College students on 900 campuses are taking a grassroots approach to online class discussions, using a popular new platform to create web-based gatherings and prompting their professors to join the real-time back-and-forth.
The website, Piazza.com, was first used for a few courses at Stanford University last year as a counter to the top-down approach of universities’ learning management systems (LMS) software, such as Blackboard.
Campus officials often sign contracts with giant LMS companies, giving students little or no choice about how they’ll interact with classmates and instructors online.
Pooja Sankar, a recent graduate of Stanford’s MBA program and creator of Piazza.com, said professors nationwide have responded to student demand to join the website and start real-time online conversations about class assignments, lectures, and upcoming quizzes and exams.
“We’ve really seen a critical mass form among a lot of colleges that use the site,” said Sankar, a native of India who came to the U.S. at age 22 after finishing a degree at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. “It’s important for the instructor to know that there is a lot of demand out there, that many of their students want to use [Piazza.com] and engage in the question-and-answer process.”
A college student can create a free Piazza account and join groups from any class he or she is taking during the current semester. Each class site has recent questions aligned on the left of the screen, with answers and follow-up discussion posted in the middle of the screen.
Piazza.com could also help professors, instructors, and teaching assistants better understand which concepts need more explanation in online discussions or in the lecture hall.
Unanswered student questions are highlighted in red on a class’s Piazza site, and instructors can change and delete previously entered, incorrect answers posted by students. The site also highlights “hot topics” that receive questions from many students throughout a day or week.