Thanks to Phil Soffer and the folks at education platform Piazza.com for building a terrific platform, and recognizing me as their Innovator of the Week. In a write-up on the company blog, Soffer described how I use the online service to teach Contemporary Civilization at Columbia:
[T]he first thing he does is make a group of students responsible for summarizing the readings as a team and publishing their findings to their peers. … The team structure creates accountability among the students …. But beyond that, when students see other students participating, the best ones want to play along. … The second thing it does is create a collective understanding of what’s interesting in the readings before the seminar happens. If you can do that, you’re more likely to generate interesting discussions when the students are together. “In a sense, first comes fear (a spur), then comes love — the interesting ideas of their peers,” Neer told us.
Does Bob worry that collaborative technologies are going to diminish students’ personal engagement with the material or substitute peers’ banal observations for the more profound insights on offer from leading scholars? Not much, it turns out. “Columbia has the intellectual resources to teach the course differently: a lecture hall for 1,100 students with a world expert on Plato to teach the Republic, a superior Bible scholar to teach Matthew and so on. It would be much cheaper and administratively easier,” he told us. “But the whole point of the exercise is to foster collaboration: to achieve in the real world what Piazza and technologies like it seek to accomplish online. Since I have experienced first-hand the power of this approach, and am consequently a big supporter, my conclusion is: the more collaboration the better, in general. As the ever-excellent David Hume observed in the text I taught today: man is both a rational and a social animal. In other words, thinking alone about hard problems only engages part of our abilities.”
Piazza is the best generally available free online discussion tool for educators, in my opinion. My students tried both this service and WordPress this year and voted overwhelmingly for Piazza. Note: I have no relationship with Piazza other than using the free service.