How Piazza Helps with Homework (and More)
One of the most frustrating experiences in school is sitting up late at night struggling with a homework assignment. There is no one to ask for help, no professor who can provide clarity on a problem. Searching the Web for assistance can be time consuming and ultimately fruitless. Sometimes the only way to grasp a tough topic is to ask someone who is going through the same course.
But what if you don't really know your classmates? What if you're afraid of reaching out to them for help?
That is where Piazza comes in. CEO Pooja Sankar was kind enough to speak about the platform and the many ways it can help students tackle their studies.
A piece of Piazza
Piazza is a platform that allows students to post queries and have them answered by their peers or a teacher. Sankar's own scholastic experiences inspired her to start the service. In school, instructors were not always available to field her queries, and she did not feel comfortable enough to ask her classmates for help.
"We were all in the same computer lab in my college in India, and there were very, very few women. It was just myself and two other girls. And those two girls had places and times of their own that they worked while all the boys would work together til 2 or 3 a.m."
Sankar said that part of this gender separation and awkwardness may have come from the values of India.
"I grew up in a very, very traditional part of India from the ages of 11 to college where boys and girls simply did not talk to each other, it was not allowed in the society. And so I went to an all-girls high school, and all these boys who I'm going to college with now, most of them all went to an all-boys high school. And so when the time came for us to sit in one computer lab, they were just so awkward about talking to me and I was so awkward about talking to them that I ended up doing all my homework by myself while they got the help with each other."
The problem is that too many students feel this way no matter what background they are from. Sankar realized this while listening to a talk given by Sheryl Sandberg.
"In 2008 I was a software engineer at Facebook and I used to think this problem of feeling isolated in college was purely my own problem, and then Sheryl Sandberg held a session for women in engineering. I remember many women who had gone to prestigious American universities like Stanford, MIT, and Berkeley stood up and shared their experiences of feeling isolated and feeling too shy to ask male classmates questions. This was really eye-opening, that it wasn't just about women in India. It was also happening with women in America."
After learning that the problem was more universal than she originally realized, Sankar came up with an idea to provide the assistance students felt was missing.
A time saver
Even with the wealth of technology and information at their fingertips, students still need guidance. Recent advancements have done more to separate students, in Sankar's mind.
"With the advent of technology, with laptops and with high-speed internet in dorm rooms, more and more students now resort to working in more isolated places, and when they get stuck there's no longer that environment where all of the students were forced to actually study and work in the same physical location. There are fewer people they're able to rely on to get un-stuck."
Becoming "un-stuck" can be difficult for many reasons. The first is that professors only have so much time to devote to student inquiries.
"If you think about it, professors get asked tons of questions. There's the questions asked by, say, the top five percent of students that no other student can really answer and the professor has to engage deeply, one-on-one really brainstorming out loud with the student. Then there's the bottom five percent of class that deeply needs the professor's one-on-one attention because they're just so far below the curve that they really need a lot of help to understand basic concepts. That leaves this middle 90 percent where everyone can just help each other, and that actually frees up them up so that they can spend their time with that top five percent and the bottom five percent."
Sankar said that Piazza is saving educators anywhere from 10-15 hours a week because they no longer have to answer the same question in multiple forms and other students can chime in with help. Educators are also finding that they can see where confusion is cropping up in a course and make corrections to lessons and teaching methods. There is, however, another benefit to submitting questions online.
The safety of anonymity
The fear of asking questions out loud can drive many students to remain silent, as evidenced by Sankar's personal experiences as well as the one's she heard during Sandberg's talk. It is not just women who have this fear.
"Even many men feel scared asking questions in class, but the truth is you're a bit more comfortable asking people like yourself just because there's relevance, there's context, there's empathy."
Knowing that they can pose a question anonymously to their classmates and/or professor may help students who do not feel comfortable raising their hand in class. No longer will students retreat to a dark corner of the school and work independently, struggling alone. They can post their question to the class forum on Piazza and have it answered.
And Piazza is working for many students. Sankar recalled a conversation she had with a Princeton student who uses the platform.
"I remember speaking to an undergrad woman in Princeton who told me that she was taking one non-technical class and one technical class, and...she thought going into the semester she would find the technical class much harder, but with Piazza she actually not only found it much easier but much more enjoyable."
Creating a spin-off
As with a lot of technology, the initial use is rarely the way that people work with a product over time. The product evolves in new, unintended ways. The same has become true with Piazza.
"I thought this would be purely kind of a Q&A site where students could go ask questions and other students and instructors could answer. Very quickly professors loved the user experience, the product, the interface. They started posting announcements not on their schools' learning management system but on Piazza because the interface was that much cleaner. From there it became course materials, polls, and quizzes. They post clicker questions, where they post a poll in the middle of a class, and their students take out the mobile apps for Piazza and vote. Professors can then see in real time whether students are confused or if they've understood the material."
Not only are professors using Piazza in new and exciting ways, the company itself is branching out into different applications for the platform. They just launched Piazza Careers, a way to help students connect with companies who have job openings.
"We used to just put a link that said 'Join Our Team' and we would get a ton of inbounds from students through that. Then it dawned on us: this is a unique opportunity. So in 2013 we posed questions to our students to find out 'Which of these companies would you want to connect with?' And the responses from students were overwhelming. In 24 hours, I remember we got over 67,000 company selections from students, so just a humongous amount. Students absolutely see finding a career as a next obvious step. And so that was enough of a signal for us to know we had to build a platform on top of the core Q&A platform that connects companies and students."
Through Piazza Careers, students can connect with each other and discuss career options, share information about potential job openings, and receive helpful career advice. All of this from a platform that was just meant to help students find the answers to homework questions.
Piazza just reached a million students using the platform this year, spread out over 1,000 colleges in 68 countries. And Sankar does not intend to stop there. She has a clear vision of where she wants Piazza to be.
"I would say in six months we're really excited to bring on the next kind of wave of companies and build really high-quality connections between students and companies. Over the next year, a great goal for us is to have transformed how college recruiters even think about setting university recruiting strategies. In about five years, I'm really excited to create an entirely new ecosystem between college recruiters, recent grads, college students, alumni, you know, that creates new interactions that couldn't have been possible today."
If the past is any indication, the future should be bright for Sankar and Piazza.
Interview with Pooja Sankar, CEO of Piazza, conducted by Jamar Ramos, March 13, 2014