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):
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.