• July 29, 2014

Students Endlessly E-Mail Professors for Help. A New Service Hopes to Organize the Answers.

Students Endlessly E-Mail Professors for Help. A New Service Hopes to Organize the Answers. 1

Photo by Matt McLoone

Pooja Sankar contacts professors individually to talk to them about Piazza, her Web site that hosts course-related question-and-answer sessions.

Meet the Ed-Tech Start-Ups

It's a golden age for educational-technology start-ups. The past three years have seen a spike in venture-capital investment in upstart companies, many founded by entrepreneurs just out of college. Last month The Chronicle outlined the trend ("A Boom Time for Education Start-Ups"), but we wanted to dig deeper.

Below are short features on three such companies, focusing on the problems they hope to solve and the challenges they face in selling their unusual ideas. To get a sense of the emerging field, we've included a list of a dozen other start-ups competing for a piece of the action.

Pooja Sankar may eliminate the need for professors to hold office hours, or to endlessly respond to student questions by e-mail.

Ms. Sankar, a recent graduate of Stanford University's M.B.A. program, leads a start-up focused on finding a better way for college students to ask questions about course materials and assignments online. Her company, Piazza, has built an online study hall where professors and teaching assistants can easily monitor questions and encourage students who understand the material to help their peers.

At first blush, the service seems unnecessary. Students can already e-mail questions to professors or fellow students, and most colleges already own course-management systems like Blackboard that include discussion features. But Ms. Sankar feels that such options are clunky. She says professors are finding that Piazza can save them hours each week by allowing them to post answers to a single online forum rather than handle a scattershot of student e-mails.

Piazza is a Web site that refreshes with updates as new questions or answers come in. Professors simply set up a free discussion area for their course on the service at the beginning of the term and invite their students to set up free accounts to participate. Ms. Sankar says that students typically keep Piazza open on their screens as they work on homework, often staying on the site for hours at a time.

Ms. Sankar, who is 31, was inspired to create the service based on her own experience as an undergraduate in India, where she studied at the highly selective Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur. She says she was a shy student, and one of only three women majoring in computer science, so she often found herself watching from the wings as more social students collaborated on homework assignments. She felt there had to be a way to recreate a study hall online, in a way that made it easy for shy students to ask questions anonymously.

After graduating, she got a master's degree in computer science at the University of Maryland at College Park, and then worked as an engineer for Facebook and other companies for a few years. When she decided to head to Stanford to study business, she was sure she would not try to start a company of her own, since she found the prospect "too scary." But a course on entrepreneurship made her realize that the path to a company was simply a series of "baby steps," and that she wanted to bring her vision of a better "question-and-answer platform" to life.

She wrote the original version of Piazza herself, after teaching herself the programming language Ruby on Rails from a book. By the time she first sought investors, she already had hundreds of students using the service. She raised an initial round of $1.5-million last year from the venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital, and raised an additional $6-million from investors in November.

As of yet, the site has no plans to generate revenue—the service is free and does not carry advertisements. Ms. Sankar said that she didn't write a business plan for the site, because she doesn't believe in them, and that she believes that once a critical mass of students and professors are signed up, revenue models can emerge. When pressed, she says that in the future the company may charge for advanced analytics for professors or other extra features.

She spends much of her time seeking feedback from users and obsessively tinkering with the service in hopes of improving it. "I am an engineer at heart," she explains.

To spread the word about the site, she has taken an unusually personal approach. She sends e-mail messages to professors telling her story and the goal of the site, and asking them to try it.

Greg Morrisett, a computer-science professor at Harvard University, got one of those e-mails. He said he was curious, but he was concerned that the site's policy noted that it claimed ownership over comments posted on the site, which Mr. Morrisett felt violated Harvard's policies. So he wrote back to Ms. Sankar and said he wasn't able to use it. "Ten minutes later she wrote back and said, 'We fixed the policy,'" the professor recalls. (Users now own their own posts.) So he gave it a shot.

Mr. Morrisett largely praises the service, which he is using in a freshman programming class of about 200 students. He gets an e-mail every time a student asks a question in Piazza, as do his teaching assistants. "I get a sense of what students don't understand and what is causing them problems," he adds. He also uses the site to identify talented students he could employ in the future—"I looked at the students answering the most questions, and those are the students I asked to be teaching fellows this year."

But he notes one drawback of Piazza that he is now wrestling with. The service is so easy for students to use that he worries people are using it as a crutch. "I got the feeling that students were asking the questions because that was easier than thinking," Mr. Morrisett said. He is considering instituting a policy of intentionally leaving questions unanswered for the first 24 hours, to encourage students to work things out on their own.

Ms. Sankar said her biggest challenge is convincing professors that they can use a technology tool that is not officially endorsed by their colleges. She intentionally does not seek out deals with campus technology offices because she feels that what type of tool to use should be left up to individual faculty members.

That's a shift that could change the way technology is supported on campuses.


A Sampling of Start-Ups

Aristotle Circle: Admissions advice network

Boundless Learning: Free open textbooks

Edmodo: Social networks for education

EverFi: Life-skills education

Desmos: Interactive educational software

Fidelis: Career-transition education for military veterans

GoodSemester: Open online course platform

Grockit: Social test preparation

iversity: Online course and research organizer

MindSnacks: Language learning

MyEdu: Personalized degree planning

ScholarPRO: Scholarship matching service

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