6.0001/2, 6.009, and 8.02 switch away from Piazza

Lecturers Adam Hartz and Peter Dourmashkin say student privacy concerns are main cause

This semester, 6.0001/2 (Introduction to Computer Science Programming in Python and Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science), 6.009 (Fundamentals of Programming), and 8.02 (Physics II) have switched away from Piazza, a free third-party discussion platform, for their class Q&A forums.

6.0001/2 switched to Ed Discussion, an alternate third-party platform. 6.009 switched to “the forum,” a site instructor Adam Hartz ’11 built using the platform Discourse, an open-source software. 8.02 switched to a MITx discussion forum hosted on the MITx Residential platform.

All three platforms allow students and instructors to discuss questions and allow anonymity between students and their classmates. Unlike Piazza, the platforms do not categorize posts into “student,” “instructor,” and “follow-up discussion” spaces, instead simply displaying the post, author, and author’s position.

Ed is similar to Piazza in look and use, with questions on the left-hand side that can be clicked on to bring up a question and comments that follow it. Unlike Piazza, instructors can also prefill the question box to make it more form-like and easily download all usernames and posts to examine class data. Additionally, code can be run within the platform itself for easier debugging.

The 6.009 forum is more message-board-like. Students can sort by latest and top posts, as well as by categories, such as “Labs,” “Lectures,” and “Announcements.” Unlike Piazza and Ed, the forum is a single panel interface: students cannot see both the list of all questions and the thread corresponding to a single question at once.

8.02’s MITx discussion forum is built into its MITx site and categorizes forum posts by problem set and weekly course material. The platform does not support private posts.

Hartz and 8.02 lecturer Peter Dourmashkin ’76 both said in interviews with The Tech that student privacy was the main cause of switching away from Piazza.

Hartz said, “First and foremost, the biggest concern I have, not only with Piazza but any kind of third-party cloud-based system, is who are we sharing our student data with and what are they doing with those data?” Hartz was especially concerned because students on Piazza not only ask questions about class material, but also often post privately about personal concerns or medical issues. 

Dourmashkin echoed these concerns, adding that even if Piazza’s current terms of service protected student privacy, if Piazza were acquired, student data then be owned by a different company that could be less protective. As an example, Dourmashkin pointed to Gradescope, a commonly used grading software at MIT that was acquired by Turnitin in 2018.

Several years ago, MIT “added language to central Procurement’s vendor and independent contractor forms to protect any disclosure of information” to “ensure that third party developers have appropriate safeguards in place and adhere to Section 11 of the MIT Policies and Procedures and with any applicable federal and state law,” Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz wrote in a statement emailed to The Tech.

However, Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVicenzo wrote in an email to The Tech, this only applies when MIT engages “at an institutional level” with vendors. “There is no required approval process for class administrators when choosing third-party learning systems.” 

Furthermore, the Office of Open Learning only supports in-house systems like the Residential MITx platform and has “no role in dealing with third party platforms like Piazza,” wrote Krishna Rajagopal, dean of digital learning, and Sheryl Barnes, director of digital learning in residential education, in a statement emailed to The Tech.

In 2014, Piazza announced its new corporate recruiting service based on selling student data, Piazza Careers. In 2016, a blog post on educational publication site e-Literate noted that although Piazza claimed that the Piazza Careers was opt-in, the sign-up page to Piazza included a pre-checked box for signing up for the program. Companies could then see student profile information and their performance in courses.

Additionally, several universities, including UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and the University of Toronto, voiced their concerns.

Piazza responded by stating that they “made a mistake by not engaging and responding to a way befitting of the trust placed in us” and reiterated that Piazza Q&A is FERPA compliant. Piazza also entered formal agreements with several universities.

MIT does not have a contract with Piazza, DiVicenzo wrote. DiVicenzo also wrote that the Office of the General Counsel is “not aware of any recent complaints regarding third-party learning providers.” 

Piazza’s current privacy policy states that it collects a variety of data, including account registration information, course information such as announcements and syllabi, user profile information, posts and messages, user service requests, IP addresses, general location information, clicks, and internet service provider. 

Piazza uses this data for notifications, user communication, and service provision. Piazza also anonymizes and aggregates such data for research and marketing purposes. Additionally, Piazza states that in the case of a business transfer, it may disclose information to another company. 

Hartz said that he had been thinking for years about the student privacy issue, but until now had not had the time to set up a new system where students would only have to share data with the instructors. He selected Discourse because he was familiar with the platform, understood that it had the necessary features, and knew that it was relatively easy to set up. After speaking with fellow 6.009 instructors, Hartz set up Discourse on an MIT server. 

In addition to addressing privacy concerns, Discourse can be easily modified, making it possible to integrate CAT-SOOP in the future, Hartz said. CAT-SOOP is a “programmable learning management system” originally developed for 6.01(Introduction to EECS via Robotics) and used by many Course 6 classes. 

Hartz also appreciates the more forum-like user experience of the new system, as it promotes more discussion and problem guidance, rather than simply providing answers. Lastly, Discourse allows Hartz more control over who can see certain posts. With Piazza, classes could differentiate between instructors and students; with Discourse, Hartz can distinguish between instructors, LAs, and students, such that some private notes will only be seen by instructors. 

Tomasik wrote that privacy came to instructors’ attention around 2017, and instructors talked with a few vendors for discussion platforms “before deciding that the safest way to protect student data was to just use the MITx in-house one.”

Dourmashkin said that he recognized that MITx, compared to a private company, is much slower at adding features, and the discussion software is much less sophisticated than Piazza’s. 

Dourmashkin said it was beneficial that moving discussions from Piazza to MITx reduced the number of websites that students needed to access for the class, as students must already use both Stellar and MITx. 

Ed, like Piazza, is another third party platform. 6.0001/2 instructor Ana Bell said that “a while ago” she became aware of how “cluttered” Piazza’s student-facing user interface was, with its front page ads for job searches. Then, this semester Ed reached out to her, pitching a “Piazza-like” but more customizable platform. Harvard’s CS50 class had also used Ed with success. 

Bell said that student privacy briefly arose in her choice to select Ed, as she realized from the Ed salesperson that Piazza was profiting in more ways than just showing ads. She is also an instructor in 6.009, which discussed student privacy and Piazza in instructor meetings.

Ed’s privacy policy states that it collects a variety of data, such as student posts and IP addresses, and is FERPA compliant. Ed states that it only uses such data for notifications, service maintenance and improval, and customer service and does not sell the information to third parties. However, it states that if its business assets are acquired, user information may also be transferred to the acquiring company. 

Hartz said he was originally concerned about students being less likely to ask questions, as the platform was less familiar than Piazza. In actuality, the number of weekly posts this semester has been higher than in the fall. 

Emma Wang ’23 said in an interview with The Tech that she found the forum and Piazza to be equally functional, although the forum is prettier. 

Dourmashkin said students have posted less on MITx than they did on Piazza. Tomasik wrote that 8.02 “had never promoted the discussion platform in class when we used Piazza, so we didn't expect that when we switched we would have to do so much more promotion.”

“As a response to the poor use last semester, we are making more of an effort this semester to alert students to the existence of the discussion section and promote its use,” Tomasik wrote.

Niki Kim ’23 wrote in an email to The Tech that MITx questions seem mostly to be about technical aspects of MITx, such as when a submit button is broken, rather than about course content. Kim wrote that she has not posted on MITx and does not feel inclined to, as there is little activity on the discussion forum, especially compared to Piazza. 

Shan Shan Huang ’22 said that she finds Ed and Piazza to be functionally the same and has no preference between the two. She said, however, that she would prefer classes to require fewer websites. 

None of the students were concerned about student privacy. Huang and Wang said that they had not given much thought to the issue. Kim wrote that she is not “particularly concerned with third parties like Piazza having my student data,” as “students don't utilize Piazza enough for them to do any harm with the information of us that they have.” In addition, Kim wrote that she believes “all the harm that can be done … has already been done,” pointing, as an example, to the scam emails she already receives. 

Hartz plans to continue using Discourse for his classes; in addition to 6.009, he has taught both 6.01 and 6.003 (Signals and Systems). While he plans to continue discussing student privacy concerns and alternatives to Piazza with other instructors, he said he does not plan to be an “evangelist” for Discourse. 

Bell plans to try Ed for the EdX version of 6.0001/2. She hopes that it will be better, “especially for community TAs,” students in the EdX class who elect to help fellow students, “since they have many issues with EdX forums as they are now.” She pointed out that private posts are not allowed in the EdX forums, which makes it difficult for community TAs to debug, as students cannot paste their code into questions without all students seeing their code.