Piazza – An Example of Free Learning Tool Targeted at Faculty / Student Adoption

In my recent webcast with Patrick Masson for WCET, we described the growing usage of learning tools outside the official LMS solution. Patrick described survey results done by UMassOnline that captured the rich source of (often free) learning tools used in UMass courses. Much of educational technology is moving from an enterprise LMS market – with feature-rich LMS solutions expected to provide the majority of learning tools – to a learning platform market – with interoperable tools patched together with or without the official LMS by either campus staff or even directly by faculty. These tools are quite often free, and as such they are targeted at faculty and student adoption, rather than institutional adoption via a Request for Proposal process.

One example of these tools is Piazza, which is a “a place where students can come together to ask, answer, and explore under the guidance of their instructor”. Think of the tool as an combination of discussion board, chat room, and wiki, with some design elements from Google Wave. While the description might be hard to understand, that is part of the issue – Piazza is not targeted to replace the LMS or to replicate specific LMS functionality.

Jessica Wong at MakingUseOf has a very useful post running through the functionality of Piazza for those interested in the tool itself. My interest for this post is more on what Piazza represents in terms of ed tech trends with the availability of free platforms and tools that are targeted at student and faculty adoption.

Partially based on the current ed tech enthusiasm, Piazza has had more exposure to national media and Silicon Valley media outlets than it has to education-focused media outlets. It is easy to find articles from the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Huffington Post, ABC News, Forbes, CNN, Reuters, Tech Crunch, All Things D, . . . even including a personal visit with Vice President Biden and his wife. Most of these articles have focused on the founder and CEO, Pooja Sankar, her personal story, as well as recent venture capital fund-raising. On the education side, all I could find were two small articles in the Chronicle.

Ms. Sankar’s story does provide an interesting backdrop to the company.

My first year at IIT was challenging. Our professors would give us programming assignments, intending for us to learn a lot of the computer programming basics. Except, most nights, I’d be up until 6am stuck on nuances of the assignment. I’d be seeing some random compiler error, or not understanding what the specifics of the assignment question meant. Google was too general for my questions as were discussion forums. I’d sit in a corner of the computer lab, too shy to ask the guys in my class. They’d all talk to one another, ask each other questions, and learn a lot by working together. I missed out on this learning. What was worse was I wouldn’t even get to the core of the learning that the professors intended for us since I was stuck on a nuance and couldn’t complete the assignment. [snip]

I started Piazza so every student can have that opportunity to learn from her classmates. Whether she’s too shy to ask, whether she’s working alone in her dorm room, or whether her few friends in her class don’t know the answer either. [snip]

Piazza is designed to connect students, TAs, and professors so every student can get help when she needs it — even at 2AM.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Phil Soffer and Nick LaVassar to get a demo and discussion of Piazza’s usage. Someone starts a discussion typically with a question – either a student or faculty – and then students interact through the tool, generating real discussions of the topic while building up group knowledge around the solution to the problem posed. Instructors can observe the discussion as it unfolds, jump in where appropriate to redirect, and also gain useful feedback on where students are having problems.

What impressed me was not the technology, per se, but rather the depth of usage by students in real classes. When the tool is used for a course (often computer science or a related STEM field due to the embedded LaTeX editor, although Piazza can be used for multiple disciplines), students seem to use the tool as a key part of their course work. The usage is student-driven, rather than forced adoption due to course design. In one course I saw, there must have been at least a dozen active discussions going on for each week of the course.

Sometimes the discussions are about the administration of the course, but when these occur, students and instructors have a much more engaging model than the typical email Q&A with the instructor. As David Gries from Cornell put it in a blurb on the Piazza web page:

Before, I answered hundreds of emails each semester, about assignments, tests, and so on. Now, I get an email from Piazza about a new post, take a look, and often find that a student or another staff member has already answered it. Everyone is more engaged. Everyone is happier and more positive about the course.

But often the discussion is directly centered around homework or other class assignments, and students work through, in a public forum, the thought processes and group-learning that enable real engagement with the material.

The discussion threads can be marked as resolved or unresolved, and various tools support easy sorting and reading of new comments posted since someone’s last login. Per Jessica Wong’s article, one of the most useful aspects of Piazza is the ability to jump into the discussion anonymously if desired.

There’s a reason this site will get more action than your average class website, Blackboard or Facebook group. Students will feel free to engage in the discussion even if they might think their question sounded too “stupid” to bring up in class. Not only can students ask questions freely, they can also respond anonymously as well.

My biggest concern about Piazza is the lack of a revenue model. While there are certainly opportunities for free platforms, I do find it worrying that so many startups are raising venture capital without having to figure out where the future business will come from. And venture capital firms are part of the problem, in my opinion, too often encouraging this lack of revenue consideration. Revenue can give a company time and control, allowing it to be patient and build up a long-lasting portfolio of tools and services rather than being subject to the whims of VC exits or acquisitions from larger companies.

So here we have a free, cloud-based learning platform, designed for interoperability including LTI support, focused on student usage as a learning tool (rather than just administrative usage), with discipline-specific applicability. Much of the future of educational technology will be focused on how to enable the usage of similar tools such in a reasonably-seamless experience that benefits student learning and course-based success. There are far more choices of these tools today than there were just two years ago, and we should expect more innovation in the near future.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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