There are some at U of T who worry that Piazza may be permitted to sell the information of its student users, an accusation that the company flatly denies.

Piazza is a free online Q&A platform commonly used by — but not limited to — instructors teaching computer science, statistics, and mathematics. Students can post questions, to which instructors and other students can provide answers, and instructors can also post announcements on the website.

U of T released a statement to instructors and students this past December, outlining its concerns. “The Piazza Privacy Policy and Terms of Use provide for substantial sharing and use, including commercial use, of personal information of students,” the statement reads. However, the university has placed no formal restrictions on the use of Piazza.

Professor Susan McCahan serves as vice provost, innovations in undergraduate education. Part of McCahan’s role at U of T is to evaluate new educational technologies.

“The company has publicly said that they do not sell student data without the student’s permission,” McCahan said. “But their documents, their agreements, the click-through that you do when you create a Piazza account, does not make that clear at all. It’s not clear that there is an opt in.”

Rather, McCahan interprets those documents as allowing the company to “do what they want” with student data. “Anyone they sell it to can do what they want with your data as well,” says McCahan. “It frees up a whole chain of data transfer from any kind of oversight.”

The Varsity contacted Piazza Technologies, the parent company that developed the platform, and who denied any wrongdoing is taking place. “We don’t sell student data,” said John Knight, of the Piazza User Operations Team. “We were built on trust and take that trust seriously.”

Why use Piazza at all?

Paul Chow is a professor of Computer Engineering and Electronics at U of T. One course he teaches, ECE532 Digital Systems and Design, uses Piazza extensively; in addition to the discussion board, nearly all course information is placed exclusively on Piazza with the exception of student grades, which appears on Blackboard, U of T’s main online learning platform.

Chow explains that Piazza’s ease of use makes it a better system for communicating with students. “The approved university platform does not allow me, and my other colleagues using Piazza, to provide the interaction we want to provide to the students,” he says. “We use Piazza because the students will get more out of the course.”

“Piazza is significantly better than the Blackboard discussion platform,” said Theo Poenaru, a second-year computer science student who said that roughly half of his courses have a Piazza component.

In addition to the “very natural organization” of the Q and A platform that makes it easy to use, Poenaru also likes the ability for questions in a discussion to be posted without revealing the posters name to other students. He says this feature “removes the fear of questions being labelled stupid and pushes students to ask more questions than they would otherwise.”

As far as privacy concerns, Poenaru doesn’t have any. “I see they have my name, university, courses taken, and email address. That isn’t information for which there is generally a high expectation of privacy. I would definitely not stop using Piazza because of this.”

Chow said that no students have come to him with privacy concerns thus far, that if needed, he could help a student register on Piazza using non-U of T email address, under a pseudonym.

Piazza allows students to use alternate names. Chow is critical of the fact that U of T did not make instructors and students aware of this feature, which he learned of from colleagues at other universities.

“I think the university could have spent more time investigating how to help the instructors use their choice of platforms within the “rules” rather than just posting a warning about it,” said Chow.

A better Blackboard?

Given the caution in U of T’s December statement, it may come as a surprise to students and instructors to learn that the university had been looking into the possibility of integrating Piazza directly into Blackboard as early as 2014, when they first reached out to the company.

Using third party technologies is a standard part of U of T’s approach to improving Blackboard. “We regularly review all kinds of technologies that can bolt into Blackboard,” explains McCahan. “We have some of them that are available, sort of seamlessly integrated … In fact, you might not know that it’s a different vendor, right, because it just sort of appears inside the course shell as if its part of Blackboard.”

Relating the story of the initial contact between Piazza and U of T, McCahan said that Piazza expressed hesitation in engaging in the discussion and that the university’s understanding time that they were hesitant because they were still a relatively small start-up company.

Correspondence between Piazza and the university picked up again in March of 2015, and continued through October until, in McCahan’s description, the company stopped responding.  “They haven’t been returning our phone calls, essentially,” she said.

“We went forward with doing a little bit of digging,” McCahan continued. “We didn’t go through a formal review, which we would do to accept a technology. But we did enough digging to determine that there were some issues with the technology.” It was these issues that led to the December statement.

Knight said that the reason for Piazza’s lack of communication with U of T was simply the small size of the company; the employee who handles partnerships with universities was assigned to a different project. “We’d very much like to build a relationship with UT [sic] but we’re a small team (34 people) serving over 1M students for free,” he explains. “We’re certainly not abandoning a partnership, just putting it off until we have the bandwidth to make it happen.”

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