Monday, April 9, 2012

Lights out in the Piazza

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on Pooja Sankar’s Piazza, a website that allows students to ask questions about their coursework and allows both students and their professor to post answers:

At first blush, the service seems unnecessary. Students can already e-mail questions to professors or fellow students, and most colleges already own course-management systems like Blackboard that include discussion features. But Ms. Sankar feels that such options are clunky. She says professors are finding that Piazza can save them hours each week by allowing them to post answers to a single online forum rather than handle a scattershot of student e-mails.
Says the Chronicle, “Pooja Sankar may eliminate the need for professors to hold office hours, or to endlessly respond to student questions by e-mail.”

Perhaps. But would that necessarily be a good thing? I’ll invoke my mantra about technology: Technology makes it possible to do things, not necessary to do them. And its converse: Technology makes it possible not to do things, not necessary not to do them. That it might be possible to eliminate office hours and e-mail responses doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to eliminate them. Piazza holds no appeal for me, for exactly five reasons:

1. The Chronicle, paraphrasing Sankar: “students typically keep Piazza open on their screens as they work on homework, often staying on the site for hours at a time.”¹ That habit of work hardly fosters the sustained attention to a text appropriate to English studies.

2. Working with Piazza would also seem to do little to encourage self-reliance. As one mostly enthusiastic professor quoted in the article says, “I got the feeling that students were asking the questions because that was easier than thinking.” Imagine doing a crossword puzzle as answers (perhaps correct ones) are revealed in bits and pieces. How do you look away? And if doing work in an online study hall (Sankar’s metaphor) is anything like doing work in the study halls of my high school days, it’s an exercise in gleeful communism: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Whadja get for no. 3?

3. Piazza is also touted as a means by which “shy students” can “ask questions anonymously.” With a small class, the identity of an anonymous Piazza poster might be awkwardly apparent. But even if true anonymity were attainable, the inability to ask a question of a professor or fellow student (even by e-mail) suggests a crippling social deficit that might be better addressed with therapy.

4. And speaking of e-mail: it’s a Good Thing for students to have at least some practice in communicating with their professors by e-mail. Getting the hang of such communication — informal yet professional — is good preparation for the world beyond college. And speaking of communication: many professors (though hardly all) like talking with students during office hours. Talking to professors during office hours is another Good Thing, even better: a way to engage in genuine intellectual dialogue. I think that students need all the experience they can get in such dialogue, which is less about getting answers and more about exchanging ideas and trying to solve problems.

5. And anyway, must every question have an answer? Education often involves grappling with questions for which there are no clear, immediate answers. The point is to do the thinking, the exploring, exactly the work that Piazza would seem to cut short. I’m reminded of an observation from Richard Mitchell in The Graves of Academe (1981):
The acts that are at once the means and ends of education, knowing, thinking, understanding, judging, are all committed in solitude. It is only in a mind that the work of the mind can be done.
Two related posts
How to answer a question in class (guest-post by Stefan Hagemann)
How to talk to a professor

¹ What’s with “homework”? That’s a word better left in high school.

[Post title with apologies to Elizabeth Spencer. My five reasons is sardonic: on the Internets, five is a magic number.]

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