Online help seeking is ingrained in our daily information behaviour. For the generation ‘Okay Google’ the answer to any question seems to be just one Web search away. However, help seeking is not effortless, but a skill that requires cognitive, metacognitive and social capacities.
In the past three decades, researchers have scrutinized the process of face-to-face help seeking in classroom settings from many different angles. The research, to a great extent, investigated two main questions: (a) How do students seek help in classroom contexts, and (b) What factors influence face-to-face help seeking. The influential descriptive model of Nelson-LeGall (1981) comprises five steps:
- Become aware of need for help.
- Decide to seek help.
- Identify potential helpers.
- Elicit help.
- Evaluate received help.
First, the learner has to realize that she or he needs assistance to overcome difficulties. Second, the learner has to decide whether to seek help or exhaust all available information. Third, once he or she has decided to seek help, the learner has to find potential helpers. Fourth, the learner needs to approach potential helpers and request their help. Fifth, the learner needs to assess whether the help was useful in problem solving and determine whether or not more help is needed.
Research on factors influencing help seeking revealed possible challenges along the way. Being or becoming aware that one needs help takes major metacognitive efforts, including evaluation and self-assessment. The decision to seek help is influenced by concerns of being labelled as incompetent. Eliciting help requires learners to be strategic about inquiries and have basic communication skills.
Online environments are much more ubiquitous and open than classroom contexts, which give learners opportunities to take advantage of abundant resources on the Internet and to seek help from experts around the globe. Most importantly, online help seeking requires intensive cognitive efforts in raising questions or forming queries.
Human helpers are highly adaptive to the needs of learners in face-to-face contexts: They can figure out what is going on even if the learners are not clear about their problems, or cannot organize their statements to give an unambiguous question. Therefore, traditionally, few researchers looked into how learners raise questions. Search engines on the other hand have very limited adaptivity, so ambiguous questions can hardly be answered. Similarly, people in online communities often lack context information and situational cues to figure out what the help seeker actually means.
Therefore, learners usually need to segment big problems into subproblems with specific goals, decontextualize the subproblems for people who have little background knowledge, and convert the problems to either specific questions or queries. In other words, effective online help seeking requires logical thinking, discourse skills, knowledge of search engines and strong problem-solving skills.
Unfortunately, learners may not be aware that they need to organize their thinking, or activate their discourse skills to form questions for inquiry, because the solution is apparently only one mouse click away. The challenges students face in online help seeking are new and need deliberate training. Investigating students’ online help seeking behavior and design effective trainings to foster this skill is an important prerequisite of both formal and informal learning online.