“A one-stop shop”

For one Stanford computer science professor, Piazza keeps things organized—and keeps the conversation going

Paul Hegarty
Computer Science
Why did you first start using Piazza?
Well, I had been communicating with students through my own website, which was a pain in the neck. My class had a lot of downloads and generated a lot of student feedback, and I was doing things through mechanisms that were not really intended to be used the way I was using them. But in the last few years, Piazza has replaced my entire website, which is now dormant. I post homework assignments, lecture slides, demonstration code, all that stuff on Piazza, and answer students’ questions. It really has been a big change in terms of organization. I don’t have to wonder, Did I post that homework properly? Did I answer all those emails? I can also find out very rapidly if students aren’t understanding a particular concept, and either post a detailed explanation on Piazza or cover it in a lecture.
Do you use it in conjunction with other tools provided by the college?
I use only Piazza for my class communication in both directions. The one exception is if a student has a very private question about their grade or something.
How is the platform helpful for computer science specifically?
My class is very programming intensive, so students are learning new concepts and a new programming language. That’s a lot of things at once. What's good about Piazza is that anyone who has a question that is blocking them from understanding any of the other things can receive a response from me almost immediately. I just have Piazza open on my computer when I'm doing other work. So it's a way for students to get unblocked and keep moving.
Do you worry at all about losing the in-person engagement with your students?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not part of the faculty, so I’m only on campus when I teach lectures and for office hours immediately before and after. Piazza allows me to be very, very responsive to my students’ needs without being physically present all the time. But even professors whose offices are on campus have a lot going on with their research and other classes. I would think that Piazza would help them be responsive to students and to interact with them without constant interruptions.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from students?

Some love that they get a very, very precise response from me instantaneously. Of course, students who come to my office hours are more inclined to say, ‘Well, just tell me how to do this’ than students who post on Piazza. On Piazza, they have more incentive to figure it out on their own. So the ones who leave things to the last minute may prefer the casual nature of a face-to-face meeting, but those who are really working through the problems appreciate the precision of Piazza.

And it’s great on my side because I’m a teacher who loves to teach. Teaching by answering questions very precisely in a public forum is an awesome way to help students understand what I’m trying to say; it allows everyone to benefit from each other’s questions. I mean, I always love brave students who stop me during a lecture and say, ‘I don’t understand that.’ But with Piazza, they have more time to think. They can ask themselves, Wait, what is my question?
What advice would you give to other professors using Piazza?
It works best when you tell your students that it’s the only way to communicate. If you let information come and go in other ways, it can water down Piazza. Whereas if everyone knows Piazza is the way to communicate, they’ll focus their attention on it, and will always know where to look for an assignment or ask a question. It’s important to make Piazza a one-stop shop.