The two most interesting months at Piazza are January and August. That’s when our engineers fan out to various schools to encourage instructors to try Piazza, in turn bringing back valuable feedback that helps us improve the product.
It’s exhausting, but fun, to meet with so many instructors face-to-face. Since most of the Piazza staff is not so far removed from college or graduate school, there is also a sense of deja-vu about it for us. Except now, instead of going to ask the professors for something (a place in a popular class, of course, not a better grade), we’re showing up to give them something really cool!
We modestly believe that we ought to be welcomed with open arms and given a metaphorical A-Plus every time. And indeed, a remarkable percentage of the people we talk to are friendly, receptive, and generous with their feedback. We’ve been given tea, cookies, books, and excellent restaurant advice.
Sometimes instructors don’t adopt Piazza on-the-spot. As part of this exercise, we’ve compiled a list of things that people say when they’re “sitting on the fence” about whether to adopt Piazza or not. We offer this list in a shamefaced attempt to get you off the fence.
We’ll probably be more bold in this blog post than we would in your office because, well, we’re amazingly polite in the real world.
1. I’m too busy to learn something new right now.
We have a lot of sympathy for this. We talk to many instructors who are taking on additional teaching responsibilities because of budgetary or other institutional factors. And there are always grant applications, logistics, faculty committees, and the 100 other things that keep people from teaching and research.
On the other hand, this is a situation where a little bit of effort now is going to save you a lot of time down the line. Almost every instructor who uses Piazza for a first class uses it again the next time he or she is teaching. So if you spend an hour now, you may save dozens of hours over the course of the term, and many more after that.
If time is your biggest concern, shoot us an email at team (at) piazza.com with your syllabus attached and we’ll save you the few minutes it takes to create your class.
2. Our learning management system already offers collaboration functionality.
Yes. And you are not unique in this. They all do! And a horse-and-buggy offered perfectly good transportation for hundreds of years. But now we have cars. The difference between the kind of experience that Piazza offers and that provided by the LMS collaboration tools is analogous to horse-and-buggy versus car. Once you have Piazza in place, new kinds of questions emerge, new kinds of answers are offered, and entirely new patterns of behavior form.
3. My students won’t want to create another account.
Yes. That can be a bit of a pain, but over 100,000 students have created Piazza accounts in the last few months. And you’d be shocked at the number of other services your students also try. The average college student probably uses a dozen web-based services, most of which you might consider pretty frivolous. You may be underestimating not only your students’ ability to remember passwords, but also their desire to use something for school that’s actually designed around their needs rather than administrators’.
But we hear you on this one and have take steps to mitigate the issue. First, we allow students to link their Piazza accounts to Facebook via Facebook Connect, which means they can use their Facebook credentials to log in to Piazza. (That’s all it does – no weird sharing.)
Piazza also supports the LTI protocol for interoperability with other learning tools. We could write a lot of technospeak about that, but if you’re interested in Piazza and you don’t want to deal with additional user accounts, please put us in touch with your learning technologies team and we’re happy to work with them.
Still sitting on the fence?
4. My class has a lot of specialized inputs, like chemical formulas and equations.
Yes. And it can be a bit of a chore to input squiggles and structures into any kind of system. But that shouldn’t mean that we can’t use collaborative technologies in those fields. Piazza supports LaTeX for entering equations, chemical formulas, and more. Your students don’t know LaTeX, you say? Most students don’t, but they learn by copy-and-pasting. Just #pin a list of common LaTeX expressions for your class and students will figure it out. Or if that doesn’t work, they can always include images with chemical formulas, diagrams, or anything else. (And we’re working on ways to make that even easier and better!)
5. I will try Piazza for my 20-person class, then if it works we’ll try it for the big lecture class.
This one is harder. We’re always excited to have people use Piazza in a class. Any class. And Piazza is probably better for your 20-person class than what you’re using now. But the benefits are far greater — and far more obvious — in a larger class for a couple of reasons: first, the communication flow problems are much greater in a larger class, so we’re helping you with a bigger problem; and second, because the more students there are the more opportunity there is for people to participate in answering their peers’ questions. It’s that sense of engagement that makes Piazza more than just a better discussion board, and you’ll probably miss it if you try Piazza in a smaller class.
Here’s a tortured analogy. Suppose it’s 1980, and you’re given a word processor for the first time, and you only get one chance to try it. Should you use it to write a shopping list or a grant application? It’s probably marginally better at making shopping lists than the pencil, though you could argue that it’s not really worth the effort (and most of us still use pencils today for this task). But if you’re writing a grant application, you’re much better off with the word processor.
6. I don’t want to answer more questions than I already have to answer.
We have a lot of sympathy with this one, too. Because if what we’re doing works, we are eliciting questions that students might not have asked previously. But on the other hand, we’re also doing a couple of other things that compensate. First, we’re giving students the opportunity to answer those questions more easily; and second, we’re building a communication system that makes it less likely that the same question will be asked over and over by different people. So there’s a trade-off, which most instructors have found is well worth it.
On the other hand, Piazza addiction is possible. We’ve had some instructors tell us that they felt honor-bound to answer every question themselves in five minutes. There’s a cure for that. Let it sit a little bit, especially if it’s something that you believe your students could answer on their own. If you encourage students to do this, they will.
7. I like my students to come to office hours.
Great! We have no desire to replace office hours. In fact, many instructors have told us that Piazza enables their office hours to be more productive, since students have thought through their questions more thoroughly before they come to the office.
As we mentioned in an earlier blog post, students at either end of the understanding curve benefit the most from 1:1 interactions: students who are really struggling and students are really excelling. If Piazza can streamline the management of day-to-day concerns of the people in the middle of the curve, you can devote more time at office hours to the people who need it the most.
8. I’m afraid of cheating.
People don’t need Piazza to cheat – they have email, instant messaging, Facebook, and whole web sites entirely devoted to helping students sail through college without doing much work. One of them used to be called “Evil House of Cheat,” before they decided to fly under the radar at least a little bit.
In practice, many instructors see Piazza as an antidote for cheating. The name “Piazza” is important here. On Piazza, collaboration happens in the open — under the watchful eye of the instructors and the (occasionally censorious) eyes of one’s peers. On the rare occasions when students offer too much information on Piazza, other students often object. If they’ve done the work, they don’t want to see other people free-riding. And since students value Piazza as a resource, they don’t want to see their peers’ carelessness result in the instructor shutting it down.
9. I believe that education requires suffering.
This is an interesting variant of the “I’m afraid of cheating” objection. The idea here, for which I think there’s a fair amount of merit, is that it’s the personal struggle with adversity that actually causes students to learn the material best, and that sometimes getting caught on some minor detail and then overcoming it is actually the best thing for you, even if it takes many hours of sleepless frustration. In short, collaboration is bad, even if it isn’t cheating.
First, a plug for collaboration that you may not have considered. We’ve been receiving reports that students collaborating on Piazza learn more for two reasons:
1) When their peers start asking questions four days before they’ve even considered starting an assignment, the awareness creates pressure to re-evaluate and get started sooner (especially in a curved class).
2) Students take different approaches to solving problems, but individually they don’t usually consider every (or even more than one!) approach. On Piazza, students discover, critique, and analyze the approaches taken by their peers and through that reach a deeper understanding.
Not convinced? Most of the hard adherents to this philosophy are unlikely to adopt Piazza. But for soft adherents, let me offer yet another perspective from an instructor I talked to a couple of weeks ago: with Piazza, you can assign harder work, and you can demand that the work be done before the material is explained in class, rather than after. And so when students come to class, they arrive knowing what they don’t know. And I think we’d all agree that knowing what you don’t know is very important to learning.
This is not to say that you have to change your teaching style to use Piazza, but rather that it is natural to adjust your expectations of students in response to their behavior. We’ve all heard the complaint that students have it easy these days. Why not counter that by demanding more?
10. I’m waiting for my colleague, Professor X, to weigh in.
Every school is different. What works at Stanford might not work at Penn State. What works at Tarrant County Community College might not work at Berkeley. What works at the Technical University of Munich may not work at the Sharif Institute of Technology in Tehran.
Yet instructors at all of these schools have succeeded with Piazza.
A year ago when we first opened Piazza to the public, this concern made a lot of sense. But in the intervening year, thousands of instructors have used Piazza successfully in a broad range of schools. As long as you have enough people, they sign up, and the material is sufficiently challenging that people have questions about it, you’ll probably succeed with Piazza, too.