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Social Learning Network Piazza Scores $6 million in Funding

Piazza, an education start-up that describes itself as a social learning networking for students and instructors, has just received a $6 million investment. The company said it plans to use the funds for research and development and marketing activities. Currently, Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; MIT; and Harvard are among the 109 American institutions running implementations of the service in their courses; the program was in use in more than a thousand classes globally during fall 2011.

The company, named after the Italian word for plaza, provides a free online gathering place where students can ask and answer questions under the guidance of their instructors. According to Piazza, students tend to keep the application open in their browsers, alongside Facebook and email, to track questions and responses. The median duration between the time a question was posted and when it was answered was 25 minutes. During the fall 2011 term, 96 percent of the questions posted on Piazza were answered, 45 percent received a student response, 67 percent received an instructor response, and some were answered by both.

The most active group of students on Piazza was a computer science class at UC Berkeley, where students recorded over 19,000 contributions during the course of the semester. One student in the class answered 463 of his peers' questions. Three-quarters of the students contributed something.

"People are making a big deal out of Berkeley choosing Gmail as its email solution, but nobody I know uses email unless we're forced to," said Tianbo Xu, a student at UC Berkeley and the president of the school's IEEE student branch. "We've grown up with a more social communication style, but at the same time a lot of students are reluctant to participate in class forums because they don't want to seem too smart or too dumb. Piazza has figured out how to create a vibrant social network centered on your class without demanding that you disclose everything. Once you've used it, it's hard to imagine not using it."

Added Srinivasan Keshav, a professor at the University of Waterloo, "I demand deep engagement from my students in the classroom. With Piazza, for the first time I can expect a level of engagement outside of class that enables me to challenge my students with harder problems. I know they will work through them and learn together using Piazza then come to class knowing what they need to learn. That's not just a better way to get questions answered, it's a more effective style of teaching and learning."

Piazza investors include Bessemer Venture Partners (which, in the education market, has also funded 2tor, Flat World Knowledge, and Knewton), Kapor Capital (which has funded ePals, Magoosh, and alltuition), and Felicis Ventures (which has also invested in inkling and Matchbox).

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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