Three weeks ago, I gave birth to a baby. After a long and sometimes challenging pregnancy where I was nervous a lot of the time, I am both relieved to hold a healthy boy in my arms and totally smitten with him.

We joke around here — and now I’m on record in the New York Times saying it —  that Arjun is my firstborn child, but my second baby. My first baby is Piazza, the strapping three-year-old company I founded in 2009. My husband Shyam is an early employee at Palantir, so Arjun is kind of his second baby, too. It should sound weird to talk about our flesh-and-blood baby as the little brother of a couple of start-up companies, but work with me here for a minute, because amidst all of the recent discussion about whether women can have it all, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a start-up CEO with a newborn, because that’s apparently pretty rare. In the hope that it will become more common, I wanted to share my experiences so far.

Biggest all-time caveat: I want to say that so far — and I’m almost scared to type this — Arjun has been healthy. We’re extremely grateful for that, and I don’t think anything I say below would apply if that weren’t true. Also, of course, I’m only three weeks into motherhood. I may do things totally differently in a few weeks. But here’s the view from Week 3.

If I have more thoughts, I’ll keep blogging them.

Observation 1: If You Thought Start-up Life Was An Emotional Roller Coaster….

I’m quite emotionally resilient as people go, and I’d sort of thought that the sine-wave elations and frustrations of starting a company —  getting brutal feedback on the product, launching something great, having to let people go, and raising money — might prepare me pretty well for new motherhood.

Not so much, it turns out. This is trite, but it has to be said. There’s really nothing to compare with holding your own baby — the love, but also the worry and frustration. Will he stop breathing? Will he latch? Is he eating enough? Wait, when did he last pee? And the guilt. I didn’t expect to feel guilty for time I spend on work, but I do.

The peace I made with this during pregnancy and afterwards is that I need more time for myself, away from people in the office, and the time I spend with people from work needs to be very task-oriented. The more focused on am on operational tasks, the more my emotions seem to be in check.

Observation 2: Life Happens

In the early days of Piazza (wow — was that just last year?), I got an opportunity for exposure at an important conference in another state. The only problem: Shyam and I were getting married the day before. Some honeymoon! I went to the conference, henna and all. And it was crucial to Piazza’s development. In the start-up world, you need to be ready to pivot.

A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with my senior team planning for our summer development efforts. I’d been told to see the doctor for a quick check-up, so I politely waddled out of the meeting saying that I’d probably be back before it ended. Four hours later, Arjun was born.

Life happens.

Since life is going to happen, the key is to choose understanding teammates. Shyam understood from Date 1 that having a professionally satisfied wife would guarantee him a perpetual honeymoon. Here at Piazza, everyone on the team knew about the baby from embryo days, and I’ve tried to be open about the uncertainty inherent in pregnancy generally and my pregnancy in particular. And the team has rolled with it wonderfully.

It’s very clear to me already that I’m going to need to build more flexibility into my life — and my company’s life — to account for Arjun. I think he’ll make me a more adaptable leader.

Observation 3: You Aren’t Going to Need It

Here’s one exact parallel between the start-up world and the baby world: there’s enormous external pressure to accumulate a lot of stuff. And here’s my experience so far in both realms: You Aren’t Going to Need It.

In software development, people want to build in every bell and whistle and every architectural flourish. Because these are smart people, one’s temptation is always to agree. You may have seen the results of this: bloatware that tries to solve every problem a user might have but doesn’t do anything well, or a meticulously engineered system that scales to 10 million users but only has 10. We try to avoid this at Piazza by not investing in anything without solid evidence of value and need. The product doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does extremely well.

In baby development, the really smart marketers of the Baby Industrial Complex would like you to believe that you need special baby furniture, five different strollers and carriers, outfits for every occasion, and a hundred other things. Because these are persuasive people, one’s temptation is to buy baby gear. You may have seen the results of this: houses piled wall to wall with stuff two months before the baby arrives. We’re trying to avoid this in the Sankar household by not buying anything until we know we need it (and baby showers aren’t really part of our culture). So far, we’ve gotten on great without a changing table (though Arjun did soak the curtains once), we’re waiting on the stroller, and Arjun has only a handful of outfits.

More gear than you need

You’re aren’t going to need it

I’m sure we’ll buy more, just as I’m sure that Piazza will expand into new areas. But these days in America, Amazon gets you whatever you want in a day, and soon it’ll be hours. There’s really no need to buy anything before you need it.

Observation 4: Friction Hurts

In designing Piazza, I’ve tried to be really sympathetic to what users want to do with the product and reduce friction around those things. But to be honest, it’s been a while since I was the user around whom things have been optimized. So I’d maybe lost my empathetic mojo a little bit.

That’s one of the nice benefits of being a new mom. You’re very briefly the center of a little universe and people need to optimize around you. So I’m getting to relearn some of the tenets of user-centric design. For example: I had a C-Section and my midriff hurts. So I dress in frumpy robes and sit in a chair where almost everything I’ll need during the day is within an arm’s reach. When you live your life that way, it’s amazing how little you actually need, but how important it is to reduce friction (in this case literally!) when you really need it.

In this sense, being a new mom is a bit like designing for a mobile device: the smallness of your universe imposes very useful discipline.

Observation 5: Free Help is the Best Help (But Pay For It if You Need To)

Moms, I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging here about being the center of the universe, but I don’t change a lot of diapers. I’m lucky enough to have four grandparents crawling all over themselves clambering to do that for me. I’ve written before about the benefits of free help for your start-up, but I’ve got an even more amazing set-up now, because both sets of grandparents are living with us — one set permanently.

This is an unusual situation. I am amazingly, uniquely fortunate in my family, and I re-learn that lesson every day. What would I say to female entrepreneurs who don’t have this luxury? From my perspective three weeks in, I would say this: pay for help if you can possibly afford it. I would go crazy without the help, and what price sanity? A lot of people can help you change diapers, clean up the house, and even feed the baby at night sometimes. Thanks to all this help, I’ve been able to achieve my goal of engaging with Piazza again after one week, while remaining focused on the thing that matters most to Arjun, which is….

Observation 6: Focus on the Most Important Thing

Milk. Of course, I hope Arjun is benefiting from all the love he’s getting. But he is much more vocal about milk. I’m not saying, by the way, that every mom needs to nurse. But if you choose to do it, it may be more time consuming and emotionally wrenching than you had imagined.

As a new mother or a start-up CEO, there are a million things you could be doing. The most challenging thing for me has always been to focus — and to keep the company focused — on the most important thing.

Arjun is a great little teacher precisely because his needs are so simple. I’d have thought that evolution would have designed human babies to latch easily and without the need for special training or strange devices. I’ll spare you the graphic details, but I’ll leave my childless readers with this linguistic tidbit. When a woman gives birth, the word “nipple” changes from a noun into an adjective. It modifies a lot of nouns, including “shaper” and “shield” and “confusion.”

Now back to the lesson. Nursing is important. Nursing is hard. Only I can nurse Arjun. So I focus 100% on nursing and delegate other baby-related maintenance to the above-mentioned crack staff. When I’m not nursing or making silly faces and cooing noises, that gives me time to spend on Piazza, and maybe leaves me with a little less guilt for the time I spend.

You remember Piazza? My other baby. It has crack staff, too, and it’s growing up just fine while I’m away.

I know some people noticed from my last blog post that I was pregnant, so I wanted to provide a happy update about that.

Last July baby Arjun was born at a healthy 7 lb 10 oz (3459 grams). Doctors had to do a C-section once they saw my condition on Monday afternoon. I had rather casually walked out of the office Monday afternoon thinking I’d be back after a quick hospital visit, but apparently Arjun had other ideas. The C-section was terrifying, but thank goodness everything went by in a flurry and the baby arrived healthy and wailing.

Baby Arjun

Arjun Sankar: my first child and second baby (after Piazza)

I’m lying in bed with baby Arjun blissfully asleep on my chest. It’s difficult for me to really fall asleep because I’m afraid he’ll roll off (even though I’ve kept tons of pillows all around me), so I keep waking up! And yet I want him to sleep on me rather than in his crib beside me. Such is motherhood, in the first week, at least.

I am learning how to fit in enough naps over a 24 hour period, so I seem to be recovering fine.

I wanted to thank everyone on the team at Piazza and all of the well-wishers from greater Piazza-land. Everyone has been wonderful, and Shyam, my family and I are very grateful for your help, support, and friendship.

More details to come.

We had a nice visit at the Piazza offices the other day with Phil Hill, who spoke to us about trends in the higher education market. We contacted Phil because he’s written a fair amount on both tools interoperability and about online classes — two subjects near and dear to our hearts.

What do we mean by tools interoperability? At one level, we mean standards that enable different educational tools to work together more or less harmoniously. Piazza has implemented the LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) standard as a producer, meaning that learning management systems or other tools can consume Piazza as a service. This helps a lot with things like authentication and registration management, so people don’t need to log into multiple different sites if you’re using Piazza with an LMS.

But at a larger level, interoperability is about being able to democratize choice: instructors, students, and administrators ought to be able to choose the learning tools that are right for their needs, rather than being bound by technology decisions that were made centrally, sometimes when the current freshmen were still in diapers.

In the bad old days, institutions issued monumental RFPs for systems, and in return deployed (after a fashion) monolithic systems that didn’t work that well for most people, but which satisfied the greatest number of check boxes. Phil confirmed to us with some undisguised glee that such days were ending, and he mentioned that he was hosting a webinar on that very topic in a few weeks — May 22 at 11 AM PDT, to be exact.

Phil will be joined on the webinar by Patrick Masson, CTO of UMassOnline. It should be interesting, so check it out.

Innovator of the Week: Jeff Offutt

It would probably be a better world if every university had a graduate level course in how to study and evaluate software engineering practices. At least the world would probably have more reliable software, which is pretty much the same thing from where I sit. Alas, there aren’t many people who can teach software engineering research methodologies at the highest level, so a lot of universities don’t offer it. Jeff Offutt, a professor of computer science at George Mason University, set out to change that by teaching one course in three places at the same time.

If you’ve studied software testing seriously, you probably know Jeff’s work. His research centers on the important area of how to make software more reliable. But when Jeff decided to teach his course in software engineering experimentation at three universities on two continents, he was venturing into an untested (*cough*) area.

Jeff Offutt

Jeff Offutt, pigeon professor

Jeff maintains a part-time affiliation at University of Skövde in Sweden (don’t ask us how to pronounce that). “They call me a pigeon professor,” he told us, “Because I fly in periodically and poop all over everything.” He apparently maintains a similar perch at Linköping University, also in Sweden.

When the faculty in Sweden wanted him to teach a course in software engineering experimentation there, he declined, reasoning that it wasn’t practical to travel to Sweden for an entire term to teach a handful of students.

But then he had an idea – why not teach the course concurrently at his home university along with two universities in Sweden? That way, there would be a critical mass of students with varying educational backgrounds and perspectives, which would improve the experience for everyone.

Developing the course took a great deal of time and effort, and there was no guarantee that once it was developed, Jeff could actually teach it. Even offering the course to students outside his school required the permission of his school’s provost, since GMU and the Commonwealth of Virginia don’t look too kindly on moonlighting or “double dipping.”

Fortunately, the provost thought it was a great idea. In fact, he immediately saw that a single course taught concurrently at multiple schools could expand GMU’s reach and provide reciprocal benefits to its students down the line.

If convincing the administration was easy, convincing the administrative software was more challenging. Jeff had decided to structure the bulk of the course around asynchronous collaboration, but it would have been difficult or even impossible to do using the school’s LMS, since the LMS requires that everyone be enrolled as a GMU student (“tuition-paying unit,” as we called ourselves in my college days) and the Swedish students were still enrolled in Sweden.

So Jeff was looking for a collaborative platform that could cross that technology barrier, and Piazza fell into his lap. (Or maybe we spammed him. That part is not entirely clear). Being an experimentalist, he tried Piazza in a GMU-only class last term and the results were “spectacular,” so he felt confident using it for his intercontinental software experimentation course.

The course succeeds or fails based on student collaboration. While the first three weeks consist of Jeff’s lectures (streamed), everything that follows is collaborative. Students pair off to review research papers each week, then lead online discussions about the research. Borrowing an old Swedish trick, Jeff designates one student to be a “dissenter” who is required to disagree with the conclusions of the two students who’ve prepared the summary. (Note to Jeff: please do not try this if you teach in Israel. It could damage our servers.). As a result, the discussions are lively.

“Students from different backgrounds are playing off of each other,” Jeff told us. “Student discussion is remarkably proactive, and the students appear to be having fun. And the bottom-up nature of Piazza gives the students more direction and ownership of the conversation than they have in old-school forums.”

“Students tell me that the course is actually a better learning experience than the last time they took such a course in a physical classroom,” he recounted, “Because they actually get to think before they respond to something, which is a contrast to a seminar in which you have just a second to formulate a complex thought.”

The course culminates in a research project, the results of which will be both published online and presented live to peers and to Jeff, as though at an academic conference (he’ll get on a plane for that).

The educational implications for Jeff’s experiment are vast. Many subjects, particularly advanced topics, will never attract hundreds of students from a single school, so they’re difficult to teach cost-effectively. But what if we could share these learning opportunities across geographies while simultaneously increasing the quality and quantity of the interactions that take place among the learners? And what if we could also increase the intellectual diversity of each class?

That would be a better world.

Innovator of the Week: Jennifer Schwartz

When I took introductory chemistry in college 20-odd years ago, it was with 700 of my closest friends, 698 of whom appeared to be premeds stepping over each other on their way up the curve. As someone who’d loved chemistry in high school (thanks, Mr. Diamond!) I felt that surely there must be a better way to teach chemistry than having 700 of us in a room listening to a lecture, then trooping off to endless labs where we did the same experiment every week — just with different powders.

(The experiments, by the way, involved using potentially carcinogenic thioacetamide to precipitate metallic sulfides. Worst case: cancer. Best case: a rotten egg smell that remained in my nostrils for two days afterwards and remains one of my strongest sense memories.)

Somewhere along the line, Jennifer Schwartz also decided that there must be a better way. And she’s found it. And she’s improving it. And she’s making sure people know how to teach chemistry, and a bunch of other subjects besides.

Jennifer is in charge of the introductory chemistry sequence at Stanford. As we spoke about how they teach chemistry at Stanford, I have to admit to a bit of the customary Berkeleyite lip-curling toward our Palo Alto neighbors: “Seriously? Now you get chemistry without the horrible stench! Can’t you blessed of the earth endure any pain for the sake of knowledge?”

But that’s unfair, of course. The program that Jennifer outlined sounded both interesting and rigorous. And there was nothing about it that seemed, on the face of it, not to be replicable at universities that are not quite as wealthy or sunny or privileged as Stanford.

Jennifer Schwartz

Here are just a few of the things Jennifer and the team have put into place:

  • Their labs are blessedly short, but they demonstrate something interesting every week. And they often reveal something unexpected *before* the students hear about it in lecture, so the experiments they do actually create a sense of wonder. Then they go deeper and understand the mechanisms. So labs actually introduce concepts.
  • The students get tested every two weeks, which sounds stressful, but which also means that you’re never more than two weeks behind. The exams have three levels of questions: plug-and-chug, which everyone should get; somewhat harder; and then Berkeley-level (sorry, I mean really hard) where you need some real chemical insight to get it right. This ensures that students who keep up with the work are going to learn the chemistry and pass the course while enabling Jennifer and the team to precipitate out (cough) the future Linus Paulings.
  • They are piloting something called Callibrated Peer Review (CPR. Really.) With CPR students get practice writing their scientific ideas and observations while also evaluating their peers’ writing. So they get to reason verbally about chemistry using questions like “what are the chemical reactions involved in tooth decay?” in addition to doing the usual lab reports and problem sets.

The class uses Piazza, of course. Because when you’ve got a lot of different ways to experience chemistry, you also have a lot of questions about it. “With all of the programs we’ve put in place, we ask a lot of our Chemistry TA’s,” Jennifer told us. “Piazza magnifies their effectiveness by eliminating redundancy and enabling them to work through problems with students where everyone can benefit.”

Jennifer put a lot of this together as a graduate student TA at Stanford and once she’d gotten it running they figured out that 1) it was possible to teach chemistry much better than they’d been doing it; 2) Jennifer was already pretty darn good at it; and 3) having Jennifer teaching the intro series would free up other instructors to teach more subjects closer to their speciality. So she’s stayed on with the introductory chemistry program.

And if that were all, it would have been enough. But Jennifer also started a program called MinT (Mentors in Teaching) that helps TA’s help one another become better teachers. MinT fellows, called Teaching Mentors, work with TA’s in within their department to develop and nurture specific teaching skills in their disciplines. And, in the process, the mentors themselves actually gain more insight into their own teaching as well as become better mentees in their own relationships with their advisors. Definitely win-win!

Shameless plug: we just set up a Piazza for MinT, and if you have a similar organization we’d love to have you use Piazza. Helping to teach the teachers, it turns out, is a pretty good thing for everyone.

At first I thought it was a phishing scam.

I received an email with an image attachment inviting me to meet the Vice President and his wife Dr. Jill Biden at a reception at their official residence in Washington, DC. All I needed to do was RSVP with my social security number. Hah! What kind of idiot falls for that?

But whoever put this together had done a nice job on the invitation, which looked very professional and contained none of the usual misspellings. So I showed it to my husband Shyam, who knows a bit about computer security and the ways of official Washington. He pronounced it legitimate. I trembled.

Above all else, I am a software geek. That means I’m an introvert by inclination. And I generally keep my head down. Before I got the invitation I could probably… maybe… have named the Vice President, but I couldn’t have picked him out of line-up. The fact that I lived in this country for many years without actually being a citizen was something of a blessing since I could avoid voting. I have the classic engineer’s aversion to politics: why can’t they stop arguing, agree on goals, and figure out how to solve problems efficiently? So politics combined with cocktail chatter are not exactly my happy place.

And yet, my colleagues and advisors told me, you really can’t say no to the Vice President. And it could be really fun. And you might meet some interesting folks. And you wouldn’t want to offend whoever invited you. (And you ought to at least get a blog post out of it).

Now is as good a time as any to come out of the closet about something really personal and important: I am pregnant. And so I thought to myself that I’d be able to tell my son that he came with me to meet the Vice President. And that he was practically the only guy there, since this was an event to celebrate the achievements of women. The invitation said ladies only, but I couldn’t very well check the fetus at the door.

Vice President Biden, Pooja Sankar, Dr. Biden
Official White House Photo by David Lienemann.


So I decided to master my fear and do it.

First thing: get a dress. Not so easy when you’re six months pregnant and don’t know how to shop. So profound is my aversion to shopping that I did almost all of our Series A fund-raising meetings (suffering from morning sickness, by the way) wearing stretchy yoga pants and a sweatshirt from my husband’s company, Palantir. Phil joked that it was actually very stylish attire in the Valley because it’s a successful company. But if our friends at Bessemer thought that was a la mode, the Bidens surely wouldn’t. So I hired a shopper, she showed up at the house with a crate of dresses, and we were done inside of half an hour. See what I mean about engineering efficient solutions to problems?

Second thing: prep. Fortunately, Shyam was also headed to the DC area that day, so we booked a plane together. I rely on Shyam to help me through these moments. He always knows the right thing to say, and because he’s so loving and patient, he’ll practice it with me until I sound convincing. He advised me to condense everything about myself into one sentence, in case I got a snippet of time with Vice President Biden. For whatever reason, though, Shyam didn’t want to practice The Sentence with me over and over for five hours in a plane packed with strangers.

So we deferred that until after we got to Washington. I had to put my foot down when Shyam suggested a walk around the Mall (“for inspiration!”) instead of helping me with The Sentence. Because honestly, who would rather read “with malice towards none, with charity for all” at the Lincoln Memorial when he could listen to me intone, “Hi. My name is Pooja Sankar. I started a company called Piazza that is used by students and teachers at all the top universities in the country to help them learn and educate better?”

Yes, that was The Sentence. That’s it.

Believe it or not, The Sentence was the hardest, most nerve-wracking part of the whole experience! How to condense my life for the past three years into a dozen words? Even though I’m a product person, I understood intuitively that Vice President Biden doesn’t really care about how Piazza is different from Moodle. I decided, ultimately, to aim for the general and comforting rather than the specific and revolutionary. I would have felt like a poser saying, “Hi, I’m Pooja, building Piazza to revolutionize education using social technologies!” And I didn’t want to say, “I have a start-up company called Piazza” because, while that sounds really cool in Palo Alto, I get the feeling that in Washington people might wonder why I didn’t have a real job.

So I practiced The Sentence.

Next challenge: getting there. I hired a town car to take me to the Vice President’s place, which is not really convenient to the Metro. Maybe this is kind of a metaphor, but the Vice President’s house is actually remarkably hard to find. There’s no neon sign that flashes, “The Bidens –>” There are a number of gates. My driver wasn’t the kind to stop and ask for directions, which come to think of it would have been kind of funny. So we missed the turn.

When we finally got in there, we had to pull over for a fairly involved security procedure involving a guard who was protecting the barricaded area where cars were supposed to go. My driver seemed to take the security as a personal affront and began to argue with the guard! Hello? I’m going to meet the Vice President, someone is kicking my bladder, I’m trying to remember The Sentence, and I do not need this!

So I decided that once we were at the barricade, I was just going to walk the rest of the way. It turns out some of the other women had the same idea, so we walked together. That was really nice. One of the other women teaches with Dr. Biden and is apparently a regular visitor because she said something about it being nice to see the Residence during the different seasons. It is lovely and leafy, but by this point, pregnant, nervous, and teetering in unaccustomed heels, I was most interested in seeing the bathroom.

But it was nice to get in there. Once I was through the metal detectors and reunited with my purse, I was given a drink and ushered into the reception area for some serious mingling. I have never known quite what to do with a drink at a business reception. If you’ve got a drink and a purse, it’s really hard to shake hands, trade business cards, and keep from tripping on your high heels. What’s more, if you’ve got a drink and you’re visibly pregnant, you can almost feel the tut-tutting. I abandoned the drink.

The first person I spoke to was the CEO of the the Girl Scouts. I tried The Sentence out on her, and my delivery was awful. But part of the problem was that as soon as I heard who she was, I started to think about the cookies. I was trying to decide whether to bring up the cookies, or whether everyone always does that and consequently she’s heard every cookie joke in the world. I had this line: “You know, my business wouldn’t work without cookies either,” but I figured she might not be tech savvy enough to get that. I left it alone, but you heard it here.

I did finally get to the bathroom. And let me tell you — nice! They have separate men’s and women’s bathrooms there, which (oddly) hadn’t occurred to me because I had sort of envisioned the VP’s house as just a big house, and no house I’ve ever been to has separately gendered bathrooms. For that matter, neither does the Piazza office. Anyway, they have cool little towels with the Vice Presidential seal on them. And it’s a quiet place to practice The Sentence. If you’re ever there, use the facilities even if you don’t have to go.

Soon enough, I found myself on the reception line. This was my favorite part of the evening, because I was sort of forced into talking to the people around me on the line. I honed The Sentence, but was also able to have a nice conversation with some TV reporters and the incoming president of Brown. The reception line moved pretty swiftly, because they needed to give all of us a photo-op with Vice President Biden and Dr. Biden.

Just a few feet away now. Remember The Sentence.

Finally, I got to the front of the line. Fortunately, Dr. Biden was right there, and she’s an honest-to-goodness educator who’s kept teaching even though she’s the VP’s wife. I told her how inspiring that was for me, then I laid The Sentence on her. You’ll be relieved to know that my delivery was excellent. Dr. Biden understood The Sentence and seemed to appreciate it. Vice President Biden took my hand, smiled warmly, and thanked me for coming. It didn’t seem like he was interested in hearing The Sentence, or maybe he’d already overheard it. And just like that, the photo was snapped, and I could finally forget The Sentence.

So what were the Bidens like, you might ask? How could I really tell? Well, a few observations, at least. One is that Vice President Biden does not appear to be all that worried about being a heartbeat away from the presidency. I don’t think I looked at him once and saw anything other than a smile on his face. And when he looks at his wife, he beams! My knowledge of politics is scant, but I think I can tell when a man looks like he feels lucky to be married to his wife, and Vice President Biden gave me that impression.

Vice President Biden appeared to feel very comfortable around women. He gave a brief speech in which he quoted Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” I thought this was something of a gutsy thing to say, as a man giving a speech to a room full of high-achieving women. From where I was standing, I couldn’t sense any irony.

Freed from the tyranny of The Sentence (“If you want something said, ask a man,” is totally true in my case!), I enjoyed the speeches and my further conversations with the other participants, all of whom were interesting and distinguished. I could learn a lot from these women, and perhaps I will – from a few of them.

The hour grew late. I didn’t want to leave last. My driver got lost again, and I walked to the barricade to meet him. Once I got to the car, I could finally take off my shoes.

Innovator of the Week: Lorena Barba

“Why not?”

Those two words sum up Lorena Barba’s approach to teaching. I don’t say that to make her sound reckless or flippant. Far from it. Like any good computational fluid dynamicist, she makes her decisions based on as much data as she can bring to bear. But at every step, when she’s come upon a challenge or thought about incorporating a new technology or pedagogical approach, she’s asked herself that question. And more often than not, things that looked initially like roadblocks simply weren’t.

Lorena, who teaches at Boston University but arrived there via the University of Bristol in the UK, CalTech where she got her PhD, and Valparaiso, Chile where she was born, has undertaken a pedagogical journey that started with an electronic whiteboard and now has her teaching to people on five continents while presiding over speed dating in Boston.

Lorena Barba

She began recording her lectures in 2007 for the benefit of the students in her classes. She started by using a device for capturing the content on a whiteboard, then distributing the lectures via her university’s Blackboard server. But she found both of these technologies clunky. She moved to a graphical tablet for recording whiteboard style interactions, which enabled her to write on and annotate slides. It felt more natural, and she could do it entirely on her own with no production assistance from the university.

But a bigger change happened when she came to the United States and began distributing her lectures via iTunes University. Since almost the day she got to BU, her classes have been the most downloaded at BU, and she’s just passed 10,000 views on YouTube. Computational fluid dynamics is not what you’d call a dilettante’s course. Lorena was reaching smart people who weren’t getting this content anywhere else, and they expressed their gratitude practically every day.

Having her lectures recorded gave Lorena another idea: why not have students watch the lectures before the class meets? We’ve talked about the “flipped classroom” before on our blog. Srinivasan Keshav does something similar at the University of Waterloo. Once you get into Lorena’s classroom, there’s a lot of experimentation.

Here’s one example: Navier-Stokes Speed Dating. No doubt readers of this blog will be familiar with the Navier-Stokes equations, which describe the motion of fluid substances. OK, perhaps you’re not familiar with those equations, but maybe you’re familiar with speed dating. Imagine you could spend five minutes with each of your fellow students as they describe their solutions to Navier-Stokes problems, then you could choose the best solution for a “second date.” If nothing else, that sounds much more interesting and engaging than listening to a lecture.

(I should add, by the way, that Lorena’s lectures are probably pretty good. When she’s not doing fluid mechanics, she sings jazz. Isaac Newton by way of Ella Fitzgerald would have to be pretty interesting.)

She does other experiments, too – like pair programming labs and problem-solving games. There is a good deal more “oohing” and “aahing” than one normally experiences in upper division or graduate courses, and a lot more interaction with the professor, too.

Lorena’s classroom sounds like just the kind of dynamic, stimulating, intellectually rigorous experience that you’d want to have as a student. If I were at BU (and could still do math), I would love to be in her class. But what about those people following the lectures at home, on iTunes U or YouTube?

That’s where Lorena’s next innovation comes in: an open classroom on Piazza. This was another one of those “why not?” moments. Once she’d decided to distribute the lectures via YouTube and iTunes, and once she’d decided to take full advantage of face-to-face interactions by flipping her class, why not invite people from the outside to participate via Piazza?

Why not, indeed.

So Lorena went to the Computational Fluid Dynamics interest group on LinkedIn – which, believe it or not, has over 11,000 members – and invited people into her Piazza. The results are enough to renew your faith in our collective intellectual curiosity even after years of “America’s Top Model.” Hundreds of people from all over the world replied to the post, and over 150 ultimately joined the class. Lorena’s distance students come from all over the world including Germany, China, Arkansas, the Netherlands, Brazil, Ukraine, and Libya. Libya! The whole country is exploding in revolution, and this person is studying Computational Fluid Dynamics out of BU! If that doesn’t get you excited about the future of education, you are cynical beyond hope.

So what do these students do when they’re in Lorena’s Piazza? They tend to be pretty quiet. They don’t ask a lot of questions. But many of them are extremely diligent. One of the most consistent readers is a student from the French overseas department of Réunion, which is conveniently located in the southern Indian Ocean, 120 miles from the nearest landmass. It is unlikely that this student can get this level of fluid dynamics instruction where he is, and he’s getting it absolutely free from Lorena, Piazza, BU, and the Internet.

Not to get too portentous for the blog, but what does that mean for education? The content is free. The collaboration is free. It’s open to anyone Lorena lets in. Does this interfere with anyone’s business model? Say, BU’s?

Lorena is characteristically blunt on this point. “If a professor can be replaced by videos, he probably should be,” she remarked astringently. Content is only one small part of what universities should furnish. Real face-to-face interaction with the professor and other talented students is a huge part of the value equation, and it’s also the most expensive thing to provide. If a university can provide the other things — content, online interaction, even assessment, to a broader population — isn’t this a tremendous service to the public and the world? And (to lurch gauchely from altruism to pragmatism) isn’t this a tremendous marketing opportunity for BU? In a free and open marketplace, BU should get a lot of people coming to campus who want to study computational fluid dynamics, because they’ve got a great person teaching it there. Replicate that a few dozen times and you’re a juggernaut!

And, I might add, that having more students in the Piazza should also improve the experience of the students in the physical classroom, if the distance students are asking good questions and providing interesting answers. I think Lorena is inventing not just a better way to teach her classes, but a way forward for universities vexed by an eroding economic rationale.

As Lorena might say, “why not?”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: