack Exchange itself), primary sources can sometimes be surprisingly hard to find, perhaps because they are singular, and perhaps because they tend not to be disseminated in the same way.

I'd really, really like to add that whoever at S.U. wrote "learning material recommendations are off-topic because they tend to become obsolete quickly" needs to become obsolete quickly. Besides the obvious, totally absurd circularity (what is an S.E. site besides "learning material"?) this obliterates any possible distinction between "good answer" and "bad answer", if we waived the other, more valid objections to recommending (other) secondary material: because it is opinion based, and because it shows little or no research effort. People who can't find books in a library don't need coddling, they need a quick head check, and hopefully that's part of what closing a question provides.

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+1 only for the last sentence. –  Braiam Jan 10 at 18:09

As the sole person to answer the original question I'm now in the position of really regretting that I ever answer that original question. This is not me being sour grapes or anything like that. I really could care less, I was attempt to help the OP when I answered that question, 1/2 expecting that it would get closed, but to my surprise it never did. I'd seen the OP ask several newbie related questions and so in a moment of weakness was attempting to help someone out by offering "some" guidance as to gaining more knowledge about this particular domain.

I've since voted to close that question today, given it is not a good fit for the Q&A style on the SE sites, and I do think we should continue with honoring that guideline here as well on U&L. I realize the temptation to offer someone new to the knowledge space some guidance but the level of free materials is just not up to the quality that one would get by actually attending classes and getting a 2 or 4 year degree in the space.

So in my mind, we're actually doing this persons a disservice in portraying that if they go through this material they're be on an equal footing with someone who went through a more formal and rigorous process in being educated. In stating that I'm sure I'll be run out of town on a rail but it's just how I perceive things in 2014, as both a producer and consumer of such content on the internet.

I full realize that there are tremendous resources available but the key ingredient that is missing is any kind of blueprint as to how to consume these resources. Getting a formal education is what gives one that blueprint, so that you're now equipped to continue ones journey in getting educated in this, or any, knowledge domain.

So, in the wisdom that others have had before us, I must concur and say that we should not allow these types of broadly asked questions here either. Their perceived value is actually low, and we're misrepresenting the situation to people that are new to the technology field.

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The nub of it is that all of those questions are just veiled (or not so veiled) requests for opinions--albeit sorted by votes. –  jasonwryan Jan 8 at 19:52
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I disagree with the take classes/2-4-year degree statement. My experience (getting a CmpE/CS double-major) was that none of the classes ever formally taught linux/unix -- most of them, if they required the use of those systems, just offered some basic intro-level "Here's how you do what is required to compile/run, everything else is up to you to learn independently"-type hour-or-two-long session. While there was maybe one or two classes offered on the stuff, they weren't required, and didn't really cover anything that couldn't be found online. –  Ross Aiken Jan 13 at 20:53
    
@RossAiken - you missed the point of my comment about the 2/4 degrees. This gives you the foundations to understand and take your personal learning over yourself and become your own teacher, through books and resources on the web. You won't find full material to show you everything (from scratch), but rather most material is structured for very small knowledge spaces. –  slm Jan 13 at 21:12

A warning to this effect has now been added to the on topic help page.

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The problem with this kind of question is that needs high maintenance. They are too volatile to be authoritatives. Too broad to assess the asker specific issues.

To put it in contrast:

  • How do I add a ethernet module to the Linux kernel?
  • What's all I need to know about the Linux kernel modules?

First is specific. To the point. It's relevant for the rest of us (might someone have the same question, they can find answers here) and someone might have an answer that meets the asker needs. Both answerer and asker have what they need and share the knowledge.

With the second... I could write a book. And those kind of answers are summary prohibited by this section of the FAQ:

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you're asking too much.

Same with the questions in the example. I could write a big list of (my favorites) resources, referencing all the (my favorites) existent and relevant resource. But I could have forgotten (their favorite) some, someone might write a resource that becomes (my favorite) a best-seller tomorrow. We are not shopping lists of anyone (even if such resources are free). Such volatility is not good for the Q&A model of Stack Exchange and Unix & Linux.

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Name 4 or 5 relevant online resources/courses on linux system programming (not books). I have been looking for the last 3 years and have found two. The question is relevant precisely because such resources are hard to find. –  haziz Jan 8 at 20:53
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@haziz but they are not fit for the Q&A style. StackOverflow passed that since long ago (almost after 2 years of going public, so we are late bloomers) and they decided that they doesn't fit the model. Is not what you think, is how the rules are written and the reasons behind those rules. –  Braiam Jan 8 at 20:56
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@haziz - no one is arguing with the value of these links, the issue is that they aren't a good fit for the Q&A style that SE makes use of. –  slm Jan 8 at 21:32

I disagree. The lack of substantial online (or for that matter classroom) material on the referenced original question is in fact a very real tangible problem and IS definitely worth a question. I have taken a course on the topic but am still looking for more resources. This is a VERY relevant question for me, not just the OP.

If the material in the answers becomes obsolete then the solution is to edit the answer not close the question!

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The problem is not so much its relevance as whether it is a good fit to our Q&A format. I agree that a list of courses would be a useful resource, I'm just not sure if this is the right place for it. They are very likely not to exist in a year, and unless someone wants to keep the answer up to date, it will quickly become useless. –  terdon Jan 8 at 17:12
    
@terdon but the same thing goes for a lot of answers. The frameworks I used two years ago are no longer around or the api had significant changes. (not all, but some) So while yes, some elements stay the same other information goes obsolete. So this is the right place for it as it tends to cause short to-the-point answers and has a visual date tag to it. For this type of question this would be the best format. –  Angelo Fuchs Jan 16 at 14:27
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@AngeloNeuschitzer the main issue is not so much obsolescence (though that is a problem) but the fact that this type of question cannot have a definitive answer. It is a fine question for a forum, not so for a Q&A site. –  terdon Jan 16 at 14:30
    
@terdon If you want to disable the pc speaker for your xterm there are at least 3 correct ways for doing it (Mixer, X start scripts, X term configuration). All of them are valid, definitive answers. And thats a valid question. Some questions just do have more than one valid answer. That does not make them invalid. –  Angelo Fuchs Jan 16 at 14:35

I think we should allow such questions.

  1. They are about a specific problem. The difference between Where do I find the configuration of PostgreSQL and Where do I find a course for PostreSQL is only in one thing: The second question has more valid answers than the first one.

  2. The topic of obsolescence has been throughly answered by goldilocks.

  3. Books are no different. If books are valid, so are online materials.

    • While to most of us who live in places where "go to the library" is a useful approach that is not true to everyone, because many places on this planet don't have libraries like we do. I'm biased as I know people to whom "getting a book" is a difficult approach, but their internet connection is relative stable.

    • Not all people learn equally well from books. I myself only use books as reference collections, but I nowadays I usually learn from online courses tutorials etc. as I found them more suited to my approach on learning.

If the question is too broad Where do I find the course that teaches all about Linux then it should be closed for being to broad.

If the question is too opinion based Where do I find the best course for nfs it should be modified to remove the best and therefore be no longer opinion based.

In short, if my situation is: I {want|have} to learn about $topic but have no idea where to start. Then my problem is: Where do I find a place that teaches me stuff about $topic. which is an answerable question.

We do have a lot of Q&A here that could be solved by searching online but are still considered on topic (Where do I find configuration of PostgreSQL) up to the point that searching online brings people here because we answer such questions, the same should apply to learning material.

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Downvoter, care to comment? –  Angelo Fuchs Jan 16 at 12:43
    
Yup. First of all, downvotes on meta cost no reputation and should be taken even less personally than DVs on the main site, if someone disagrees with your meta proposal, they downvote to show it. That's how a community consensus is reached. The type of question you talk about is not about a specific problem. Where can I learn about X has thousands of possible answers, each as good as the other. How do you mark one as accepted? Which one is 'correct'? Books are not that different but since they are physical objects, they tend to stick around more. –  terdon Jan 16 at 12:51
    
@terdon Where can I learn everything about X may be too broad as a question but Where may I learn $specific about X is not. Where can I learn all about apache is too broad. Where can I learn about writing mods for apache is not. The question itself How does one write a mod for apache again is too broad. (thanks for explaining DVs here) –  Angelo Fuchs Jan 16 at 14:31
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No, where can I learn about X is not a specific question. I can answer here! and you can answer there! and Alice can answer elsewhere!, all three of which are great resources. Which one is THE answer? The SE network sites deal with specific answers. Problems that can be solved. Asking for a list of references is not such an issue. The right question would be "How do I write mods for apache", ask for the information, not how to get it. –  terdon Jan 16 at 14:33
    
But "How do I write mods for apache" would be closed as too broad and correctly so. As the close reason "too broad" says: "good answers would be too long for this format." So, no "How do I write mods for apache" is not the right question. –  Angelo Fuchs Jan 16 at 14:38
    
(answering your comment from here so we don't flood haziz with messages) Exactly, one of them (or all) will work for me and I can choose the one I ended up using. That's a specific problem with a specific answer. "Where can I learn about xterm" is not. It will generate a list of potentially thousands of different websites, all of which are findable through an internet search. –  terdon Jan 16 at 14:39
    
And yes, "how do I write mods for apache" would be a bad question, I just used it as an example to contrast with "where do I learn about...". –  terdon Jan 16 at 14:39
    
I think we two won't reach a conclusion. I understand what you mean, I just disagree with it. From my point of view, everything that can be said about the answers to "how do I disable beep in xterm" can be said to the answers of "where do I learn about xterm configuration" –  Angelo Fuchs Jan 16 at 14:42
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And in really they are different issues and questions. With the first you have defined clearly where you are and where you want to be, with the later you don't know where you are and where you want to go and expect us knowing that for you. –  Braiam Jan 21 at 15:03
    
@Braiam Obviously I know I am at the beginning, else I would know how to look for answers. Its often quite hard to find courses or books about stuff you start learning about. Also, why they are different issues and questions the kind of answers are similar. You get more than one valid and each of them is likely to help you. And from my point of view Stack Exchange is about answers, questions are merely a necessary perquisite. –  Angelo Fuchs Jan 21 at 21:27

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