Learning Through Social Media: Some New Options

Summer is here.  It’s a time to think about revising courses.  One of the things I’m exploring is new ways to bring technology into my classroom.  Here are two I’m considering:


1. Piazza.  Piazza describes itself as “a place where students can come together to ask, answer, and explore under the guidance of their instructor.”  In practice, it’s rather like a fancied-up discussion board.  Students can post questions for other students to answer, or post private question for the instructor’s eyes only.  In addition, the instructor can post notes (for announcements, or such like) for all students to read.  There are a few bells and whistles (for example, the instructor can “validate” a correct response to a student), but largely the purpose seems to be to encourage student interaction for purposes of mutual aid in studying and learning.


Pros: Easy to use interface.  It’s good to have a forum in which students can learn/be encouraged to ask their own questions.  Anything that gets students to take the lead in learning, rather than just relying on the teacher, is welcome to me.


Cons: If it’s really a big discussion board, why not use an existing service, such as Moodle (at my school), Edmodo, Schoology, even a Facebook group?  Does Piazza’s extra functionality really make it worthwhile to add one more site to the students’ on-line agenda?


Bottom line: I’m going to try it, but need a structure, to make sure students go onto the site.  I’m hoping once they get in the habit, they’ll find it useful and keep using it.  And if it’s not useful, no reason to keep using it.


UPDATE: The good folks at Piazza have contacted me to tell me that Piazza has integration with both Moodle and Facebook connect.  I haven’t looked into the details yet, but if so, that would at least address the concern about “one more account to remember.”  There is still the question of whether it’s worth using Piazza rather than an alternative service.  But given student dislike of Moodle, I imagine they’d prefer Piazza to Moodle, at least.


2. Peerwise. A New Zealand-based service that I found out via an Australian email list (don’t you love the internet?), Peerwise is more focused than Piazza; it is designed to get students creating multiple choice questions.  A student posts a multiple choice question he has written, along with an explanation of the answer.   Other students can discuss the question, or they can just “like” it.  Students can also rate the difficulty of the question.  As students create questions, a database of multiple choice questions, ranked by quality and difficulty, is created.  Gamification is also built in, as students can earn “badges” (from the easy to obtain “question author” to the more challenging “Einstein badge,” which comes from answering 20 questions in a row correctly).  They can also try to make a variety of “leaderboards”; the leaderboard page lists a student’s own results next to those of the leader, so he can see how he’s doing relative to the leaders.


Pros: By forcing students to write their own questions, as well as explanations for the answers, Peerwise forces students to process the material more actively.  Writing questions will also help prepare students for multiple choice assessments, and with proper modeling, they can also use their question writing to work on analytical thinking (and not just recall questions).  The social aspects and competitive/gaming aspects could be fun for some students.


Cons: The focus on just multiple choice questions is fairly narrow, and could tend to encourage students to focus on convergent, rather than more open-ended questions.  In a history class, students already tend to see the learning history as a matter of memorizing facts; used improperly, Peerwise could merely encourage that way of thinking.


Bottom line:  Since I use multiple choice questions in my classes (if for no other reason than to give students practice for the multiple choice college board exams), this looks like this could be a useful tool.  I have in the past encouraged students to write their own multiple choice questions as a way of studying; the social aspects of this site could make it more enjoyable for students to do that.  Again, a structure well be necessary: Peerwise recommends a minimum question contribution requirement, to which I would add clear guidance about writing multiple choice questions.  In particular, students need to understand that questions should not be just about memorizing facts.

Your thoughts?

Social media tools for the classroom continue to proliferate.  What tools will you be trying out this year?  And if you have any experience with Piazza and/or Peerwise, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

David Korfhage

David Korfhage

History Teacher at Montclair Kimberley Academy

I am an upper school history teacher at the Montclair Kimberley Academy, in Montclair, New Jersey, where I also teach comparative religion. I am particularly interested in the application of technology to education, in using effective assessment and feedback to improve student learning, and in promoting thoughtful wisdom, insight, and reflection in my students.