Last semester, one of my CS professors started class by saying that his superior was strongly encouraging (read: forcing) the teaching staff to use this new web-based discussion board called Piazza, which he would usually butcher by saying “pizzaz”. As students, some of us considered it a bit annoying to have to check yet another website in addition to the class website and Blackboard, not to mention our email inbox and Facebook.
Little did we know, this site actually became a very useful and heavily-relied-on tool. Piazza, which is Italian for public square or marketplace, doesn’t give you the answers to your homework problems, but it can assist in closing the gap that stands between class sessions and confused minds.
Don’t attending office hours and emailing the professors do that too, you ask? Yes, but conflicting schedules and full inboxes may easily get in the way. Facebook groups could probably help too, but professors nor teaching assistants can confirm peer-provided responses. Let’s check out why else professors and students should totally start using Piazza.
Instructors start by signing up at Piazza and adding their college-level courses. After activating their accounts, they can invite students and teaching assistants to join. Students and instructors (including TA’s) can then connect by posting and replying to questions and notes in real-time, just like Facebook, except Piazza can help you stay productive. You can even see when fellow students are actually replying to a question or editing an answer in real-time.
As you can see in the screenshot, Piazza is not only gorgeous but also absolutely functional, in contrast to many basic classroom websites lacking a commenting system and education boards that look like they could use a revamp in looks and features. The layout of Piazza consists of two panes, one of which is a sidebar containing a list of discussions, and the other one which is a larger area to see the conversation for a specific question.
Questions that have received a student response will have a green “sr” icon, while those that have received an instructor response from the professor or TA stand out with the orange “ir” icon. There might even be checkmark icons on questions that have instructor-endorsed student responses, which are always great since that means students that understand the subject can explain it it to their peers as simply as possible.
Students Can Ask Questions Anonymously
If you’re too shy to ask questions during class, ahem, like this author, Piazza will be a lifesaver as it allows you to post questions anonymously and/or privately. This is perhaps one of Piazza’s biggest benefits.
There’s a reason this site will get more action than your average class website, Blackboard or Facebook group. Students will feel free to engage in the discussion even if they might think their question sounded too “stupid” to bring up in class. Not only can students ask questions freely, they can also respond anonymously as well.
Piazza was founded by a former female CS student, a fact that I adore because only a student could know the pain of being shy and being confused by some obscure topic at the same time. Thus, being able to ask and answer questions anonymously is quite a welcome feature, at least to me.
Not only is Piazza a great Q&A board to learn from some very lively discussions, it’s also more efficient and/or convenient for both the instruction staff and students, e.g. in cases where students sometimes cannot make office hours due to scheduling conflicts. Piazza is a good supplement (notice that I’m not saying substitute) to office hours because it can also help reduce redundancy. Students might ask a lot of the same questions so it saves time for both the instructor and the student to see a general place where one question can be posted and discussed, instead of emailing back and forth the same questions and answers.
Both sides will still get notification emails, but these are quite adjustable. As a student, you can skip real-time notifications and opt for a daily digest instead, or go with summary emails scheduled to be delivered anywhere from every hour to every 6 hours.
Other neat features include the ability to post notes (like illustrative YouTube videos and general class announcements), and polls. Not only can you post multimedia links, you can also embed images and post code with simple “<pre>” tags.
Piazza also allows you to use LaTeX expressions to type mathematical formulae and the like.
Overall, Piazza is an incredibly useful and well-thought-out product that you, as a student, should definitely request your professor to adopt, or as an instructor, should start using now! It will save you both time and you have nothing to lose by using it (unless of course, neither of you responds to the questions at all).
What are your thoughts on using a forum for students and educators? Feel free to share your comments below.