Piazza is an online tool to facilitate student discussion, learning, and engagement. In some ways, this makes it similar to Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Canvas and Blackboard. Piazza is different though because it is more single-minded in its goals and so it has a more directed set of features. It has elements of the Canvas discussion board, wiki pages, and chat, but it is greater than the sum of these parts.
Rather than providing content and facilitating assessment for the individual student, Piazza is geared toward building understanding for the entire group. Students ask questions, poll their peers, or submit class notes. The class then uses their collective knowledge to contribute to a single answer to each question (notes don’t require answers).
As an instructor, you can endorse a student’s response, let a student know they’ve asked a good question, create your own response, or add a followup question or comment. You can also see statistics on who is contributing to the discussions.
An interesting twist to Piazza is that students have the option of posting anonymously. This allows even timid students to ask questions, and it means that even when students feel that their question is stupid, they’ll still be willing to ask it. The least useful questions are those that have already been thoroughly answered. Piazza does a good job of making these waste-of-time questions avoidable with its tag-based organization and its search tool.
All new posts are tagged by their creator. As an instructor, it is your job to choose how this tagging system is setup. You could make a tag for each homework assignment, or you could make a tag for important topics. It’s up to you how these discussions will be organized. You can locate a specific post by tag, by searching for any word in the post, or by filtering the discussion board by types of posts or the status of posts.
Piazza is not a replacement to Canvas or to Blackboard. It’s billed as a tool to be used in addition to these systems. The company recently created a Learning Tools Integration (LTI) with Canvas which enables users to access Piazza directly through Canvas, without having to login separately. Piazza can take the place of discussion boards, but it is likely more useful as a real-time student forum in addition to the regular discussion boards on Canvas which are more directed and more easily graded.