A long time ago, I tried to use the Blackboard discussion board. I quickly decided I would rather push needles into my eyes than do that again. The format was stiff, the threads unwieldy and in the absence of mobile apps, the communications were extremely slow. Discussion boards worked sort of like a community board – people could post questions, and eventually someone might answer, but the delay was enormous, even by pre-2007 standards.
In those dark days of BBoard, I resorted to wiki pages to prompt collaboration, and questions were answered via email, announcements were made via email, all comms were via email. And the email queue grew and grew.
Enter Piazza. My life changed. Here was a mobile-enhanced discussion board app that worked! It is seamless, extremely intuitive and very flexible. My email queue cleared – instead students posted questions about the class, assignments, the syllabus on piazza – and very soon students started to answer each other’s questions. Tech problems were dealt with there, with the students posting troubleshooting tips as well as explanations on how to cite a webpage for example. TAs also became part of the conversation – and all of a sudden the course community became just that: a community. Everyone pitched in, questions were answered within minutes. Everyone loved it.
(acknowledgements and thanks for image made by Steve Anderson)
I got bold – I realized I could use Piazza for assignments. So I asked students to post a 50 word eye-witness report of something they’d seen on campus that week. Two weeks later I had a new assignment – using the posts everyone made two weeks ago, write the history of that week on campus. It was a hit. Everyone loved seeing what everyone else had posted, and they loved the variations in the histories of that week. BAM! Learning by doing.
I got even bolder and this quarter I decided students would post short interventions at the beginning of every week. An introductory selfie in week 1; a picture/poem/ haiku demonstrating they had been inside the library – most of it to get them to have fun with the course, to connect across topics and modules, to get them to meet each other and see what they were doing. I imagined a large collaborative and supportive, hyper-connected class, growing ever more so over 10 weeks.
OH what a mess I created. All of sudden, within days of the start of class, the piazza feed was clogged. An endless stream of post, all tagged for the assignment, landed in everyone’s feeds. I looked away for an hour and I had 34 unread posts. Imagine what it looks like for each student – who isn’t reading the posts to make sure everyone gets their grade – every week they get about 150 new post at least – not counting all the questions and clarifications that get posted there.
Grading became another headache. Piazza is not connected to the grade-book in the Learning Management System (LMS), and none of the completed posts automatically generate a grade-book entry. So we have to identify each student who posts on Piazza and then enter the grade in the LMS. Thankfully I have nimble and energetic TAs (shout out to Julia and Blanca) but I will not be making this mistake again.
The ecstasy of Piazza was immediately clear – a perfect communications hub and a great locus for community in an online class.
The agony is now also obvious – you cannot overburden this hub. Like any public square, you need enough people there so that it feels inhabited, but you can’t overcrowd it and expect people to want to stay.
Now I know.