What is it?

Piazza is a free online question-and-answer platform for use in college classes. Students and instructors can post and answer questions. It functions like a web-based discussion board, but more robust, since it allows better tracking of student participation and more student-driven conversation.

How does it work?

Anyone can post a question. Then, other students can respond in a wiki-style format. This means that, like a wikipedia page, students keep editing the “student response” post, so that each question will end up with only 1, high-quality student-written response. Student questions and responses can also be posted anonymously.

Instructors can “endorse” these student-written posts, which helps guide the class discussion and indicates to other students that the answer can be trusted. Instructors can also answer questions or edit/delete posts. Here’s an example of the question posting/answering (from Piazza’s demo classroom):

Screen shot of instructor and student answers in Piazza

You can also post notes and polls, and easily organize posts or files into folders (like “exam,” or “week 2 homework”). You can filter posts by unread, unresolved, following, etc. You can also track TA and student participation – Piazza will generate reports about your top contributors, or about overall class activity. (Instructors could use this, for example, as a way to assign a grade to student participation). As you can see in the example above, Piazza has an integrated LaTeX code equation editor, which is critical for discussion and questions in upper-level science, math, and programming type courses. It also integrates with Blackboard, Canvas, and other LMS and has iOS and Android apps.

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

While Piazza is designed specifically to help instructors manage Q&A’s in large classes, I think it could also be quite useful in small or medium sized classes as well. Obviously, the LaTeX code equation editor makes it possible to have collaborative work in the math/science/computer classes, which I imagine is hard to do.

To me, what makes Piazza stand out from a regular LMS-based discussion board is the wiki-style student response feature. I imagine it would also be a real time-saver for professors – rather than answering disconnected student posts one-by-one (or even worse, responding to the same emailed question over and over again), they can just tell students to post all questions on Piazza, and then quickly check the cumulative student answer. It also allows students to work together to come up with a “class” answer to common questions, so it’s almost like every question can lead to class collaboration. I think there’s a lot of benefit in giving students the space to learn from one another, and Piazza offers an easy and intuitive way to do that.


What is it?

Zoom is a video conferencing and web conferencing service, so you can use to it conduct virtual meetings. (It does other things, but I’m just going to discuss its video conferencing capabilities). It’s great for collaborative online work. It’s similar to Skype, Webex, Google Hangouts, Blackboard Collaborate, etc. When you conduct your Zoom meeting, you can use audio, video, screen sharing, screen sharing of a “whiteboard”, and chat (an instant message chat you can use during the meeting). You can also record your meeting.

How does it work?

If you go to Zoom’s website, you enter your email address and sign up for free. They’ll send you an email, and you click on the link to activate your account. After you choose a password, your account is created. One of the easiest ways to host a meeting is to simply send others your personal Zoom URL. If they click on that URL, it will take them to your Zoom meeting room. You also can send them your Zoom personal meeting ID. They visit Zoom’s website and type in that meeting ID, and then they’ll be put into your Zoom meeting room. Participants can also call in on a phone, which is great for situations when someone’s internet goes out at an inconvenient time (which is all the time).

Strengths, Limitations, and Applications

While I mentioned a number of other similar tools, Zoom sets itself apart by how easy it is to use and its reliability. I have used it a handful of times and have never experienced poor connection issues, glitchy-ness, or the “can you hear me? I can’t hear you” problem often encountered in virtual meetings.

Here’s what the interface looks like when you’re hosting a meeting:

Screenshot of Zoom interface

So user-friendly!

You can do quite a bit with the free account. You are able to host/attend an unlimited number of meetings and host up to 100 participants. 1-on-1 meetings can last as long as you’d like, but there’s a 40 minute limit on group meetings (although you technically could just log out and start another meeting… but you didn’t hear that from me).

Zoom could easily facilitate online group work among students, or could be used by an instructor to hold office hours, exam review session, etc. It’s long been noted that interactivity in an online class leads to greater student satisfaction with the course (see this article, for instance). Student-student and student-instructor engagement is a key component of a well-designed online learning environment, and Zoom could be a valuable tool in creating that kind of collaborative environment.


What is it?

Diigo is a tool I’ve used often in my coursework for my UAF M.Ed. It’s a great way for students and instructors to organize websites, PDFs, etc. for future reference. It also makes it easy to share these resources with others. It has a few plans ranging in price, but I think the free Diigo account offers enough features to be worth your while. Diigo also supports teachers by offering free account upgrades/features if you apply for a teacher account. In the teacher account, the teacher can create and manage student accounts. A student account provides additional privacy for the user.

How does it work?

You create an account with your email address and password. This is what the “dashboard” for my account looks like:

Screenshot of Diigo dashboard


You’ll notice I have ads because I have a free account. Clicking the red button on the top right hand side of the screen (which I did before I took the screenshot) expands and shows you the types of items you can add to your Diigo library. Whenever you add a webpage bookmark, image, PDF, or note, you can “tag” it with a particular category or topic. So, for instance, I have tagged the articles and resources I found with the course name so that I can easily sort/view them (I’ve circled my “tagged” list on the left-hand side of the screenshot).

You can also use Diigo to annotate with notes or highlights, either within your Diigo account or with a browser extension, and Diigo saves your annotations for later use.

Sharing your resources is easy within Diigo. Here’s my Diigo library link:


With that link, if you have a Diigo account, you can view my publicly shared articles and annotations. (Using the tags to sort and find the articles that are relevant to your interests, of course). If you want to share a specific article (including your annotations, if you’ve added some), you can click on the “share” button and Diigo will generate a specific link to that article.

Strengths, Applications, and Limitations

This is a very handy tool when conducting research. It encourages students to archive and organize their sources, which encourages proper citation habits and discourages plagiarism. The collaborative potential of Diigo is also particularly useful because it makes it easy for students to quickly and easily share articles with their classmates. Aside from being used by the student, I think anyone should consider using Diigo since it is an efficient way to build your own personal “library.” With Diigo, you can keep your favorite professional, academic, or even personal resources at your fingertips, ready to be sorted, retrieved, and shared whenever needed.


What is it?

Canva is an online graphic design tool. You can customize and make items like infographics, newsletters, banners, or images. It also can be used for photo editing, and is particularly useful in making eye-catching graphs or charts. While I realize it is not as specifically geared towards “education” as some of the tools I’ve looked at, it still has many applications in the virtual and in-person classroom (see this link: Canva for Education).

How does it work?

Canva is very easy to use! You sign up for a free account with your email address and a password. Canva has paid accounts available that let you access more features, but you can still do quite a lot with a free account. Once you have your free account, you can choose from a variety of available templates and customize with your own text, images, etc. While some templates/images/designs cost a dollar or two, I have always found what I needed solely in the free items. I’ve used Canva frequently for my coursework, so if you want to see some of the things you can do with Canva, check out some of my previous blog posts:

After creating a design, you can download it, embed it, share a link, etc. For example, it took me less than 5 minutes to make, download, and embed the image below using Canva.Good design encourages a viewer to want to learn more. Alexander Isley

Strengths, Limitations and Applications

I know “making a course pretty” is not usually an instructor’s top priority. However, I would argue that visual design should be considered a key component of course design. We are more likely to want to spend time in a space (virtual or otherwise) when it is visually pleasant and interesting. When instructors take care with their design elements (like those you can create with Canva), it demonstrates to students that you are invested in the course and in their experience of the course.

So how could Canva be applied in a course? Instead of creating a fact sheet with basic text, consider an infographic. Instead of creating a syllabus with a simple text heading, consider creating a banner. Especially in the context of online education, students’ first impressions of the course will be formed based on your visual design. No matter what you choose to create, Canva offers an easy way to introduce professional-looking design elements into your course.