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Using Piazza to Encourage Interaction

Piazza del Campo, Siena[This is a guest post by Abir Qasem, who teaches intro to programming, AI, cloud, and device programming courses for the Computer Science Department at Bridgewater College. You can find him online or follow him on Twitter at @abirqasem.--@JBJ]

In my introductory programming courses, my pedagogy relies heavily on collaborative problem solving during class time. A big challenge for me, until recently, had been getting the “quiet” students in my class to participate in class discussions. (Judging by the ProfHacker archives, I am not alone!) In my introductory programming courses, my pedagogy relies heavily on collaborative problem solving during class time. It took a lot of time, effort and creativity for me to get the whole class “talking. Often by the time everyone felt comfortable enough to contribute, the semester was almost over. I always felt somewhat guilty that my pedagogy penalized the students’ introversion. Then I discovered Piazza.

Piazza is a Web 2.0 tool that allows students to ask questions and engage in dialogue on the Internet with the professor and with each other. One of the most interesting aspects of Piazza is that the students can be anonymous in their participation. I found the interface to be a great deal “flatter” (less hierarchical) and more interactive than the forum facilities of traditional Content Management Systems like Moodle and Blackboard.

Piazza screenshot

Click for full size.

Piazza has a chatroom feel to it, while offering enough structure to be used effectively in a classroom environment. Students and teachers (see screenshot above) have pretty much the same access levels, and most interactions are peer to peer. The non-hierarchical, interactive nature of the systems inspires a collaborative atmosphere where students are emboldened to ask questions. Since Piazza is in the cloud, I did not have to worry about jumping through IT hoops for setup and support.

My initial goal was quite modest – I wanted to use it as an extension to the classroom discussion. I was hoping that the quiet students would be sufficiently emboldened to voice their thoughts. However something interesting and surprising happened. Not only did the quiet students participate more in online discussions, they started to speak up in class! The other surprise was that the students took over the class. They started to create their own learning environment, organized their own learning sessions and maintained and kept order in this virtual environment.

Piazza captures class statistics, which can be interesting (see screenshot for “posts” vs. “responses”):

Total number of contributions (all activities on Piazza): 958
Total original posts (total number of “questions” and “notes”, not including responses): 184
Instructors’ responses 47
Students’ responses 95
Avg. response time 12 min

When I compare these numbers with the level of engagement and participation I typically see in my traditional lectures, using Piazza seems to have significantly increased classroom participation.

What I specifically did

Initially I started the class with challenge questions on Piazza. I only got a couple of responses. Then I took the questions back to the face-to-face classroom sessions and discussed them with students. This strategy was successful. As the class progressed, the challenge questions became completely an online affair as students found it more interesting to review and answer them online, even competing to see who could answer first.

I also conducted an online help session where I answered student questions online. Even here, students took over the help session and started offering helpful guidance to their fellow students, often even before I could. They also formed their own study groups, and a Facebook group. They policed themselves. If someone was being too attacking or impolite, the reactions from others soon quieted them down. Finally, also unplanned, students started to provide a much higher degree of feedback. For example they found the second assignment to be too difficult, in comparison with the others. Thus Piazza became a venting forum and I learned to adjust my pedagogy accordingly.

The bottom line

Recent studies have found that face to face group work often work fails the innovative thinking test, while electronic group work can be very productive. (See, for example, “The Rise of the New Groupthink” in The New York Times). I concur. From my experience I found that using an electronic group work tool like Piazza, done right, can require quite a bit more work (initially) but it is a phenomenal way to get students engaged 24/7 and in the process, create a collaborative, participative and self evolving learning ecosystem.

Have you tried Piazza, or a similar system? How did it work for you?

Photo Piazza del Campo, Siena by Flickr user PhillipC / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

 
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