Author Archives: phsoffer

We had a nice visit at the Piazza offices the other day with Phil Hill, who spoke to us about trends in the higher education market. We contacted Phil because he’s written a fair amount on both tools interoperability and about online classes — two subjects near and dear to our hearts.

What do we mean by tools interoperability? At one level, we mean standards that enable different educational tools to work together more or less harmoniously. Piazza has implemented the LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) standard as a producer, meaning that learning management systems or other tools can consume Piazza as a service. This helps a lot with things like authentication and registration management, so people don’t need to log into multiple different sites if you’re using Piazza with an LMS.

But at a larger level, interoperability is about being able to democratize choice: instructors, students, and administrators ought to be able to choose the learning tools that are right for their needs, rather than being bound by technology decisions that were made centrally, sometimes when the current freshmen were still in diapers.

In the bad old days, institutions issued monumental RFPs for systems, and in return deployed (after a fashion) monolithic systems that didn’t work that well for most people, but which satisfied the greatest number of check boxes. Phil confirmed to us with some undisguised glee that such days were ending, and he mentioned that he was hosting a webinar on that very topic in a few weeks — May 22 at 11 AM PDT, to be exact.

Phil will be joined on the webinar by Patrick Masson, CTO of UMassOnline. It should be interesting, so check it out.

Innovator of the Week: Jeff Offutt

It would probably be a better world if every university had a graduate level course in how to study and evaluate software engineering practices. At least the world would probably have more reliable software, which is pretty much the same thing from where I sit. Alas, there aren’t many people who can teach software engineering research methodologies at the highest level, so a lot of universities don’t offer it. Jeff Offutt, a professor of computer science at George Mason University, set out to change that by teaching one course in three places at the same time.

If you’ve studied software testing seriously, you probably know Jeff’s work. His research centers on the important area of how to make software more reliable. But when Jeff decided to teach his course in software engineering experimentation at three universities on two continents, he was venturing into an untested (*cough*) area.

Jeff Offutt

Jeff Offutt, pigeon professor

Jeff maintains a part-time affiliation at University of Skövde in Sweden (don’t ask us how to pronounce that). “They call me a pigeon professor,” he told us, “Because I fly in periodically and poop all over everything.” He apparently maintains a similar perch at Linköping University, also in Sweden.

When the faculty in Sweden wanted him to teach a course in software engineering experimentation there, he declined, reasoning that it wasn’t practical to travel to Sweden for an entire term to teach a handful of students.

But then he had an idea – why not teach the course concurrently at his home university along with two universities in Sweden? That way, there would be a critical mass of students with varying educational backgrounds and perspectives, which would improve the experience for everyone.

Developing the course took a great deal of time and effort, and there was no guarantee that once it was developed, Jeff could actually teach it. Even offering the course to students outside his school required the permission of his school’s provost, since GMU and the Commonwealth of Virginia don’t look too kindly on moonlighting or “double dipping.”

Fortunately, the provost thought it was a great idea. In fact, he immediately saw that a single course taught concurrently at multiple schools could expand GMU’s reach and provide reciprocal benefits to its students down the line.

If convincing the administration was easy, convincing the administrative software was more challenging. Jeff had decided to structure the bulk of the course around asynchronous collaboration, but it would have been difficult or even impossible to do using the school’s LMS, since the LMS requires that everyone be enrolled as a GMU student (“tuition-paying unit,” as we called ourselves in my college days) and the Swedish students were still enrolled in Sweden.

So Jeff was looking for a collaborative platform that could cross that technology barrier, and Piazza fell into his lap. (Or maybe we spammed him. That part is not entirely clear). Being an experimentalist, he tried Piazza in a GMU-only class last term and the results were “spectacular,” so he felt confident using it for his intercontinental software experimentation course.

The course succeeds or fails based on student collaboration. While the first three weeks consist of Jeff’s lectures (streamed), everything that follows is collaborative. Students pair off to review research papers each week, then lead online discussions about the research. Borrowing an old Swedish trick, Jeff designates one student to be a “dissenter” who is required to disagree with the conclusions of the two students who’ve prepared the summary. (Note to Jeff: please do not try this if you teach in Israel. It could damage our servers.). As a result, the discussions are lively.

“Students from different backgrounds are playing off of each other,” Jeff told us. “Student discussion is remarkably proactive, and the students appear to be having fun. And the bottom-up nature of Piazza gives the students more direction and ownership of the conversation than they have in old-school forums.”

“Students tell me that the course is actually a better learning experience than the last time they took such a course in a physical classroom,” he recounted, “Because they actually get to think before they respond to something, which is a contrast to a seminar in which you have just a second to formulate a complex thought.”

The course culminates in a research project, the results of which will be both published online and presented live to peers and to Jeff, as though at an academic conference (he’ll get on a plane for that).

The educational implications for Jeff’s experiment are vast. Many subjects, particularly advanced topics, will never attract hundreds of students from a single school, so they’re difficult to teach cost-effectively. But what if we could share these learning opportunities across geographies while simultaneously increasing the quality and quantity of the interactions that take place among the learners? And what if we could also increase the intellectual diversity of each class?

That would be a better world.

Innovator of the Week: Jennifer Schwartz

When I took introductory chemistry in college 20-odd years ago, it was with 700 of my closest friends, 698 of whom appeared to be premeds stepping over each other on their way up the curve. As someone who’d loved chemistry in high school (thanks, Mr. Diamond!) I felt that surely there must be a better way to teach chemistry than having 700 of us in a room listening to a lecture, then trooping off to endless labs where we did the same experiment every week — just with different powders.

(The experiments, by the way, involved using potentially carcinogenic thioacetamide to precipitate metallic sulfides. Worst case: cancer. Best case: a rotten egg smell that remained in my nostrils for two days afterwards and remains one of my strongest sense memories.)

Somewhere along the line, Jennifer Schwartz also decided that there must be a better way. And she’s found it. And she’s improving it. And she’s making sure people know how to teach chemistry, and a bunch of other subjects besides.

Jennifer is in charge of the introductory chemistry sequence at Stanford. As we spoke about how they teach chemistry at Stanford, I have to admit to a bit of the customary Berkeleyite lip-curling toward our Palo Alto neighbors: “Seriously? Now you get chemistry without the horrible stench! Can’t you blessed of the earth endure any pain for the sake of knowledge?”

But that’s unfair, of course. The program that Jennifer outlined sounded both interesting and rigorous. And there was nothing about it that seemed, on the face of it, not to be replicable at universities that are not quite as wealthy or sunny or privileged as Stanford.

Jennifer Schwartz

Here are just a few of the things Jennifer and the team have put into place:

  • Their labs are blessedly short, but they demonstrate something interesting every week. And they often reveal something unexpected *before* the students hear about it in lecture, so the experiments they do actually create a sense of wonder. Then they go deeper and understand the mechanisms. So labs actually introduce concepts.
  • The students get tested every two weeks, which sounds stressful, but which also means that you’re never more than two weeks behind. The exams have three levels of questions: plug-and-chug, which everyone should get; somewhat harder; and then Berkeley-level (sorry, I mean really hard) where you need some real chemical insight to get it right. This ensures that students who keep up with the work are going to learn the chemistry and pass the course while enabling Jennifer and the team to precipitate out (cough) the future Linus Paulings.
  • They are piloting something called Callibrated Peer Review (CPR. Really.) With CPR students get practice writing their scientific ideas and observations while also evaluating their peers’ writing. So they get to reason verbally about chemistry using questions like “what are the chemical reactions involved in tooth decay?” in addition to doing the usual lab reports and problem sets.

The class uses Piazza, of course. Because when you’ve got a lot of different ways to experience chemistry, you also have a lot of questions about it. “With all of the programs we’ve put in place, we ask a lot of our Chemistry TA’s,” Jennifer told us. “Piazza magnifies their effectiveness by eliminating redundancy and enabling them to work through problems with students where everyone can benefit.”

Jennifer put a lot of this together as a graduate student TA at Stanford and once she’d gotten it running they figured out that 1) it was possible to teach chemistry much better than they’d been doing it; 2) Jennifer was already pretty darn good at it; and 3) having Jennifer teaching the intro series would free up other instructors to teach more subjects closer to their speciality. So she’s stayed on with the introductory chemistry program.

And if that were all, it would have been enough. But Jennifer also started a program called MinT (Mentors in Teaching) that helps TA’s help one another become better teachers. MinT fellows, called Teaching Mentors, work with TA’s in within their department to develop and nurture specific teaching skills in their disciplines. And, in the process, the mentors themselves actually gain more insight into their own teaching as well as become better mentees in their own relationships with their advisors. Definitely win-win!

Shameless plug: we just set up a Piazza for MinT, and if you have a similar organization we’d love to have you use Piazza. Helping to teach the teachers, it turns out, is a pretty good thing for everyone.

Innovator of the Week: Lorena Barba

“Why not?”

Those two words sum up Lorena Barba’s approach to teaching. I don’t say that to make her sound reckless or flippant. Far from it. Like any good computational fluid dynamicist, she makes her decisions based on as much data as she can bring to bear. But at every step, when she’s come upon a challenge or thought about incorporating a new technology or pedagogical approach, she’s asked herself that question. And more often than not, things that looked initially like roadblocks simply weren’t.

Lorena, who teaches at Boston University but arrived there via the University of Bristol in the UK, CalTech where she got her PhD, and Valparaiso, Chile where she was born, has undertaken a pedagogical journey that started with an electronic whiteboard and now has her teaching to people on five continents while presiding over speed dating in Boston.

Lorena Barba

She began recording her lectures in 2007 for the benefit of the students in her classes. She started by using a device for capturing the content on a whiteboard, then distributing the lectures via her university’s Blackboard server. But she found both of these technologies clunky. She moved to a graphical tablet for recording whiteboard style interactions, which enabled her to write on and annotate slides. It felt more natural, and she could do it entirely on her own with no production assistance from the university.

But a bigger change happened when she came to the United States and began distributing her lectures via iTunes University. Since almost the day she got to BU, her classes have been the most downloaded at BU, and she’s just passed 10,000 views on YouTube. Computational fluid dynamics is not what you’d call a dilettante’s course. Lorena was reaching smart people who weren’t getting this content anywhere else, and they expressed their gratitude practically every day.

Having her lectures recorded gave Lorena another idea: why not have students watch the lectures before the class meets? We’ve talked about the “flipped classroom” before on our blog. Srinivasan Keshav does something similar at the University of Waterloo. Once you get into Lorena’s classroom, there’s a lot of experimentation.

Here’s one example: Navier-Stokes Speed Dating. No doubt readers of this blog will be familiar with the Navier-Stokes equations, which describe the motion of fluid substances. OK, perhaps you’re not familiar with those equations, but maybe you’re familiar with speed dating. Imagine you could spend five minutes with each of your fellow students as they describe their solutions to Navier-Stokes problems, then you could choose the best solution for a “second date.” If nothing else, that sounds much more interesting and engaging than listening to a lecture.

(I should add, by the way, that Lorena’s lectures are probably pretty good. When she’s not doing fluid mechanics, she sings jazz. Isaac Newton by way of Ella Fitzgerald would have to be pretty interesting.)

She does other experiments, too – like pair programming labs and problem-solving games. There is a good deal more “oohing” and “aahing” than one normally experiences in upper division or graduate courses, and a lot more interaction with the professor, too.

Lorena’s classroom sounds like just the kind of dynamic, stimulating, intellectually rigorous experience that you’d want to have as a student. If I were at BU (and could still do math), I would love to be in her class. But what about those people following the lectures at home, on iTunes U or YouTube?

That’s where Lorena’s next innovation comes in: an open classroom on Piazza. This was another one of those “why not?” moments. Once she’d decided to distribute the lectures via YouTube and iTunes, and once she’d decided to take full advantage of face-to-face interactions by flipping her class, why not invite people from the outside to participate via Piazza?

Why not, indeed.

So Lorena went to the Computational Fluid Dynamics interest group on LinkedIn – which, believe it or not, has over 11,000 members – and invited people into her Piazza. The results are enough to renew your faith in our collective intellectual curiosity even after years of “America’s Top Model.” Hundreds of people from all over the world replied to the post, and over 150 ultimately joined the class. Lorena’s distance students come from all over the world including Germany, China, Arkansas, the Netherlands, Brazil, Ukraine, and Libya. Libya! The whole country is exploding in revolution, and this person is studying Computational Fluid Dynamics out of BU! If that doesn’t get you excited about the future of education, you are cynical beyond hope.

So what do these students do when they’re in Lorena’s Piazza? They tend to be pretty quiet. They don’t ask a lot of questions. But many of them are extremely diligent. One of the most consistent readers is a student from the French overseas department of Réunion, which is conveniently located in the southern Indian Ocean, 120 miles from the nearest landmass. It is unlikely that this student can get this level of fluid dynamics instruction where he is, and he’s getting it absolutely free from Lorena, Piazza, BU, and the Internet.

Not to get too portentous for the blog, but what does that mean for education? The content is free. The collaboration is free. It’s open to anyone Lorena lets in. Does this interfere with anyone’s business model? Say, BU’s?

Lorena is characteristically blunt on this point. “If a professor can be replaced by videos, he probably should be,” she remarked astringently. Content is only one small part of what universities should furnish. Real face-to-face interaction with the professor and other talented students is a huge part of the value equation, and it’s also the most expensive thing to provide. If a university can provide the other things — content, online interaction, even assessment, to a broader population — isn’t this a tremendous service to the public and the world? And (to lurch gauchely from altruism to pragmatism) isn’t this a tremendous marketing opportunity for BU? In a free and open marketplace, BU should get a lot of people coming to campus who want to study computational fluid dynamics, because they’ve got a great person teaching it there. Replicate that a few dozen times and you’re a juggernaut!

And, I might add, that having more students in the Piazza should also improve the experience of the students in the physical classroom, if the distance students are asking good questions and providing interesting answers. I think Lorena is inventing not just a better way to teach her classes, but a way forward for universities vexed by an eroding economic rationale.

As Lorena might say, “why not?”

Innovator of the Week: Bob Neer, Columbia University

I consider myself a recovering academic.

Before 1997 when the Web made me believe that the World Spirit had manifested itself in Silicon Valley, I was a graduate student at Berkeley studying history and trying to convince undergraduates that they should care about people who lived and died before they were born. In this endeavor, the seminar was both the great hope and the great disappointment. Some days leading a seminar I felt like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets’ Society,” fomenting discussions among my students that generated insights about the material that were new and unexpected. Other days I felt like I should just show a filmstrip the way my eleventh grade history teacher did when she didn’t feel like teaching.

The biggest difference, I found, was whether anyone had actually done any of the reading. So with varying degrees of success, I devised assignments to coerce the students into opening up the assigned text in advance of the seminar. It worked approximately half the time.

Bob Neer has cracked this code.

Bob Neer

Bob Neer

Bob is a historian who teaches the Contemporary Civilization course, which is part of the Core Curriculum at Columbia. The mental agility required of Columbia core curriculum instructors is impressive by any standard. Bob has just finished writing a book on the history and impact of Napalm, but because Columbia believes that every educated person should know a little bit of Locke, Descartes, and Hume, he spends a great deal of time leading undergraduates in discussions of their works rather than talking about the delights of jellied gasoline or his latest research interest – American military bases abroad. That’s not a small leap, and Bob might be forgiven for spending all of his time keeping up with the reading himself.

But instead, he spends his spare moments figuring out how to elicit more participation from students. His fundamental insight is this: peer pressure is the most powerful motivator for student participation. So the first thing he does is make a group of students responsible for summarizing the readings as a team and publishing their findings to their peers.

This does a couple of things. First, the peer pressure snowballs. The team structure creates accountability among the students who are responsible for leading the discussion. But beyond that, when students see other students participating, the best ones want to play along. Even students who are not highly motivated do not want to be seen as free-riders. Online discussions are still led by the kind of students who would lead discussions in class, but even as the rich are getting richer, the less motivated students are benefiting.

The second thing it does is create a collective understanding of what’s interesting in the readings before the seminar happens. If you can do that, you’re more likely to generate interesting discussions when the students are together. “In a sense, first comes fear (a spur), then comes love — the interesting ideas of their peers,” Neer told us.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Since it’s our blog, let me make a rare shameless plug: we didn’t have Piazza back when I was teaching. (Actually, most people had dial-up Internet) And it turns out that having a really good social learning platform encourages students to interact with one another outside of the classroom.

I used to think of the students who were unprepared as being like cadmium rods in a nuclear reactor: absorbing all of the energy and preventing us from achieving critical mass. In Bob’s system, since they can read a capsule summary of the text, see what questions their peers had, and understand what’s controversial. Heck, they can even do that from their phones 10 minutes before class starts. The students who do that are not going to give answers that are worthy of a PhD defense, but they’re much less likely to sit there slack-jawed, and that’s half of the battle.

So Bob always has critical mass.

Does Bob worry that collaborative technologies are going to diminish students’ personal engagement with the material or substitute peers’ banal observations for the more profound insights on offer from leading scholars? Not much, it turns out. “Columbia has the intellectual resources to teach the course differently: a lecture hall for 1,100 students with a world expert on Plato to teach the Republic, a superior Bible scholar to teach Matthew and so on. It would be much cheaper and administratively easier,” he told us.  “But the whole point of the exercise is to foster collaboration: to achieve in the real world what Piazza and technologies like it seek to accomplish online. Since I have experienced first-hand the power of this approach, and am consequently a big supporter, my conclusion is: the more collaboration the better, in general. As the ever-excellent David Hume observed in the text I taught today: man is both a rational and a social animal. In other words, thinking alone about hard problems only engages part of our abilities.”

The contemporary civilization course that Bob teaches will be 100 years old in 2019. It’s nice to see that it’s worn so well.

Class Flipping with a Twist

You hear a lot about Internet-based cheating and lower standards these days. Let’s assume for the moment that the laments are true. What would it take to raise standards? How about an old-fashioned, newfangled, paradoxical pedagogical approach.

Srinivasan Keshav does the paradoxical part well. He’s an expert on wireless networks, but he threw away his smart phone. He’s a dedicated instructor, but he quizzes students on the course material before he teaches it. He’s an inventor with a wealth of experience in academia and industry who testifies before Congress, but his most important advice (which he ought to give to Congress, come to think of it) is “know what you don’t know.”


S. Keshav, as sketched by his daughter

Keshav, who teaches at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, is developing an innovative instructional style that embraces technology but feels old fashioned in the “damn, profs meant business back then” kind of way. He encourages students to use all of the online resources at their disposal, including collaborating with their peers on Piazza. But he gives more homework than just about anyone, and his classroom meetings are strict and rigorously focused on working through the hardest problems.

Keshav’s description of many college classes makes Canadian undergraduates sound like the Sweathogs from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” You can almost feel the paper airplanes whizzing by your ear. “If you go to a class where people are watching YouTube, or they’re on Twitter, or eating a burger, they aren’t learning,” he told us. “I demand complete attention, and in return I give students complete dedication. That encourages a higher level of engagement. Nobody complains about having 32 homework assignments, and I don’t complain about grading them.”

If Keshav’s students are paying attention, it may be because they’ve been slapped in the face, metaphorically speaking. Prior to the class meeting, each homework assignment includes three questions that students can potentially answer from the course materials, but not without the kind of struggle that built character back in the slide-rule era. “You can think of this as a sort of ‘quiz before the lecture,”’ he told us. “I grade all of them and they count.” (This term the class has no assigned text, so homework is due after class)

Keshav takes it for granted that his students will use the Internet to try to answer the questions. But this isn’t the kind of homework you can download from the Evil House of Cheat or dig up from the fraternity file (unless frats in Canada are radically different from the ones we have here). That’s where Piazza comes in. “Having a system by which students can collaborate effectively outside of class makes it possible to ask more of them because I know that they have ample resources to answer challenging questions,” Keshav explained. “On Piazza, students can ask conceptual questions or refer to outside materials to make things clearer.”

All of this is designed to mess with students’ brains. In a good way. “People work best when they know what they don’t know,” Keshav said. “If you think you know something, you don’t pay attention. But if you have no idea what’s going on, then you’re disoriented. You want to be in the middle — where you know what you don’t know.”

The “traditional” large lecture format — which was perfected at about the same time as the assembly line and was similarly effective at keeping participants’ minds engaged — seems quite antiquated these days, given that students can watch videos not just of their own instructor, but of any instructor teaching the same material. Keshav’s model of engagement, along with other “class flippingexperiments, seems to point the way toward a model of pedagogy that moves beyond the traditional lecture format while retaining an important place for face-to-face learning.

In case you’re wondering, Keshav’s classes have dozens of people, not just a few. It’s not the size of the class that matters – it’s the expectations that students have when they walk in the door.

But what about cheating? “I am fully aware that people sometimes cheat,” Keshav admitted,­ “But even the fact that people are writing the answers down teaches them something. And my surveys showed that the students like this approach, and that they felt that the material sank in.” Grades on exams were better than they had been using a traditional approach.

So what about you? Can you demand more from students now that they have virtually unlimited access to information and an always-on connection to their classmates?

At Piazza, our customers are innovators!


Everyone — from start-ups with five users all the way to IBM — says this, and it’s usually BS. But at Piazza, our distribution model selects strongly for individualists, since we’re a new, consumer-driven site operating in a market where institutions have traditionally made most of the technology decisions. Instructors aren’t compelled by their institutions to use Piazza. They choose Piazza, occasionally in the face of malignant indifference or downright institutional opposition.

Let’s put it this way: I don’t think a single committee has ever convened to make a decision about whether to use Piazza.

So if you talk to a typical Piazza instructor, he or she is probably more of an experimenter, more of an innovator, and more committed to progressive teaching approaches than the average prof. And we are privileged to talk to a lot of Piazza instructors.

In fact, talking to these people is so much fun that we’ve decided to start blogging some of these conversations. So we’re kicking off a series about innovators in teaching. We’ll be highlighting the challenges they’ve overcome, the techniques they’ve used, and how they’ve integrated technology into the learning experience.

In some cases, Piazza is central to these teachers’ strategies. In other cases, we’re kind of peripheral. Either way, though, we want to step away from the limelight as much as possible to share the instructors’ stories. We hope you find them useful and interesting. Or at least not BS.

If you’ve got an interesting story to tell or know someone we should talk to, please email us at innovator-at-piazza-dot-com.


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