What happens when students create their own collaboration tools?

I teach technology and innovation to working professional MBA students who are changing courses and teams every ten weeks. Collaboration tools are critical to our effectiveness. Over the last two years, my courses have served as testing grounds for two locally-grown, student-designed tools: Acceledge and Piazza. These tools, as well as other student-built offerings, such as Coursekit, are the result of a growing student frustration with “old-school” collaboration.

My students come to class straight from their jobs at a variety Silicon Valley firms large and small. They are required to do team projects, and  much of the team work is virtual. They tell me they have the following requirements for collaboration tools:

  • Privacy. While they are interested in sharing examples from work, they don’t want these examples available publicly.
  • Threaded/searchable Q&A with the answers coming from both students and faculty.
  • Ability to share relevant links and files for commentary. Basically Facebook for the classroom.
  • A simple, clear calendar with readings and due dates available at a glance (in other words, project management tools).

And there’s also my additional requirement: On-line quizzes with a gradebook that supports the U.S. regulations for educational privacy.

While all faculty at my university have access to Angel (a Blackboard course management system) (s BBBB), in my classes, I’m happy to beta-test student-built tools, and I find especially interesting the simplicity offered by these solutions. An effective collaboration application is not about how many features the tool has — it’s about getting the task done.


Screen shot of AcceledgeThis term I used Acceledge, founded by one of my students, as my main course management tool instead of Angel. It’s a custom-built tool, based on the open-source Moodle learning platform. Its simplicity is what drew me to say “yes” to the trial. Because of the customizations added on top of the Moodle base, the students only saw the features they told me they needed — there was no wiki, and no deep detail around each topic.


Piazzza screen shotPooja Nath, Founder and CEO of Piazza, was still an MBA student at Stanford when she approached me two years ago about trying her Q&A tool. From the Piazza site:

I started Piazza so every student can have that opportunity to learn from her classmates. Whether she’s too shy to ask, whether she’s working alone in her dorm room, or whether her few friends in her class don’t know the answer either.

I want Piazza to be a remedy for students who are not given the intellectual space, freedom, or support to fulfill their educational potential and desire for learning. And I want Piazza to empower instructors to have a positive, personal impact on more students.

Piazza is designed to connect students, TAs, and professors so every student can get help when she needs it — even at 2AM.

Again, the simplicity and student-focus is what made me say “yes” to the trial. The only repeat complaint I’ve had from students is about the quality of some the questions posted by their classmates and the fact that Piazza is not an integral part of the overall course management tool. Both my students and I find huge benefit in the control they have over when and how they see questions.


The University of Pennsylvania is apparently feeling the same push by students to take control of their collaboration space. Coursekit is the result of frustration on the part of Wharton undergraduate Joseph Cohen (cofounder & CEO). From the Coursekit site:

We started Coursekit out of frustration with existing school software.

We’ve re-imagined what a class should look like online. We give instructors and students amazingly designed tools to manage their courses — gradebook, calendaring, file management — and we make it unbelievably easy to interact with one another.

We believe that there’s a lot more to class than lecture. Post links, videos, files. Start discussions. Write a blog post. Ask about an assignment. Classes are meant to be social, but they rarely are. We’re changing that.

There is much to be learned from the priorities of students with multiple courses (projects) functioning in self-managing teams. They aren’t looking for bells and whistles; they are looking to simplify and be effective. We can all learn from these students’ experiences and perspectives: Translate academic team project to basic team work, gradebook to performance appraisal, and you have a web working environment with needs similar to those of most organizations.

Take the students’ perspective for the moment — frankly, we are all students in this quickly-changing environment — how could simplification enhance your projects? What is the minimum viable product for your setting?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Harry Wood