A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Online Discussion Tools

By Colleen Kearney Rich on May 31, 2013

Jeff Offutt
Volgenau School of Engineering

Jeff Offutt

Jeff Offutt

When Mason software engineering professor Jeff Offutt was invited to teach in Sweden, he was flattered but knew there was no way he could be away from his work and responsibilities in the United States for an extended time. So he decided to look into online tools that could make it possible, a decision that has changed how he teaches.

What he found was a free discussion board called Piazza, which he now uses in all his classes. “With other products, I had trouble getting students to participate,” he says. “With Piazza, 80 percent participated more than was required in the syllabus—some of them way more.”

Offutt credits the product’s user interface and its ease of use for its appeal to students, which is high praise coming from someone who teaches courses on software usability.

“Computing majors tend to attract a lot of introverted people,” says Offutt. “Many of them find it much easier to speak out online. I have people who are very active online but never say a word in class.”

Offutt has been collecting data about his classes and analyzing the results. For that first course in collaboration with the University of Svode and Linkoping in Sweden, for which Offutt was a finalist for a Governor’s Technology Award, the online class discussions would’ve taken up about five hours, twice the length of a normal weekly class meeting.

“Piazza gives them a chance to have longer deeper discussions about the topic, longer than we have time for in the classroom.”

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