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Bessemer, Kapor Capital and Felicis Ventures back start-up to help college students get engaged
When I was in college, we didn't have this great ball of knowledge that we could access for information to help us with our studies. Today, having that information at our fingertips isn't even enough for college students, who might need help with their courses, particularly around exam time.
But that's changed. Piazza has emerged as the online venue where students can meet up with classmates and instructors and ask questions about schoolwork. And, the value of such a network continues to get noticed in Silicon Valley.
Piazza announced Thursday that it's raised $6 million in a Series A round of funding from Bessemer. Earlier investors Kapor Capital and Felicis Ventures also participated. The round follows a $1.5 million convertible round raised back in July 2011.
"What got investors excited was the amount of engagement on the site," said Pooja Sankar, founder and CEO, in an interview. "Students were spending an average of four hours [on the site] on any given night... About 20% of the users were logging in nightly."
While engagement metrics appear solid, user growth is also healthy. Piazza launched in January 2011, and in the last year, the number of students and professors on the platform have grown to 100,000. The number of colleges now using the service are in the hundreds.
So what's the attraction? Piazza is a forum for students to be able to ask questions or answer questions about their classes. Professors initially create a forum for their classes. Then they as well as their students and other instructors of the class can enter the online forum and participate. When a question is posed, those who answer do so in a wiki-like process so there is one answer with multiple inputs, rather than streams of answers. Beneath the answer is a discussion section so people can still interact. There's no guarantee that the answers are correct, but the hope is that the community will police itself.
"I’m sure there’ll be some pending answers," said Sankar, explaining how the service remains credible.
"[But] we expect someone who’s going to see incorrect answers will change them.. And, the power of the community can exceed one person’s knowledge."
Despite the possibility of answers that may not exactly be accurate, just having a forum to turn to is a value to students. "One thing I wanted to optimize on was when I got stuck for several hours, using Google to answer questions," Sankar explained. But the answers she was looking for were always too specific for Google to answer. She realized that the people who could help answer her questions were her classmates.
At the moment, Piazza doesn't have plans to monetize but rather iterate to create high levels of engagement, said Sankar. Possible ideas for making money include licensing the platform to Universities to expanding Piazza as a learning platform for non-Universities and for-profit organizations.
It's too early to know whether Piazza will go beyond Universities and schools as they pursue an economic model, but for now that market seems to be fairly large enough. It's estimated that there are nearly 200 million people around the world getting some form of post-secondary education.
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Founded in 2009 and publicly launched in 2011, Piazza is a free online gathering place where students can ask and answer questions 24/7, under the guidance of their instructor. Anyone can create a class at Piazza.com to initiate class discussion. Students spend on average four hours a night on Piazza working together in real time with classmates and instructors to find the answers they need at the time they need them. Piazza is FERPA-compliant and used in hundreds of colleges and universities.
Joined Vator onPooja Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza, on online gathering place for students and instructors. She has worked at Facebook, Kosmix, and Oracle, and has degrees from IIT, UMD, and Stanford.