University Responses to Piazza: Some good, some bad, some web site changes

After our reporting from Nov 10 on “Popular Discussion Platform Piazza Getting Pushback For Selling Student Data”, I was invited by Piazza CEO Pooja Sankar to visit the Piazza offices. During my visit, we had an open conversation where I got to meet pretty much the entire staff and have a direct conversation with Sankar and Sunthar Premakumar. After that meeting, Piazza provided a statement that we published in “Piazza Response To Blog Post On Student Privacy”. The statement primarily dealt with a mea culpa from Piazza about working directly with institutions to form agreements around privacy policies and terms of use, including this section:

We are committed to fixing this. In fact we already have started. We have entered into agreements with Georgia Tech and Brown, and have ongoing engagement with Stanford, UBC and UC Davis[1]. In our conversations universities have been very happy with our policies, practice, and compliance. We are fully committed to entering into contracts with universities that protect students, professors, and the institutions including FERPA, accessibility, and more.

I have subsequently had conversations with staff from several of the schools mentioned above to verify the information. Some of the responses were good (as in positive review for Piazza and their willingness to work with the school), some were bad, and in parallel I noticed several web site changes that appear to be related to this reporting and follow-up.

The Good – University of British Columbia (UBC)

Even prior to my meeting at Piazza, Marianne Schroeder from UBC sent out a tweet sharing a positive experience with Piazza. I interviewed Schroeder and Derek White a week ago to get their story. In a nutshell, UBC staff have been very happy working with Piazza the product and have been successful working with Piazza’s management to address privacy issues. They started these discussions in 2013, prior to the rollout of Piazza Careers product, and asked for and received several changes to the product and privacy statement.

Rather than relying purely on the Piazza platform to convey necessary information to faculty and students, UBC created an LTI-based app that integrates with their Blackboard LMS. The app has two main functions in this context:

  • Obfuscate the student’s User ID before passing to Piazza; and
  • Set up a splash page controlled by UBC, where they notify faculty and students of the issues they should be aware of when using Piazza.

ubc-page-1

Users are then sent to the Account Creation page, after having the splash page suggest that “you may wish to use a pseudonym”. The only data passed through the LMS integration is the User ID, with no name or email included. Further information on this Building Block (the Blackboard method of integrating third-party apps) can be found here.

Once Piazza added in 2014 the Piazza Careers product that provides student data to recruiters (for students who do not deselect the opt-in box), UBC updated the text as seen above to more clearly notify students of what this option means.

White described a healthy relationship between UBC and Piazza when making these changes. Several items were added at UBC request, including the “Learn More” pages shared in the first post that provides more information to students on how Piazza Careers works. The primary change not made despite UBC request was the pre-checked opt-in box that enables Piazza Careers to provide student information to recruiters. One interesting note is that this relationship between UBC and Piazza has been handled informally by email and not through a procurement office or creation of a formal agreement.

The Bad – University of California at Davis (UC Davis)

As part of Piazza’s statement, they included this footnote:

In fact at UC Davis we now have an agreement in principle, but the lawyers can’t sign it until a professor asks for it via a formal procurement process.

As a reminder, UC Davis currently has this page up “disapproving” the inclusion of Piazza as a validated third-party app, meaning that faculty are encouraged to “avoid use of Piazza” and that “providing Piazza with student record information is prohibited”.

uc-davis

I talked to a UC Davis administrator (anonymous upon request) involved in the previous discussions with Piazza, and I got a very different story than having “an agreement in principle”. The administrator said that like other campuses including many in the University of California system, UC Davis is actively working to protect student data privacy. As part of this effort regarding Piazza, the schools wants Piazza to make real changes to the sign up process for Piazza Careers. It is not truly an opt-in process but needs to be, and the default should be opt-out with action needed to opt-in. There should also be more information on the sign up page on what data is and is not shared with recruiters. Finally (and this is an excellent point missed in my initial post), the administrator indicated that it should be easy for student who has opted in to subsequently opt out, and current process is not at all straightforward.

It is quite clear that no agreement will be possible without real changes to the opt-in and opt-out processes. And like every school I have talked to thus far, UC Davis has a real issue with the pre-checked opt-in box from this registration page.

prechecked-box

Web Site Changes

e-Literate commenter NoChildExploited$ pointed out in a comment to the first post:

In Piazza’s response article, Pooja, Piazza’s CEO, stated, Piazza has “ongoing engagement with Stanford”. It appears Piazza was served with a cease and desist letter from Stanford University. Piazza no longer has Stanford’s logo on their website, and any testimonials provided from Stanford professors no longer display the Stanford name or logo next to the professor’s testimonial.

I cannot speak to the speculation on a “cease and desist letter”, but I can verify that the Piazza web site has changed significantly over the past week as described by the commenter. In the Professor Success Stories page, two of the four faculty members quoted no longer have their university affiliation listed, although a simple LinkedIn search shows that both teach at Stanford University. The previous page that listed Stanford as their school can be found through Google cache or through the WayBack Machine. Furthermore, like the commenter I can no longer find the Stanford logo on the Piazza site.

It also appears that the changes go deeper than this removal of Stanford direct references. There used to be pages on the site that would summarize the top classes for many of the institutions (Stanford, UBC, UC Davis, and dozens of other schools), including the instructor names and a class report for each class. I have covered up the instructor names in the web archive image:

piazza_at_ucsd

From a spot check, all of these pages as well as the class reports are gone from the Piazza web site. On the signup page, the long list of schools no longer links to these (now missing) pages. I count this as a positive development, as Piazza is starting to make changes at least to their public web site to address privacy concerns at the institution and faculty level.

I commend Piazza for their stated willingness to work with schools as well as a lack of defensiveness in my interactions with them. But there are real privacy issues remaining with the two products (Piazza Q&A and Piazza Careers), and the growing public pushback by universities should not stop until these issues are resolved. As we’ll discuss in a future post, however, this problem is not isolated to Piazza – this is an area of concern for the growing field of third-party, often free, learning apps in use at colleges and universities. But more on that later.

We’ll keep watch this story as it develops.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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