Piazzza, the homework helper

June 3, 2010, 12:57 a.m.

It was 1:30 a.m. and Lucy Richards ‘13 was stuck on the last problem of her Statics problem set, which was due in several hours. From her laptop, the bright blue motto of Piazzza.com seemed to address her directly — “Stuck? Need help? Just Ask.”

Piazzza — yes, with three z’s — is an online platform that claims to provide “high-quality answers for when you’re stuck” by creating a place for students and teachers to share their questions and answers. And it’s available 24-7.

“It is not always easy to meet people in a large lecture format,” said Peter Pham ‘11, a Piazzza user and team member. “Piazzza makes it easy to get help at those desperate times when the deadline for an assignment is hours away even if you don’t know anyone.”

Pooja Nath, the founder and CEO of Piazzza and a student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, created Piazzza with exactly this problem in mind. Nath studied computer science at the competitive Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she was always one of the rare handful of female students in classes dominated by men. Nath recalled being too intimidated to ask her peers for help and wishing there were some online forum where she could go to discuss homework problems.

Enter Piazzza.

Piazzza enables students to anonymously ask questions when they may not know anyone else in their classes, or otherwise may be too embarrassed to seek help by e-mailing a teaching assistant (TA) or going to office hours. Piazzza is currently being tested in Richards’ E14 course as well CS 110.

“At least in computer science classes it is very difficult to complete problem sets on your own,” said Ravi Sankar ‘12, a computer science major and member of the 12-person Piazzza team. “Working with others is crucial, and Piazzza makes this collaboration easier.”

To use Piazzza, students simply log onto the website www.Piazzza.com, and the classes that use Piazzza automatically appear after an initial registration. Students can then post new questions, browse their classmates’ questions and contribute answers, with answers to questions provided students separated from those provided by professors or TAs.

“My only qualm is the one I reserve for all Internet communities,” Richards said. “The easier they are to use, the less motivation we have to actually meet face-to-face. I think there’s value in that which can never be replaced by an online forum, no matter how efficiently it provides you with the information you need.”

Nonetheless, Richards said that Piazzza has been a valuable resource.

“The extremely intuitive, easy and functional interface, and the fact that everyone really uses it can get you answers quickly and makes it actually very useful,” she said.

Another concern is cheating, but E14 Prof. Paul Mitiguy said that hasn’t been an issue.

“We want people to work together — it’s not cheating,” he said. “When midterms and finals come around, if a student has not been doing his or her own work on the problem sets and [is] just copying, he will fail.”

Compared to trying to find answers through general Internet searches, Piazzza helps students get answers on conceptual and technical questions that apply specifically to their class.

And according to Mitiguy, Piazzza has helped both his students and the E14 teaching staff. Mitiguy and his staff are committed to being available to students, as reflected by the roughly 26 hours of office hours they hold every week.

On top of this, Mitiguy said that he and his TAs stay in the Design School’s Pederson Hall answering student questions late into the night and, sometimes, early morning.

But with 130 students, answering every question at all times just isn’t feasible.

“We still can’t do as much as we would like,” Mitiguy said.

Here is where Piazzza has helped.

“Piazzza not only helps us reduce our workload, it also helps us see what problems students are struggling with and what needs to be addressed,” said Tarrence Fong, a TA for E14 and a first-year mechanical engineering graduate student.

According to Sankar, Piazzza aims to expand into 30 Stanford classes next fall.

“Hopefully once students have Piazzza offered in one of their classes, they will push for all their classes to be involved,” he said.

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