In a previous post I wrote about the experience of teaching an online class as a TA. One of the primary tools we used for the course was Piazza, and it was instrumental in shifting the burden of email to a more open and constructive arena.
Piazza is free, and here’s the public demo-link to our site (student info is automatically anonymized): https://piazza.com/demo_login?nid=hcl80qeye0r1wv&auth=1cae5a5

Piazza is an online forum that allows for students and instructors to interact in the open – it takes the burden of email and shifts it to a more public space where all students can see each other’s questions and responses. This openness allows for students to see that many of them have the same questions, and the students can even answer each other’s questions too.

If a student does answer another student’s question, an instructor can still interact with that conversation. An instructor can intervene directly by posting a response, or they can simply approve the student’s response. Piazza also enables more contact between Professors and TA’s within the course structure itself, as either can answer questions, or build-on and endorse the answers of others.

Piazza’s forum-style Q&A is fantastic for keeping relevant information at hand using the #pin feature. I especially like the Q&A homepage, and how it can be reloaded to show unread notes, unanswered questions, and unresolved follow-ups.

Piazza operates more fluidly than a regular, linear discussion board with threads. The ability to link to other Piazza posts with @post# provides for a wiki-style feel, in which the posts are interconnected.

Piazza works wonderfully for online and hybrid courses, and I will be using Piazza for two traditional courses this Fall at the University of La Verne.

One of these classes meets once a week, and Piazza will be great for minimizing the anxieties associated with a whole week of downtime between classes.
My class website for the History of Latin America (HIST351): sgahm.org/laverne/f13hla

The other class I’m teaching is larger and meets twice a week, so Piazza will help me manage my communications with the class, as well as creating a sense of connection through their assignment posts.
My class website for United States History and Culture (HIST110): sgahm.org/laverne/f13us

Also, Piazza has apps that actually work quite well for the Q&A forum. I use the Piazza app on my iPhone and iPad, and it saves me from having to cart around an entire laptop just to deal with the complexity of email on-the-go. If any students have private concerns, email still an option of course.

Where Piazza could improve is in the Course Page section. There are two tabs for Piazza, the Q&A and the Course Page, and the Course Page is designed to be a class website, which holds the syllabus and other info. While the Q&A feature is rather robust and easy to use, the Course Page is not very intuitive, and it lacks customization. Piazza is not a full-featured LMS (Learning Management System) such as Blackboard or Canvas, it’s actually designed to be used in conjunction with an LMS. However, it would be nice if the Course Page had more features, or if it could be hidden from view in the settings.