“Connecting students, creating a community”

One education organization in NYC is using Piazza to help students around the world learn computer science

Emily Grad
Founder and CEO of Edhesive
Can you tell me a little bit about Amplify and what your role is there?
Amplify is New Corps’ education division. We develop data, analytics, platforms, and content for students K-12. I manage our MOOC program. We launched a full-year AP computer science MOOC in 2013 to offer access to CS to students who wouldn't normally have access to it.
So how did you first hear about Piazza?
We were actively looking for a discussion forum for a the MOOC we were building. Forums are obviously a huge part of what makes a MOOC a MOOC. So we were on the hunt, and we’d heard good feedback about Piazza from a couple of our teachers. Then we talked to the Piazza team about how it can sync pretty seamlessly into our system. It seemed to work well from a technical and product perspective.
Were you using a different forum previously?
No, Piazza was the first forum technology that we used. This course didn't exist before; we rolled it out with Piazza.
And the course was primarily for high school students. What did they need from a discussion platform?
Well, we were working with a lot of students who didn't have a computer science teacher at their school. Instead, they had teacher “coaches” who supported them in learning-focused ways like making sure they kept our deadlines and kept motivated. But not all of the coaches knew computer science; they couldn’t necessarily help students with code, or clarify something in a video lesson that the student was confused by. So the forum really was the go-to place for students to get help.
Can you talk a little bit more about your participation base? Who exactly was taking this class?
We work with a variety of students and schools. Everyone from homeschooled students to students in large urban schools. We have students taking the class for credit on their high school transcripts in a coached environment. We also have independent students taking it as a MOOC. So it’s a range of people.
Since some of your teachers, or coaches, don’t know CS, who moderates your forums on Piazza?
Amplify has hired a set of teaching assistants who actively monitor the forums. They answer questions from both students and teachers. We have a separate forum just for coaches, too. So the teachers or the homeschooling parents or whoever is serving as the student’s coach gets access to a specific Piazza forum where they can talk about content, pedagogy, and technical support. I think that’s really important, because most of the time teachers are working in a silo. So just as we connect students to one another, we connect coaches, and create a community. They can discuss best practices and how to work with different types of students.
Did you use any of Piazza’s statistics?
Yes, the statistics were helpful. They let us see how many students were on the forum, and with what frequency. Knowing the average response time was also very helpful, since this forum is new to coaches and schools. Now we can come armed with data and analytics from last year’s course, and talk about our current average response time, and how many students are asking questions.
So how did you get students started on Piazza?
We used a video. It’s an introduction where we talk about the forum and Piazza. We use those words interchangeably. Then, after each lesson, we had a series of discussion questions and pointed students to the forum to answer them.
And how did students respond?
It’s been really interesting. I don’t know of another course, or another service, that connects high school students to people outside their school buildings like this, including to independent learners. We had a student in Syria whose university was shut down, so he was taking the MOOC. We had a professional developer in the UK who had just never learned Java, so he was taking the MOOC. I think those independent learners really elevated the conversation—their tone, their professionalism. Our students have Facebook and Twitter for fun and for social community. But Piazza, because it’s so connected to the course and to the rigor of the AP, was really a place for students to go and work and be professional and ask questions. For us, it really was a great experience.