Students Connect Outside the Classroom in Piazza’s Online Forums

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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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