In the fall of 2013, I began using Piazza, an online platform that facilitates interaction between students and instructors in real time using a simple wiki-style interface. The core of Piazza is its “Q&A” page, where instructors and students can post notes and questions. Each question can be answered by both the instructor(s) and the students. Instead of having a thread of messages, which can become cumbersome and redundant, there is only one collaborative student response and only one instructor’s (or instructors’ as the case may be) response to each question. This has been a wonderful way to encourage students to ask questions about the homework and lectures, and to get them engaged in discussions about the course.
I remind them that if they know the answer to a question from a fellow student, they don’t need to wait for my response. They can post their own response, which I can later endorse or clarify. This way, students’ questions get addressed much sooner than if they had to wait for me to check my email. I also feel that giving them this forum empowers them and reinforces the fact that they are as much a part of the learning process as I am.
Piazza allows students to post notes and questions anonymously. The intention, I gather, is to encourage students to ask questions that they might otherwise be too embarrassed to ask. At first, I thought this was wonderful. It turns out that much like “Rate My Professor”, this feature gives students a platform to publicly air their grievances in a way that isn’t productive. I quickly found myself being heckled with anonymous complaints about the homework (deadlines, difficulty, etc). Thankfully, this feature can be disabled. I allowed the students to be anonymous to each other, but not to me. I reminded them that I welcome all kinds of feedback, but the anonymous posting feature is not meant to be used to rally the class to cry “unfair”. Thereafter, my experience with Piazza has been overwhelmingly positive.
Another feature of Piazza that I like is the instant poll. It’s much like using clickers, but there’s no need to buy extra hardware. Piazza can be accessed on web browsers or through a free app (Apple and Android). Most students now carry smart phones and other computing devices, so I’ve been using Piazza to give multiple choice pop quizzes during lectures. In the fall, I added those quiz points to the students’ scores on upcoming exams. That gave them an added incentive to attend lectures. This semester, the quizzes are no longer counted as bonus points–they are a hefty 15% of the final grade. I’ve found that the quizzes have boosted attendance in my lectures, and they are a great way to stimulate discussions in class.
There are other features, but I won’t write about them here. You can have a gander at my fall 2013 class’ Piazza demo. Even though it doesn’t have the myriad features of Blackboard (SafeAssign, etc), I find that Piazza is a very effective communications hub.