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App Allows Shy Students To Ask Questions Anonymously


Think back to what it was like in school when you didn't quite understand what the teacher was saying. You wanted to stop, ask a question, but maybe you were scared of seeming stupid. And if you already stand out in class, that feeling can be even more intense. Steve Henn from our Planet Money team has the story of one woman who wants to fix that.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: This woman, her name is Pooja Sankar. And she grew up in Uttar Pradesh, a conservative part of northern India. She went to an all-girls school there, and she wasn't even allowed to go outside the house by herself.

POOJA SANKAR: And at 13 and 14 there were girls who were being pulled out of my classes because their parents were marrying them off.

HENN: But Pooja excelled in school. Her parents encouraged her, and she was accepted to the Indian Institute of Technology. It's like the MIT of India. When she got there, she was surrounded by men. Only 5 percent of her classmates were women.

SANKAR: We had been trained all of our life not to speak to the opposite sex. And here it just - the social training kicked in. I could not look a boy in the eye. They could not look a girl in the eye.

HENN: Pooja studied computer science, and on tough assignments, sometimes she'd get stuck. But she had no one to ask for help. The men in her class, they had this big social network to fall back on. Pooja says it took her years to catch up with her peers, and it was only later that she discovered that it wasn't just her. In 2008, she landed a job at Facebook and began meeting women with very similar experiences - women like Patricia Ordonez. Patti studied computer science at Johns Hopkins years ago.

PATRICIA ORDONEZ: I never talked to the guys because I didn't want them to see that I didn't understand. So I didn't get help from the guys.

HENN: Pooja heard stories like this and decided to do something. So she left Facebook, left her stock options behind and started a company. Her mission - make it easier for women learning to code to get the help they need. She thought maybe it would be easier for women - or everyone, really - to ask questions online. So she tapped her savings, drained her bank account and built an online app. She convinced a former professor to try it out. It went live, and it didn't work.

SANKAR: Every day myself and our engineer, we'd be sitting, waiting, you know, waiting for a question to be asked. I'd be refreshing the page, and no one was asking questions.

HENN: Students asked just 12 questions over four months.

SANKAR: Yeah, it's pretty sad.

HENN: And then Pooja realized that what she built looked too much like a real class. People had to sign in with their real names. So she made a radical change. She decided to allow students to ask questions anonymously.

SANKAR: The next quarter we started with three classes, and I remember 50 questions and answers posted in a single week.

HENN: Usually, anonymity, it brings out the worst in people online. But in really hard classes, that didn't happen. Students were on their best behavior. This anonymous platform, it was a lifeline. And they didn't want to mess it up. Today, Pooja's company is called Piazza. Close to a million college kids use it. And only a handful have ever been kicked off for bad behavior. Now, Pooja knows her company can't solve all the problems for women in computer science. But she thinks it's making a little difference. And this year, the most popular major for women at Stanford is computer science. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.