Social Learning Online: What Do We Know So Far?

On May 23 the Bok Center hosted a discussions with Phil Soffer, VP of Operations for Piazza, and science faculty and preceptors.  We asked Phil to write a guest blog post about the conversation; here are his thoughts on best practices for use of interactive social media in college courses.  Phil’s post gives some pedagogically good ideas that are applicable in general, not just to Piazza. – John G

Just last term over 1,700 Harvard undergraduates in dozens of classes came together online to ask and answer more than 5,000 questions in computer science, math, physics, economics, and other subjects. In this case, they used a free social learning platform called Piazza that instructors use to connect students to one another when they’re not in class. The preceptors at the Bok Center asked me (to paraphrase), “What have we learned from this experience about how to make the best use of peer-driven instruction online?”

It’s a good question that we’re working on answering quantitatively based on analysis of the 3,000 classes taught globally on Piazza in the past year. Anecdotally, Harvard professors Greg Morrisett and Michael Mitzenmacher have written or spoken about their experiences extending the classroom online, and based on observation and discussion with many educators who’ve already made the leap, we can give you a few guidelines:

  • Set the proper tone from the beginning of the class. One observation is that an online Q&A environment can become a crutch for students who want to avoid thinking things through themselves. You’re less likely to see your online platform become the opiate of your classes if you state clearly from the outset that instructors will respond first to questions that students have already tried to answer themselves. Positive reinforcement for students who answer peers’ questions helps a great deal.
  • Encourage students to participate by having them post briefly about themselves if they feel comfortable doing so (always respecting students’ privacy, of course). For many students, the first post is the hardest. Especially in large freshman classes, many students don’t know their peers and may feel intimidated by both the class’s size on the other students’ presumed brilliance in the subject.
  • Establish clear guidelines about what constitutes appropriate use of the site. As soon as you do this, you’ll probably find that students will police themselves by telling peers who are seeking outright answers to do their own work (or at least use private channels for blatant cheating).
  • Resist email. Any substantive answer you send in email to an individual student is a missed opportunity to create a teachable moment for the entire class. Student-specific questions aside, encourage students to post questions publicly — anonymously if they prefer — to receive an answer.

Those are basic guidelines that should serve you well – but you’ll see more once you have a class going. Like lecturing or running a seminar, managing a class online is a skill that you’ll hone with practice. And if current trends continue, it will be a particularly valuable skill at that. 

PS – a couple of preemptive responses to the posts I’ve linked to. No, it is not Piazza’s ambition to eliminate office hours. Greg Morrisett’s more nuanced take is that instructors save time on routine questions and can spend that time with students at either end of the curve. To Prof. Mitzenmacher we can say that we have no plans to charge students or teachers for Piazza.

We’re happy to help or answer any questions from the Harvard community. Feel free to email us at team-at-piazza-dot-com.

4 thoughts on “Social Learning Online: What Do We Know So Far?

  1. This! While we can agree that being an impressive speaker is great, but at some point you have to deliver.

  2. Online learning is here to stay, but I do see tremendous problems emerging soon. How do you know students are not cheating? Will test be also conducted online? Can you determine who’s taking the test? I am sure technology would eventually catch on to the immense possibilities of online classes been the norm.

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