I'm an instructor at a North American university and I've been asked to teach an introductory group theory course online this summer. One of my learning goals emphasizes mathematical communication, and since the course is online, I thought I'd involve digital literacy somehow.

In the spirit of various kinds of "edit Wikipedia"-type projects I've seen in other departments over the years, I think that an "ask/answer StackExchange"-type of project would work well in math. I envision my students asking one good-quality question and/or writing one good-quality answer to a question, all relating to group theory at the level of our course. When they're done, they inform me, and I assess their contributions with an offline rubric.

While I understand that such interactions could also unfold on course-internal platforms like Piazza, I believe the Math.SE medium offers two distinct advantages, namely higher stakes (meaning higher quality, I hope) and helping strangers (as opposed to classmates).

Logistics and pedagogy aside, my main concern is permission. Am I allowed to instruct ~100 students to each create a StackExchange account (if they don't already have one), ask one question, answer one question (possibly their own), and potentially never use the site again (though hopefully they will)? My initial research turned up the following pertinent caveats:

Please let me know if I'm missing something obvious. Thank you for your time!

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    $\begingroup$ Tangentially related older posts: Would it be allowed to post a question as an exercise for students?, Using Math.SE as a tool for my lecture/exercise. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2020 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ Might be tough for students to find good introductory-level questions that weren’t duplicates, in my opinion. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2020 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ I note that guidance for students would probably be necessary. Many first visitors to the site come without thinking they need to see the lay of the land: sometimes they ask a question and either end up asking a poorly edited question or a duplicate question. When downvotes and question closures follow, they are discouraged. Downvotes feel bad. This general type of interaction is what leads to the perception of the SE network as being unkind to new users. I can imagine a student trying to pass an assignment to do some approximation of the minimum effort, but with the wrong approximation. $\endgroup$
    – davidlowryduda Mod
    Apr 22, 2020 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ @TheoreticalEconomist It's a fair point, but it's interesting to note that there exist 38000 questions tagged group-theory with on the order of 20 per day asked lately, and the majority are at a level a first-semester student can at least understand. The rate will be slower over the summer but it seems plausible that there will be multiple questions potentially answerable by members of this course per day, even ignoring the actual asking of questions. $\endgroup$ May 3, 2020 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ Those “edit Wikipedia”-type projects are not popular with the Wikipedia regulars. $\endgroup$
    – MJD
    May 5, 2020 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ @KevinArlin Sure, but one version of the OP’s project entails asking one question and answering one question. The purpose of my comment was to suggest that that would probably be ill-advised. $\endgroup$ May 5, 2020 at 21:52

1 Answer 1


The most important part of your question is not if we would allow it. The most important, and first question to make, is: "Would your university allow this kind of thing?".

We cannot answer that, and that is something you must come in to terms with the relevant departments. If/when that is out of the way, then there is a lot of issues with this approach, although the intention may be good and honorable. (Mathematical communication is a skill often left aside.) To list a few issues quickly: supply of good questions may be time-dependent, luck may be an aspect, unhealthy competition, the pressure of public approval etc. My personal opinion is that it is best just to recommend the site for improving mathematical communication but not associate it to a course or anything formal.

With my personal opinion out of the way, if you disagree, then what follows is my take on the "rules"-side:

In theory, there is nothing wrong. (I think.) A lot of users registering from some university is relatively common, and some places/people recommend the site to their students. If they use the site following the rules (including those you listed), guidelines etc, then there is a priori nothing problematic. However, those potential issues come to mind:

  • It is not unreasonable to assume that if students require good performance here in order to do well somewhere else, they may engage in targetted voting. If the grading is in a competitive fashion, then they may downvote each other. If it is not competitive, they may upvote each other in order to help out. They may even create sockpuppets to make interesting questions for which they know the answer and then answer them. It would be uncomfortable for you and for your students if they ended up being in a voting ring or involved with sockpuppets and suspended because of it. They might even not understand the problem exactly, given that they are using the platform with an objective which is not quite its intended one.

  • Suppose one of your students is a brilliant one, but somewhat rude. What would happen if they get suspended and couldn't use the website?

These are the ones I can think of at the moment. There may be more. From what I understood, you intend this to be a one-question-only thing, so perhaps those issues would be mitigated, but I'm not sure.

In any case, in order to have peace of mind, instead of summing this all up by saying "Yes, rules-wise, it is allowed", I prefer to say "It seems that it would not break anything. Please consider contacting SE themselves in order to make sure." There is a "contact" link down below which I think you can use for that. But I'd like to reiterate that I think it is best to just recommend the site for their use with no strings attached.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful answer! Yes, I'm also running this by the university. In response to some of the potential issues you brought up, the time frame for the assignment would be a relaxed four months, so the hopefully the supply of questions would be sufficient. Votes wouldn't count for assessment, which I hope would discourage vote manipulation. Answering one's own questions is allowed on this site, so I don't think students would resort to sockpuppets. The other issues (pressure, competition, rude students) are more serious - I will consider them carefully! $\endgroup$
    – Unit
    Apr 21, 2020 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Unit If you do, please introduce them to the how to ask a good question page here on meta, and to a few examples of good questions and a few examples of bad questions. I would hate to see a bunch of students get their homework nuked because they didn't provide context. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander Gruber Mod
    Apr 22, 2020 at 2:11

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