Instructor Insights

Managing an Online Forum

In this section, Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes, both teaching assistants in 6.034 Artificial Intelligence, share their insights about managing Piazza, an online forum students use to ask questions about course content. They identify advantages of using the online forum, as well as challenges it has presented and how course staff members have addressed those challenges.

"[T]he forum serves as an archive of commonly asked questions from previous years, which we can look through to identify potentially confusing topics. This serves to remind us which concepts are difficult for students who are approaching the subject for the first time."
— Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes

Advantages of Using an Online Forum

Students use an online forum, called Piazza, to ask questions about the content of the course. One of the advantages of using the online forum is that when we, as teaching assistants, respond to a student’s question, our response becomes visible to everyone. This allows us to provide a single unified answer to each of the most common questions, rather than responding separately to many students through e-mail.

The forum is also helpful for students who might otherwise not be willing to ask questions. With the forum, it’s likely they’ll see their question asked by another student, along with a teaching assistant’s response. Additionally—and we love when this happens—students often answer each other’s questions on the forum. This not only takes some of the burden off of the teaching assistants, but also enables students to master a new concept by explaining it to others.

Finally, the forum serves as an archive of commonly asked questions from previous years, which we can look through to identify potentially confusing topics. This serves to remind us which concepts are difficult for students who are approaching the subject for the first time.

Implementation Challenges

Despite the advantages of the online forum, we haven’t always implemented it smoothly. One of the dangers of an always-on forum is that students expect immediate responses to their questions. In 2012, when we first used the forum, we didn’t set expectations about our response times, so students were sometimes frustrated when their questions didn’t get answered right away. We also didn’t set expectations about forum etiquette. This was a problem because students who are anonymous on the Internet would occasionally make comments online that they would never make in person. Because of these issues, the forum was not as successful as we had hoped it might be and we didn’t use it for the following two years.

Addressing the Challenges 

This semester, however, we reinstantiated the online forum, and, to a great extent, rectified the problem of students expecting immediate responses: As soon we activated the forum, we told students what to expect in terms of response time. We made it clear that while we would try to answer all questions within a reasonable amount of time, we wouldn’t guarantee a response time of less than 24 hours. This disclaimer was beneficial to students as well as teaching assistants—after all, we didn’t want students to stay up late waiting for responses. Part of our student-centered ethic is that we try to encourage students to get adequate sleep. To reinforce this message, we made it a principle not to reply after midnight.

To address the issue of poor forum etiquette, we used a Piazza setting that allowed students to be anonymous to each other, if they wanted, but never anonymous to teaching assistants. Even though very shy students might have been reluctant to post, we found that this setting discouraged others from making unhelpful and potentially hurtful comments. Overall, we found that the forum was much more positive and conducive to learning after we adopted this setting.

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