Students Connect Outside the Classroom in Piazza’s Online Forums

7/24/12Follow @wroush

This spring, Piazza founder and CEO Pooja Sankar accepted an invitation to an event at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., celebrating the achievements of women. The Naval Observatory is better known as the Vice President’s Residence. Sankar knew that she would have about 10 seconds in the receiving line to explain Piazza to Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden. If there was ever a time for Sankar to think up the perfect elevator pitch, this was it.

In a blog post, Sankar says she settled on the following explanation, which she came to think of as The Sentence: “Hi. My name is Pooja Sankar. I started a company called Piazza that is used by students and teachers at all the top universities in the country to help them learn and educate better.”

Simple, restrained, and accurate. Most Silicon Valley CEOs would probably have opted for Sankar’s earlier draft of The Sentence, which was “Hi, I’m Pooja, [and I’m] building Piazza to revolutionize education using social technologies!” But she says she decided to “aim for the general and comforting rather than the specific and revolutionary.” (Jill Biden, who has a Doctor of Education degree, seemed to appreciate it, in the end. It’s not clear whether the vice president heard The Sentence.)

Sankar’s choice says a lot about her Palo Alto startup and its philosophy. Though she admits to feeling that universities are broken, slow-moving, and bureaucratic, she doesn’t talk publicly about “disrupting education” or putting the incumbents in the learning-management-systems industry out of business. She’s much more down to earth than that. The basic question that led to Piazza’s founding, she says, was “How can I help students who are stuck get unstuck?”

Piazza is the online equivalent of the lab or library reading room where university students used to hang out and help one another while they did their homework. Today’s students are often holed up in their dorm rooms at night, where they’re immersed in their laptops and iPads, Sankar says. So they rarely turn to their classmates or instructors for the coaching that might help them get through a difficult problem set. Piazza’s Web- and mobile-based software reverses that isolation, giving students a place where they can post questions when they’re stumped and help out fellow students when they do know the answer.

Piazza delivers its company FAQ via the Piazza forum interface.

A cross between a discussion forum and a wiki, Piazza is nearly as addictive as social networking, Sankar says. Students in university courses that have adopted Piazza spend an average of two to four hours per night logged into the system. “It’s that third tab, right alongside Faceebook and their e-mail,” she says. “The real-time aspect of Piazza keeps them checking in to see if there is anything they can participate in.”

While it’s still a small company (just a dozen people), Piazza has 250,000 registered users and is well-funded, with about $6 million in venture funding from Bessemer Venture Partners, Kapor Capital, Felicis Ventures, Sequoia Capital, and SV Angel. Its technology is already in use at 250 U.S. universities. Stanford University—where Pooja first tested the software while she was still an MBA student back in 2009—just adopted it as the social component for “iPad and iPhone Application Development,” an online course offered this summer through Apple’s iTunes U system.

Sankar envisions Piazza as the online social fabric supporting all types of learning, whether through organized university courses or self-paced “casual learning” channels such as Khan Academy. “Education is going to be available to a lot more people through digital delivery, but you will want some sort of platform so you can interact with peers and actually learn the content,” she says.

The idea for Piazza goes back to Sankar’s days as one of only three female engineering undergraduates at her Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus. “As a shy girl at IIT, I would get stuck [on homework assignments] because I was too shy to speak to the boys,” she says. “But today, even the more social boys in college are getting stuck because 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 take maternity leave. Sankar endorsed Mayer’s decision in a New York Times interview, pointing out that a startup can be as needy as a child and that no mother would stop feeding an older child just because she has a newborn.

“I’m totally outside of the ‘mommy wars’ discussion, so I’ve just tired to give some advice and observations as I’ve seen things,” Sankar says. In fact, she just published a blog post entitled 7 Management Secrets of the Postpartum CEO. Among the secrets: “Free help is the best help” (Sankar and her husband have four grandparents on hand to assist with diaper-changing) and “Focus on the most important thing.” That’s nursing, in Arjun’s case, and keeping the company focused, in Piazza’s.

Eventually, that focus will have to include revenue. Piazza is entirely free at the moment. Sankar thinks that if the bottom-up marketing strategy keeps working, universities will eventually see how many of faculty members and students are using it, and will want to pay Piazza for access to centralized administrative controls and analytics data.

And the more students sign up to use Piazza, the more attractive its community might become for corporate recruiters, who could advertise through the site and perhaps pay for the privilege of contacting most active and talented students.

“We don’t ever expose information that they aren’t willing to expose, but I’m sure there are many users out there who would want to show off all they’ve done,” Sankar says. “We recruit our own teams from Piazza, and there could be many other ways that third parties could benefit from the deep level of engagement we’re witnessing on Piazza.”

Up to now, thinking too hard about revenue would have “derailed us from building a great product,” Sankar says. “I didn’t want to go down any of these routes too soon, before we had created an engaging experience. But now that we have created a compelling product, there might be interesting ways to experiment.”

Just as many others in the education business are doing. Maybe it’s time for edu-tech innovators to stop being less general and comforting, and more specific and revolutionary.

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

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