A hypothetical (or, for many, a very real) scenario: you’re stuck on a problem set. It’s four in the morning, and you have only six hours left to tackle that seemingly impossible problem, shower (it’s been a few days) and survive the long haul to your teaching assistant’s office just to hand in your hard work.
So, where can you turn for help? Let’s be honest — your professor went to bed long before you even started your homework. You’re not quite on a texting basis with your classmates. Everyone in your fluorescent-lit dorm — with the exception of that insomniac kid who spends every night playing Internet backgammon — is asleep.
“Stuck? Need help? Just ask.” That’s the tagline of www.piazzza.com.
Perhaps best described as the mule of Coursework and Wikipedia, Piazzza is an online — and, consequently, 24/7 — homework helper.
Piazzza, whose name comes from the Italian word “piazza” (a common place for people to come together), aims to mimic the classroom setting. Using a question-and-answer format, students, TAs and professors alike can post questions and offer answers. Piazzza employs a wiki-forum interface to facilitate online discussion, whereby users can repeatedly edit each other’s answers so as to ultimately produce a single, comprehensive answer to each question.
Pooja Nath, founder and CEO of Piazzza and recent graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business, was inspired by her undergraduate experience. One of four women in a computer science class of 60 at IIT Kanpur (India), she said she empathized with any confused and helpless student.
“I’d been in students’ shoes — frustrated, up late nights, unable to get help on problem sets when I needed it,” Nath said. “Existing solutions didn’t cut it . . . I was too shy to interact with the majority of my classmates. The few I knew often would be stuck like me.”
It was Nath’s experience in the working world — she has held jobs at Oracle, Kosmix and Facebook — that taught her the value of personalized mentorship. Later, as she was completing her two-year master’s at Stanford this past spring, Nath finally recruited a group of developers and brought Piazzza into fruition.
In its initial stages, Piazzza started out in private beta.
The Piazzza team had to reach out directly to professors, who then introduced the website to their students. Developers have worked all summer to improve the website in preparation for public launch this autumn quarter — and upping last quarter’s user count of 200 tenfold.
Professor Peter DeMarzo of the Graduate School of Business, one of the first to experiment with Piazzza in the classroom, affirmed that he would continue utilizing the website in future classes. For him, Piazzza helped most in reducing e-mail traffic of the same question over and over.
The big advantage for my class was the fact that teaching assistants could answer a question once and many students could see that answer,” DeMarzo said. “This became a repository available to all the students.”
Despite its usefulness, Marzo noted that Piazzza was not without its flaws. He disliked the website’s option for users to show up anonymous.
“It was more effective when questions were not anonymously asked versus anonymously asked,” he observed. “People were just more thoughtful about their questions when it wasn’t anonymous.”
Another likely concern about anonymity concerns the honor code: would easily accessible information on the Piazzza wiki-forum provide more opportunities to cheat?
“We actually haven’t had professors running into honor code issues,” said Ravi Sankar ‘12, a Piazzza team member. “I think part of it is that professors tell their students what’s reasonable. And out of respect for their professor, even if they’re able to be anonymous, it seems like students have been observing that.”
Sankar’s unique perspective as both a Piazzza user and developer has helped him define clear objectives for the product. One was trying to build a sense of online community among classmates. The developers have also sought to exploit game mechanics, which would incentivize students to post more frequently.
“We have this sidebar that says, like, ‘X person answered this question in less than three minutes — for the win,’” described Sankar. After conducting more than 50 hours of surveys, the developers learned that users — even non-computer science majors — enjoyed playing this virtual game that they had, in a sense, invented for themselves.
To use or not to use: that is the question. Those students who already have suitable study groups may not be jumping for joy at the thought of another homework helper. But for new students about to dive headfirst into their freshman year, Piazzza may be something of a lifejacket.
“With Piazzza, collaboration becomes flexible and it complements the classroom experience anytime, anywhere with anyone,” summarized Cyrus Khajvandi ‘11, another Piazzza team member. “I wish I had Piazzza when I first came to college.”