Piazza, an online discussion platform that allows students to ask questions about class material, was a popular service at Brown used in numerous classes, particularly in STEM courses, up until recently. But in April, the Digital Learning and Design office told professors that the University would no longer provide support for Piazza after the company switched to a paid model in November 2020, according to Jim Foley, senior associate director for digital learning and design. Months later, DLD signed a contract to use a different platform called Ed Discussion.
The pay structure Piazza offered was expensive, Foley said, and the University began to investigate other platforms to determine if staying with Piazza was the most cost-effective option.
Piazza’s shift to a paid model was the most important factor in the decision, Foley said, adding that Piazza’s history of sharing student data with employers was also a significant consideration.
The platform uses a feature called “Piazza Network,” in which the data of students who opt in to the feature is shared with employers who pay to be part of the network. According to the Piazza website, shared data includes classes taken on Piazza, whether the user is a teaching assistant or a student and a number of optional data fields such as major, graduation year, awards received, work experience and diversity indicators. The network does not share grades but does share whether a student has received a “Top Student Badge,” which is given to the student in each class that receives the most “instructor endorsements” on their submitted answers and responses, according to the Piazza website.
Before 2016, the box presented to students to opt in to the Piazza Network was pre-checked, meaning students were signed up for the service by default, according to Foley. After widespread complaints from a number of universities, the company made the box unchecked, making opt out the default.
Shortly before Piazza made that change, the University established its own agreement with the company, according to a Piazza statement in 2016. The University maintained and periodically renewed this agreement throughout the time it partnered with Piazza, Foley said. He added that the agreement ensured that students would have to actively opt in for their data to be shared, and that Piazza would be liable if there was a data breach.
Foley said Piazza reached out to revise this agreement in summer 2020 but was subsequently unresponsive to DLD.
Another concern arose when Piazza tried to show advertisements on the platform in November 2020 before establishing the paid model without giving notice to the University, Foley said. Because the company used targeted ads, DLD felt that Piazza was violating its data privacy agreement with the University, Foley added.
The advertisement experiment only lasted a couple days, but shortly afterward, Piazza informed DLD that because of the increase in use of the platform during the pandemic, the company was facing rising costs and would need to introduce a paid model, Foley said, adding that the University had until the beginning of the spring semester to sign a contract.
“We don’t do that,” Foley said. “We’re not going to get bullied into doing that.”
Several Piazza officials did not respond to multiple requests by The Herald for comment.
Instead, DLD closely analyzed a number of similar platforms during the spring semester. Ed Discussion, which also uses a paid model, emerged as the favored option, Foley said. Foley did not disclose whether there was a price difference between Ed and Piazza, but said DLD chose Ed mostly because it had better student privacy protection and accessibility.
After the office made the decision, DLD contacted every instructor that had used Piazza to alert them that the office was no longer supporting the platform, Foley said. The department also provided instructions and held one-on-one consultations about how instructors could move their classes to Ed Discussion.
Faculty who spoke to The Herald expressed gratitude for the work DLD did to support the platforms switch. “They were very responsive in terms of helping people make the transition,” Professor of Computer Science Kathi Fisler said. “Once the change was made, the staff were fantastic.”
But Fisler said she was frustrated that instructors were informed of the change so close to the beginning of the summer semester, adding that some professors use discussion platforms in complicated ways and therefore needed more time to adapt.
“Some faculty got notified at the 11th hour or 12th hour, which is definitely a bit problematic,” said Professor of Computer Science Shriram Krishnamurthi.
Fisler added that DLD also asked for feedback from professors while making the decision, but it never explained how that feedback was used in the selection of Ed. “It doesn’t give you a very good sense of what went into the decision,” she said. Fisler also wished that more faculty had been invited to be part of the meetings in which the decision was made.
Foley explained that feedback from instructors was a valuable part of the decision-making process, in particular to inform what functionality professors needed from the discussion tool.
Still, Fisler said she believes the University made the right decision. “I wasn’t sorry to see (Piazza) replaced,” Fisler said.
Before the change to the opt-in feature, Fisler said she sent her students instructions multiple times explaining how to opt out. “I made big announcements at the start of my classes saying, ‘This is what Piazza does,’” she said. “‘If you don’t approve of this, (then) this is what you have to do.’”
Krishnamurthi said that when the University announced it was no longer supporting Piazza, he stopped using the platform completely. “At that point, I could no longer tell whether (the University’s) protections of student data applied or not, ” he said.
Most instructors using online discussion platforms for this fall have made the switch to Ed Discussion, based on a search of Courses@Brown syllabi conducted by The Herald, but some instructors have decided to continue to use Piazza.
Michael Frank, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Computational Brain Science, whose class CLPS 1492: “Computational Cognitive Neuroscience” still uses Piazza, said he kept using the platform because it had worked well for him and his students in previous years. “We didn’t feel the need to switch the platform entirely,” he said.
Juan Uribe GS, the TA responsible for Piazza for ECON 1210: “Introduction to Macroeconomics,” taught by Professor of Economics Stelios Michalopoulos, said the course staff decided to continue using Piazza for similar reasons. “We decided to stick with what we know,” Uribe said, adding that he received positive feedback about Piazza from the undergraduate TAs he spoke to.
Frank and Uribe both said they were not aware of any data sharing associated with Piazza.
Piazza established separate versions for paying and nonpaying users starting August 2021, according to the Piazza website. In the free model, users do not have access to features like polls and statistics, and users are also repeatedly prompted to make an “optional financial contribution if Piazza has delivered value to them.”
Both Frank and Michalopoulos said their classes use the free version.
Piazza also now uses a different interface to ask students if they would like to opt in to the Piazza Network. The student must click either “join the network” or “don’t join the network,” with neither being a default option. But it doesn’t explicitly state that students’ data will be shared with companies if they opt in.
Foley said that he hoped the professors continuing to use Piazza would switch to Ed soon. “No one in my area feels like we need to control what faculty use. But I do have concerns about Piazza passing expenses onto students,” he said.
He emphasized that he is uneasy about Piazza’s use of student data now that there is no agreement with the University. “It’d be great to see folks on a tool we know we have a license for and … an agreement (with) where data is being protected.”