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Transforming Education

Pooja Nath Sankar’s California-based company Piazza provides a free online Q&A platform for students to connect with their instructors.

As one of only three female students in her undergraduate computer science program at Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Pooja Nath Sankar felt one thing above all else: intense isolation.

Sankar had 50 male classmates, who were always working together and helping each other understand the class assignments. But, “I’d sit in a corner of the computer lab, too shy to ask the guys in my class to help,” she recalls. “Most times, I’d be up until 6a.m....not understanding what the specifics of the assignment question meant.”

Despite the hardships, Sankar pushed through and graduated. She went on to earn two degrees in the United States: Masters in Computer Science at the University of Maryland, and Masters in Business Administration at Stanford University in California. She worked for a few years as a software developer at leading companies like Oracle, Kosmix and Facebook.

But then, she took inspiration from the difficulties she faced as a student and created a company that is today a fast-growing Silicon Valley success story. Launched in 2011, Piazza is a free online question and answer (Q&A) platform designed to make it easier for students to find help in understanding their coursework.

The Q&A platform can be adopted by any class instructor or professor. Students can ask questions about classwork and their classmates and instructors can provide answers. There are, of course, other online Q&A websites. What makes Piazza special is that it uses Wiki-style editing, meaning students, instructors, or teaching assistants can all add or make changes to any question or answer, and readers see who made which change.

Instructors control the site and endorse good questions and answers. They can also delete unhelpful answers. This means students don’t have to wade through numerous comments to find the information they are seeking. According to Sankar, who also acts as its executive officer, “Piazza allows students to move past that stuck feeling quickly by enabling them to learn as a community and share knowledge easily, while not being overwhelmed with too much discussion.”

Instructors can also allow anonymous questions to help overcome the shyness some students may feel. They can use the platform to easily communicate with students as a group and to survey them, for example, asking if the day’s lesson was too easy, too difficult, or just right.

Piazza is being used in various courses, though it is most widely used in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The company says students spend, on an average, three hours per night on Piazza.

Based in Palo Alto, California, Piazza employs 30 people, and its Q&A platform is used by over two million students and 50,000 professors in 2,000 colleges and universities in about 90 countries. In India, it is used widely at all the Indian Institutes of Technology and in over 100 other colleges and universities, according to the company.

The platform is free to use and there is no advertising. This begs an obvious question: How does the company make a profit? For its first few years, the company made no money at all. Sankar was convinced she was providing a useful service and that she would find a way to make money at some point.

That confidence paid off. After several years of operation, Piazza found a moneymaking venture through a survey of its rapidly-growing user base, asking students to indicate which companies they would be interested in working for after they graduated. “We received over 67,000 responses in 24 hours,” says Sankar. “Based on that enthusiasm, we knew there was an opportunity to bring employers and our unique and talented community together.”

In 2014, Sankar, who lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two young children, launched a recruiting platform, called Piazza Careers. A number of companies, large and small, have signed contracts to help them recruit skilled employees, mainly in the field of technology. The client list includes Johnson & Johnson, Barclays and Lockheed Martin.

Sankar says many traditional companies are finding they now need to rapidly develop their computing capabilities. “For example, as automotive companies turn into autonomous car companies, they need experts in computer vision, and as home appliances manufacturers connect to the Internet of Things, they need software developers.” With their extensive database of student users, Piazza can help companies find a pool of potential hires, who meet their precise criteria.

Sankar’s original project to create the Q&A platform was so convincing to investors that even without a moneymaking plan in the beginning, she raised $1.5 million (Rs. 10.8 crores approximately) in seed money. Since then, the company has attracted a total of $32.2 million (Rs. 230 crores approximately) of investments. Piazza does not reveal its earnings or value, disclosing only that the average value of its recruitment contracts with companies has increased by five folds over the last year.

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.