Students Connect Outside the Classroom in Piazza’s Online Forums

7/24/12Follow @wroush

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with the advent of laptops and high-speed Internet in the dorm rooms, they are more isolated from their classmates.”

Sankar spent her first year at Stanford Business School convincing herself that there was a need for a “virtual place, a virtual piazza where people could come together and get unstuck.” During the summer break, she moved into her brother’s garage, learned Ruby on Rails, and built the first working version of the site. She persuaded one of her Stanford professors to use it as the social forum for a 25-student business course, but engagement was low: students left only a dozen posts over four months.

That sent Sankar back to the drawing board. She completely rebuilt the site in January 2010, making its front end more attractive and its back end more efficient. Three Stanford classrooms adopted it that spring, and engagement shot up to 50 posts per week, then 300 per week, then 1,000 per week. “Every iteration resulted in higher engagement per user,” Sankar says.

And while the system hadn’t been built with instructors in mind, Sankar says professors were writing in to say that it was saving them a lot of time. Instead of answering the same question from five students five times, they were logging into Piazza, where their answers could be seen by everyone. (But all this iteration came at a personal and somewhat ironic cost: Sankar failed her entrepreneurship course after missing too many classes.)

Piazza opened the system to any student or instructor in January 2011, and by the end of the 2010-2011 academic year, the system was being used for 65 courses at Stanford, 40 at the University of California at Berkeley, and more at MIT, Princeton, Harvard, and other leading schools. The company hasn’t done any formal marketing: instructors and students tend to spread the word on their own.

The consensus among instructors seems to be that Piazza’s forums are more interactive and social than the 1990s-style bulletin board systems that come with Moodle and Blackboard, the two big incumbents in the course management software industry.

“The non-hierarchical, interactive nature of the systems inspires a collaborative atmosphere where students are emboldened to ask questions,” writes Abir Qasem, a computer science instructor at Bridgewater College, in an April review of Piazza in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “I found that using an electronic group work tool like Piazza can require a bit more work (initially) but it is a phenomenal way to get students engaged 24/7 and in the process, create a collaborative, participative and self evolving learning ecosystem.”

Sankar emphasizes that Piazza isn’t yet a replacement for Moodle, Blackboard, or any other course management package, since those systems are also designed to handle administrative details such as enrollment, attendance, and grades. But Piazza is gradually invading their turf. This spring, for example, the startup added a “class home page” feature that allows instructors to post resources such as syllabi, lecture notes, office hours, and class announcements.

Meanwhile, Sankar has just embarked on another big project: taking care of her new baby Arjun, who was born July 2. “With Marissa Mayer’s ascension at Yahoo, I’ve been pulled into the big discussion about motherhood and CEO-hood,” she relates. Mayer is expecting a baby in October and has said, somewhat controversially, that she doesn’t intend to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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