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What One Startup Founder Learned in Her Quest to Change How Profs Communicate With Students

Ten years ago, Pooja Sankar set out to build an edtech tool that gave shy students superpowers in their college courses.

Her premise was that a key link between professors and students was broken. Specifically, she felt that emails between professors and students led to inequalities when it came to which students understood material or got clarifications on how to do assignments. After all, while some students might write in to their teacher for help, more-reserved students—perhaps more likely to be female students—might hang back or try to figure it all out by themselves.

Sankar understood the shy student experience because she had been one herself, having gone to college in India where she was one of only three female students majoring in computer science.

So Sankar proposed an online system that would be open to everyone in a class, where when any student wrote in asking for help or clarification, all would benefit from the answer posted by the professor or a teaching assistant. She called her startup Piazza. The system is now in place at around 2,000 colleges, and her company has raised more than $15 million.

This week, Sankar announced that she will soon step down as CEO, to slow her life down and spend more time with her two young children. So it seemed like a good time to ask what she learned over the past decade, how COVID has changed teaching and what advice she has for other edtech entrepreneurs.

It’s popular these days for entrepreneurs to brag that they bootstrapped their startup, meaning they started out without outside investment. And in the earliest days, Sankar did just that, saving rent money by living with her brother and writing the initial code for Piazza herself after finishing an M.B.A. program at Stanford University. She signed up students and professors to use the product before she won any funding.

She credits her time at Stanford for giving her the confidence to see herself as a potential founder—and the practical skills to start a company.

“I was really lucky to get into a second-year popular elective on formation of new ventures as a first-year [student],” she told EdSurge. “Because every Tuesday and Thursday there’d be a founder coming to our class at Stanford,” she added. Each visiting founder described their early days forming a company in gory detail, and it shattered any myths Sankar had about the process, in a good way.

“The most grounding thing was hearing from founders that it wasn’t rocket science,” she said. “It’s just thinking deeply and consistently and persisting through everything. And of course, an element that every founder shared was, ‘Make sure it’s a problem you care deeply about, because there will be ups and downs and hurdles and surprises’—and things you just didn’t want.”

Sankar made a strategic bet that went against the trends in edtech at the time. Most companies like Piazza work to sell their tools to colleges and other educational institutions—which is easier than convincing individual professors one by one, and potentially more lucrative. But Sankar argued that going that route would distract her from the problem she wanted to solve. She saw her main customers as students, who she hoped would spread word of the tool to professors once they had experienced it in one or more of their classes. And that’s exactly the kind of organic growth that ended up happening for Piazza.

In hindsight, though, she admits that a focus on students and professors led the company to ignore issues they probably should have noticed sooner. One of those issues was student privacy.

By 2017, EdSurge noted that some college administrators were wary of Piazza’s approach, because professors were adopting the tool with no oversight from college leaders who needed to make sure it aligned with data practices used elsewhere on campus. And that was especially concerning once Piazza started selling student data to third parties via a revenue model it calls “Piazza Careers,” a recruiting service that allows companies to find potential employees based on their information.

“We learned,” said Sankar last week. “And so there were settings that we had to adjust as we learned and heard the feedback—like students by default are not opted in because that’s clearly not gonna work with education records.”

During the pandemic, Piazza started offering an enterprise version of the service for the first time, where administrators can choose the data settings for their campus.

Still, this CEO argues that if the company had focused only on what college administrators wanted at the outset, it would have hindered the main goal and led to a less-useful product for students and professors. And other edtech startups have borrowed from Piazza’s playbook in the meantime.

“Administrators will ask companies or startups to prioritize topics related to security and accessibility, [and those are long-term issues],” Sankar said. “I fundamentally believe Piazza is where it is because we obsessed about the user experience.”

So if her goal was to revamp the way professors and students communicate, how does she grade her efforts?

“I feel like a fraction of students [now] have the support in the community that I wish that I had, which is a huge win,” she said. “And my eyes have been open to the far broader demographics of students feeling isolated. Where I thought it was [an issue of] gender … the most eye-opening and humbling thing to me were students with any kind of disability or socioeconomic difference from their peer group, whether actual or perceived, skin color and any other differences, that [meant] those students were feeling isolated.”

How has the pandemic changed classroom dynamics, with so many classrooms forced online over the past two years by health concerns?

“It varies across cultures and across nations,” she argued. “In certain cultures, like the Hispanic culture where students who are sent back are actually taking care of younger siblings and they have fewer computer personal devices to share across all students, that all siblings that are now at home and learning from home and their parents may be in professions where they’re unable to take leave and stay at home with the kids.” And that impacts students ability to get the answers they need, even if Piazza is available in a class, she said.

“And so a big push that we started to do with COVID was to make our website mobile accessible because what we were seeing for those families and those students and those students were at a bigger disadvantage [because] they actually didn’t have devices and making everything work on mobile, your iPhone, your tablet, your Samsung started to matter more.”

Sankar plans to stay involved with Piazza over the next few months, helping her replacement, Ethan O’Rafferty, get up to speed. He was most recently head of partnerships at Amira Learning.

What’s next for Sankar? She plans to do some teaching at local colleges in Colorado, where she now lives. Her hope is that she can inspire students to start companies the way her professors at Stanford did.

Correction: This article originally misstated where Sankar plans to teach.


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