August 18, 2022

Homework Help Site Has a Social Networking Twist

“Back then, no one owned a laptop, there was no Internet in the dorm rooms. So everyone in my class would be working in the computer lab together,” she said. “But all the guys would be communicating with each other, getting help so fast, and I would be on the sidelines just watching.”

The experience as a young woman in that culture formed the foundation of her start-up in Silicon Valley, Piazza. Ms. Nath, who was the first woman from her hometown to attend the prestigious engineering school and later escaped an arranged marriage to become an entrepreneur, conceived of the site for homework help in 2009 during her first year at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Students post questions to their course page, which peers and educators can then respond to. Instructors moderate the discussion, endorse the best responses and track the popularity of questions in real time. Responses are also color-coded, so students can easily identify the instructor’s comments.

Although there are rival services, like Blackboard, an education software company, Piazza’s platform is specifically designed to speed response times. The site is supported by a system of notification alerts, and the average question on Piazza will receive an answer in 14 minutes.

“The whole idea of Piazza stems from the dynamics that I observed at I.I.T. From the sidelines I saw how effective it was to get immediate help, from peers in the same room,” Ms. Nath, 30, said.

Piazza, the Italian term for a public square, is part of a growing group of technology start-ups hoping to disrupt the education market. Its peers include Kno and Inkling, two platforms for interactive, digital textbooks. The trend has also given birth to its own Silicon Valley-based incubator, Imagine K12, which announced its first batch of investments in June.

“Education is a big focus area for us. You’re going to see big fundamental shifts in the way education is performed,” said Aydin Senkut, an investor in Piazza who made his fortune as an early Google employee. “With Piazza, it’s about turning data into actionable intelligence. We want to empower people to ask and answer questions, and we’re going to measure every aspect of it.”

Piazza’s own metrics are promising. The average user, according to the company’s data, spends two to three hours a day on the site. The company has just raised $1.5 million in financing from several prominent Silicon Valley backers, including Sequoia Capital, Ron Conway and Mr. Senkut, the founder of Felicis Ventures.

Relying heavily on word of mouth, Piazza has expanded from roughly three colleges to more than 330 in the last year. At Stanford, the first to start using the service, more than half of the undergraduates are registered users. As in the case of Facebook, the wildly popular social network that sprang from a Harvard dorm room, the close-knit nature of college campuses has helped accelerate the adoption of Piazza.

Jennifer Rexford, a computer science professor at Princeton, started using Piazza for her programming systems class last semester. The platform, which replaced the traditional classroom e-mail list, helped her reduce her office hours and respond to student questions faster. It also turned into an unexpected resource for grading; at the end of the semester she used Piazza’s statistics on participation to reward the most “helpful” students.

“Piazza gave the students a community, especially in the middle of the night, when the instructors were sleeping,” Professor Rexford said. “The students were more interactive in general, and it was a time saver all-around.”

Despite its early success, Piazza is still struggling to increase its adoption and find a road to profitability.

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