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Two years of using the online discussion board Piazza

A couple of years ago I stumbled across the free online discussion board Piazza.  I had just starting relying more heavily on my University’s learning management system, Angel, but was not happy at all with its built in discussion board.  I forget exactly how I found Piazza, but the features and look intrigued me and I started to play around with it.  After using it sparingly in two classes last year I took the plunge and made Piazza the primary discussion platform for my first all-online course last summer: Bio 100 Human Biology.  This past Fall semester I used Piazza in the largest class I have taught, a 48-student introduction to cellular and molecular biology, and again this past semester for my Marine Biology course (check out the screenshot below).  It’s a great platform: easy to use, bug-free with good tech support when you need it and the ability to post pictures and videos.

Piazza screenshot

In my all-online class I relied on Piazza as the primary platform for discussions.  I required students to post at least three times each week and provided a rubric explaining how I would grade their contributions.  To earn the points for online discussion students had to post something substantive.  This could be a class related news item they found, comments on course material or reflections on each other’s posts.  While I saw a range of quality in student posts, many took the online discussions seriously and made solid, substantive contributions.  One popular use of the board was to ask questions about course activities, quizzes and exams.  I encouraged students to answer each other’s questions, and would wait to post my own response to give students a chance to do so.  There are several great features in Piazza, such as the ability to endorse students’ answers, pin any post to the top of the page and set up a list of tags that can be used to organize posts.  And while setting up two discussion boards for my online courses this summer I found the ability to clone a previous course, which imports all of your past settings, including your custom tags.  Piazza’s search functions also make it easy to find posts on a certain topic, or list all of a single student’s posts when it is time to grade their activity.

I have been asking students on course evaluations what they think of using Piazza.  I have found a consistent pattern that some students love the platform, finding it easy to use and helpful, while others can’t stand it.  A minority mention that it is hard to use while others don’t like having another webpage to log into for class (Piazza can integrate into LMS platforms, but my University’s IT department has not been able to pull that off with our Angel system).  Some of these more negative comments make me rethink using Piazza in my classes, but I really believe that the platform has opened up a whole new dimension of student interaction outside of the physical classroom.  This is of course required for online courses, but has also been a great addition for face-to-face courses.  For the past few years I have wanted to have students help crowd-source topics for my classes, and Piazza seems to be a great mechanism for doing so.  That was clearly the case in my spring marine bio course, where my students often raised topics that I had not planned, and that led to great discussions in class.  So why do some students not like it?  My sense is these are the students resistant to putting in the energy required for quality interactions outside of class.  But I will keep monitoring those evals.

Have you tried Piazza or another good online discussion board?  I’d love to hear about it.

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