Ten years ago, Pooja Sankar set out to build an education technology tool that would give shy students superpowers in their college courses.
Its premise was to break the main bond between professors and students. Specifically, I felt that emails between professors and students led to inequality when it came to students who understood the material or got clarifications on how to do assignments. After all, while some students might write to their teacher for help, more conservative—and probably female—students might hold back or try to figure it all out on their own.
Sankar understood the shy student experience because it was, as she attended university in India where she was one of only three female students majoring in computer science.
So Sankar suggested an online system that would be open to everyone in the class, where when any student wrote a request for help or clarification, everyone would benefit from the answer sent by the professor or teaching assistant. Her startup called Piazza. The system is now in place in about 2,000 colleges, and her company has raised more than $15 million.
This week, Sankar announced that she will soon be stepping down as CEO, to slow down her life and spend more time with her two young children. So it seemed like a good time to ask what I’ve learned over the past decade, how COVID has changed teaching and what advice you’d give other edtech entrepreneurs.
It is common these days for entrepreneurs to brag that they launched their startup, which means that they started without outside investment. And in the early days, Sankar did just that, saving rent money by living with her brother and writing the initial code for her yard herself after completing an MBA program at Stanford University. It registered students and professors to use the product before it won any funding.
She credits her time at Stanford University for giving her the confidence to see herself as a potential founder — and the practical skills to start a company.
“I was really fortunate to enter a popular sophomore elective course on shaping new projects in the first year [student]”Because every Tuesday and Thursday there will be a founder who comes to our class at Stanford,” she told EdSurge. “Every visiting founder described their early days of forming a company in gory detail, and it shattered any myths Sankar had about the process in a good way.
“The most important thing was hearing from the founders that it wasn’t rocket science,” she said. “He just thinks deeply and steadily and goes on with everything. And of course, the element that every founder shared was, ‘Make sure it’s a problem you care deeply about, because there are going to be ups and downs and obstacles and surprises’—and things that you didn’t want to.”
Sankar made a strategic bet that went against trends in educational technology at the time. Most companies like Piazza sell their tools to colleges and other educational institutions – which is easier than convincing individual professors one by one, and perhaps even more profitable. But Sankar argued that going down this path would distract her from the problem she wanted to solve. She saw that her main clients were students, and she hoped that they would spread the word of the tool to professors once they tried it out in one or more of their classes. And this is exactly the kind of organic growth that ended up in Piazza.
But in hindsight, she acknowledged, the focus on students and professors led the company to ignore issues they might have noticed earlier. One of those problems was students’ privacy.
By 2017, EdSurge noted that some university officials were wary of Piazza’s approach, because professors were adopting the tool without supervision from university leaders who needed to make sure it was in line with data practices used elsewhere on campus. That was particularly worrying once Piazza began selling student data to third parties via a revenue model it calls “Piazza Careers,” a recruitment service that allows companies to find potential employees based on their information.
“We’ve learned,” Sankar said last week. “So there were settings that we had to adjust when we learned and heard feedback – like students by default weren’t selected because that obviously wouldn’t work with education records.”
During the pandemic, Piazza is beginning to offer an enterprise version of the service for the first time, in which administrators can choose data settings for their campuses.
However, this CEO argues that if the company had focused only on what the college administrators wanted initially, it would have hindered the main objective and led to a product less beneficial to students and professors. Other educational technology startups have borrowed from Piazza’s playbook in the meantime.
“Administrators will ask companies or startups to prioritize issues related to security and accessibility, [and those are long-term issues]Sankar said. “I basically think Piazza is where it is because we are obsessed with user experience.”
So, if her goal is to revamp the way professors and students communicate, how would you rate her efforts?
“I feel like a small part of the students [now] Getting the support in the community I was hoping to have, which is a huge win.” “And my eyes were open to the much broader demographics of students who feel isolated. Where I thought it was [an issue of] Gender… What is most striking and humble to me are students with any kind of disability or socioeconomic difference from their peer group, actual or perceived, skin color and any other differences, [meant] These students were feeling isolated.”
How has the pandemic changed classroom dynamics, with many classes forced online over the past two years due to health concerns?
“It varies across cultures and between countries,” she said. “In certain cultures, such as the Hispanic culture, where repatriated students actually care about younger siblings and have fewer PCs to share across all students, and that all siblings who are now home and homeschool and their parents may be in occupations that are not They can take time off and stay home with the kids.” That affects students’ ability to get the answers they need, she said, even if Piazza is available in the classroom.
“And so the big push that we started doing with COVID was making our website accessible on mobile because what we saw for those families and those students and those students were at a bigger disadvantage. [because] They actually had no hardware and making everything work on your mobile phone, your iPhone, your tablet, and your Samsung started to matter more. “
Sankar plans to stay with Piazza for the next few months, helping her replacement, Ethan O’Rafferty, expedite. He was recently Head of Partnerships at Amira Learning.
What’s next for Sankar? She plans to do some teaching at local colleges in the Bay Area, where she lives. She hopes she can inspire students to start businesses the way her professors at Stanford University did.