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Pros: Students are on the hook not only to understand, but also to explain what they know to others.
Cons: The site's design, some of its features, and the collaborative expectations may limit use to older or advanced students.
Bottom Line: Encourage collaborative, student-centered learning with this useful platform, but make sure it's the right fit for your students.
Teachers of advanced high school kids with virtual classrooms -– or blended classrooms with big online components –- may match well with Piazza. Use the tool just as it's intended: a place for kids to ask questions and get answers. Students' responsibility to understand content increases as they're required to explain to -- or edit an explanation for -- their peers. Teacher repetition decreases because you weigh in once with an instructor's checkmark of approval, or write one response to provide clarification and modeling. Further, the site has built-in organizational features that help deter redundancy in posts.
In general, Piazza works best when the questions require clear, concise responses: Kids reviewing chemistry or, say, struggling together through Chapter 7's practice test. That said, for history or literature units the one-answer design could be cumbersome, since it would force all possible quality responses to be combined into a long, final answer. Nevertheless, there might also be some creative use cases for the tool in dealing with questions that elicit more abstract or interpretive responses.
Piazza is an advanced classroom-communication tool. Many customizable options (anonymity, folders) and a few uncommon features (question history) could daunt new users, but Piazza provides support via startup posts and product info. Once logged in, teachers use tabs labeled Q&A, Course Page (syllabus, hardware, class logistics), and Manage Class (enrollment and settings). Statistics about participation and response times are available through a graph icon. In many cases, teachers may be able to link Piazza to their school's learning management system.
Piazza's unique feature is the format of its Q&A tool. Instead of a posted question that receives multiple responses, there's one designated student response and one instructor response. Peers can edit/update answers, with changes to the question's history viewable using a slider at the top. Instructors can provide a stamp of approval by marking student answers with a check. Other features include a polling tool, a space for online discussions, and the ability to message students.
Piazza's wiki-style approach pushes students not only to post responses, but also to edit and enhance them. This requires students to use higher-level skills like evaluation and synthesis while at the same time helping others who might be stumped -- it's like a digitized platform to foster a more-capable-peer model of student collaboration. Further, users are expected to organize their own posts by assigning them to a folder or tagging them. However, these may be high bars to reach, even for high school kids. Teachers will want to provide significant coaching on expectations, as well as frequent moderation and feedback to students' responses. A similar tool, custom-tailored to younger students, could potentially be a hit in many classrooms.
Piazza's design should cut down on long queues of sidebar ("I don't get it," "When is this due?") that can interrupt otherwise productive digital Q&As. This does limit (though doesn't eliminate) it as a tool purely for discussions, however. Teachers should also realize that students could access some options (posting polls, editing questions, adjusting settings) that could be problematic if misused.