Online tech in an in-person seminar: An experiment with Piazza

I’ve written about how I like to run seminar classes before and you may have noticed that my approach is decidedly low tech. My students read the week’s articles before class and fill out a “worksheet” for each one. Before this semester, the most important question on the worksheet was “What didn’t you understand?” I would look over their answers to identify weak spots that we would cover in class.

This semester I tried something new: I took “What didn’t you understand?” off the worksheet and asked my students to post questions they had about the reading on a Piazza online discussion forum. If two (or more) students have the same question, only the first has to post it–the others could just mark it as a “good question.” They could also answer each other’s questions and I could “approve” answers or provide my own. I had high hopes for the new system. I thought it would be easier for the students, and would make it easier for me to see what the hot button issues were and even provide some feedback before class.

It didn’t work very well. Even with a fair amount of cajoling during the semester, I would only get 4-5 students (of 24) participating in the forum each week. Based on feedback during the last class, it seems there were three primary reasons. First, it wasn’t clear to many of them that they could post their questions anonymously and they didn’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their fellow students by posting potentially “dumb” questions. Second, several students felt they were done with the assignment after they filled out their worksheets. They didn’t want to take the time to go to the Piazza web site for more work. Third, they didn’t like posting questions that weren’t going to get answered on the forum.

I’m not ready to give up on the idea, but I’m also not sure what to do differently next semester. I can try more cajoling on the first day of class and I can let everyone know that they can post anonymously. I can also commit to answering questions before class. The worksheets and questions are due on Monday night, so that gives me plenty of time before Wednesday’s class to provide at least basic answers. I’m still not sure this will be enough to get mass participation.