Blackboard Learn, Volmail, and the newly launched go@utk system all offer students technological ways to connect to course material.

But in professor Michael Gilchrist’s classes, Piazza — a new discussion board website — is catching on. Students love it.

“It’s a really creative way … it’s really interactive, I’ve never had anything like that,” Chase Parker, a sophomore in biological, cellular and molecular biology, said. “I think it’s a lot better than going into someone’s office and having the traditional sit down, look at paper, look at books and whatnot.”

Piazza is a free Internet question and answer forum, self-described as a “beautifully intuitive and simple product that students love and use.” The concept is similar to BlackBoard’s discussion board feature, allowing students and teachers to comment on each other’s thoughts.

It differs in that it allows other students to offer answers, collaborating on a solution. Gilchrist said he sometimes checks the site as late as midnight, and students like Parker appreciate the extended availability.

“I can be in my room at 10 o’clock and need something answered. ..." Parker said. "I obviously can’t call him or text him or something like that, but I can post on the board and he can still answer my question even after office hours."

The program is used by such premiere institutions as Cornell University and Stanford University and was featured on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website last year, which is when Gilchrist said he first heard about it.

“One of the representatives was on campus telling people about it, so last year sometime, somebody stopped by my office and told me about it,” he said.

Drawn in by the accessibility and hooked by the integration of LaTeX typing capabilities, Gilchrist enjoys the website’s "endorse" feature, which allows him to bless a collaborative student solution.

“I can be like, ‘yes, I think that this answer by the students is a good one,’” he said.

As far as Gilchrist knows, he is the only UT teacher to have implemented it in his course, and Parker said Gilchrist's class is the only one he's taken that has used Piazza.

As a student, Parker said he feels engaged in a whole new way.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s a more effective way of teaching, but it’s engaging students more outside of class," he said. "Normally when you get out of lecture or out of someone’s office hours, you put it to the side, you’re not really actively engaged in it. But when the teacher reaches out to you, it makes it easier to be actively engaged in the class.”

Parker said that the creative use of technological resources is just one of many unique methods employed by Gilchrist. He described the process of the first class, in which each willing student submitted a head shot and “little snippet” including his or her hometown, name and major.

“Basically I guess he just goes home and sits in his office, or whatever teachers do when they go back home, and just slaves away until he puts faces to names,” Parker said. “Over the next couple of weeks he starts picking out certain people, when they raise their hand he’ll call them by their exact name even though they probably never even talked to him in their life, only just spoken up in lecture.”

Parker expressed amazement that, out of a class of 140 students, Gilchrist has managed to learn nearly everyone’s name.

“Professor Gilchrist has a pretty unorthodox style of teaching that I’ve never come across,” he said.

For his part, Gilchrist said the headshots and bios of students help him to see them as individuals.

“When I look out at a sea of people, I don’t just see these unknown faces,” he explained. “It humanizes the students to me.”