Web-based discussion forums for university courses

Piazza.com offers students and professors a smart-looking , easy-to-use discussion forum for question & answer communication in university and college courses. It is free to use and free of advertising and is proving popular enough to use at some of the technical schools in the USA (e.g. Stanford, Berkely, Georgia Tech) and Canada (e.g. University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia, University of Toronto). Courses at the University of Waterloo have been using Piazza since about 2009, mostly in the Mathematics Faculty (CS, MATH, STATS and ACTSC).

Piazza was started at Stanford University by Pooja (Nath) Sankar who saw a need for better collaboration and communication among students.

Professors like Piazza because it attracts higher numbers of students and is a reliable web platform that needs little or no administration.

Students like Piazza because they find it easy to locate posts relevant to what they need. Students also like the option of posting anonymously.

Watching a demo of the system you see a two-panel page, with a list of questions on the left and a selected question and its replies in the panel on the right.

One nice feature of piazza is that each question has 1 pair of replies: a reply from instructors and a reply from students. Each reply is really a wiki-style reply. Students and professors can add, alter, critique and improve a reply, all in one place. A viewable history is kept of all changes. Plus, a followup question can also be added to a post if a student wants more help.

Navigation is easy. Icons beside each listed question show if it is a question (absense of an icon), an information note (grey lines icon) or a poll question (grey bar chart icon) and other icons show if the post has received a student reply (green S icon) or an instructor reply (orange i icon). Another icon (grey number icon) shows how many updates the question has received since you last looked at it. Further, an unanswered question is given a pink background and an unread question has a small, blue dot to its left.

Tag strings can also be added to posts to give themes to sets of posts. Instructors can create a set of available tags to use by students in their posts. The tag list appears when you begin a tag using #.

Posts can be cross-linked too. Typing @N in a post creates a link to post N. Each post in the message list has a link number N, seen by using the pull-down menu appearing when the cursor is placed over the message.

Another nice navigation feature, one that also encourages participation, are the good question or good answer labels that instructors can add to a student's post. Students can quickly zero-in on these posts.

Students can also bookmark posts they want to follow. They can be notified by email, or in real-time on the piazza page when signed on.

The search tools for finding a post include search by word or phrase, search by category: unread, updated, unresolved, and search by tag.

Student enrollment in a Piazza course can be handled manually by uploading a class roster or automatically through our university's LEARN LMS. In their LEARN course instructors create a link to their Piazza course through which students are automatically enrolled and can signin without using their Piazza password. To make a Piazza link in your LEARN course navigate: LEARN > Content > Existing Activities > External Learning Tools > Pizza. There are also IOS and Android Piazza phone apps for easy access to Piazza. Students can also self-enroll from the Piazza login page. Instructors can turn off self-enrollment by request.

The system is well documented. You'll find it helpful to look at the following

A couple of features make Piazza useful for STEM courses:

Other features include student groups for private group posts, private posts to instructors and statistics and data on class discussion activity.

You can find out more about Piazza on their home page and by talking to some of the instructors using it in the Computer Science Department at the University of Waterloo. Please contact me for more information.

Paul Kates
Mathematics Faculty CTE Liaison
pkates@uwaterloo.ca, x37047
Last modification date: Tue Apr 16 16:20:57 2019.
Previous modification date: Thu Mar 21 18:04:41 2019.