The Tyranny of E-mail – Let’s go to the Piazza!

E-mail is probably the worst way to have an argument. Both sides tend to end up constructing long, winding and complex arguments that neither side really reads, rebutting the points that they feel they can and disregarding the rest. In truth, e-mail is the digital equivalent of “You said what?” when arguments start to fester.

It’s a shame, then, that we use such similar mechanisms in on-line fora. One student posts something, another student responds and addresses points, student one addresses some and ignores the rest and off we go. It’s a fundamentally competitive mechanism, because we do not provide an intrinsic mechanism to allow for modification of an existing statement in a way that doesn’t either appear to favour sycophancy or belligerence.

Tools like Piazza, where you can construct good answers and questions in collaboration with staff oversight, provide a completely different approach. You do not have to superimpose your answer or rebuttal over someone else, you can work with them to arrive at a new, joint answer. This is a completely different approach. It’s not even like Wikipedia where you are all sharing the same working space – in Piazza you have student space and staff space, you can provide a student refined answer and a staff refined answer. Students can work together to come up with a question and staff can work together to refine their follow-up question or teaching points.

Where all students have access to working on a common question or answer, no editing action (given that you’re reading and otherwise participating) can indicate agreement (or lack of significant dissent) but no giant bread crumb trail has to be followed. If things start heading a way that you don’t agree – join the editing process. (Falling back on staff oversight if the collaboration does happen to fall apart, but being able to constantly update and edit that staff oversight.)

Collaboration is built into Piazza as a base concept. It’s a fascinating tool and it could be handy if you find yourself having to act as the fight stopper in your on-line fora or student e-mail exchanges.

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