Piazza – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates

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, Berkeley, Georgia Tech) and Canada (e.g. University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia, University of Toronto).

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.

Watching a demo of the system you see a two-panel 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 follow-up 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 or just an information note and further tell if it has received a student or instructor reply yet. Another icon shows how many updates the question has received since you last looked at it.

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.

Another nice navigation feature, one that also encourages participation, are the icons added by instructors to mark posts with a good question or good answer label. 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.

The system is well documented. You’ll find it helpful to look at the instructor FAQ.

A couple of features added to the system make it handy for special uses:

  • The message editor allows LaTeX math input for easy mathematics composing. Text like $$\sqrt{3x-1}+(1+x)^2$$ turns into an well-formatted image looking like this: sample LaTeX equation
  • Instructors can make a Poll post to ask the class a few questions for quick feedback on the course or the class, or even for course administration.

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

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Paul Kates

Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Liaison to the Faculty of Mathematics (pkates@uwaterloo.ca)

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