Stanford Teams Up With Piazza, Apple To Bring Social Features To Its iTunes U iOS Development Class

With over 700 million downloads, Apple’s iTunes U has been a massive success, but unlike other new online learning services like Udacity or Codecademy, it’s missing a social component where students can ask questions and learn from each other. Apple, Stanford University and the Palo Alto-based startup Piazza have now teamed up to bring Piazza’s social learning platform for students, TAs and professors to the next session of Stanford’s highly popular iOS development class on iTunes U. This is a first for iTunes U and Piazza and Stanford worked closely with Apple to get a link to the course’s Piazza site embedded in iTunes U.

As Piazza’s founder and CEO Pooja Sankar told me last week, there has clearly been a trend towards making more and more educational content available online. There is also plenty of software out there that helps teachers create content and manage their students. What’s been lacking, though, in her view, is a tool that creates engagement around this content. “Learning,” she said, “is severely hampered by this.”

With Piazza, though, students can ask each other questions (both under their real name and anonymously) and discuss what’s happening in a class in real time and use a wiki-like site to edit responses. It’s important to stress that Piazza is more than just a message board. The service, for example, distinguishes between responses from students, which they can edit together, and responses from teachers, which they can also collaborate on. Students can also see how many of their classmates are online at the same time.

So far, Piazza has raised about $6 million in funding and the company currently has 11 employees. Sankar started working on the product in 2010 and launched her first small beta tests at Stanford in January 2011. At that time, about 4,000 students used the system. Today, she told me, the service is being used by closer to 250,000 students at universities around the world.

Stanford’s iOS class saw over 10 million downloads for individual lecture videos so far, making it one of the most popular online courses around. The collaboration with Piazza, sais Brent Izutsu, the program manager for iTunes U at Stanford, will hopefully enhance learning and unleash some of the “enormous potential for collaboration and community-building though Q&A and problem-solving with friends from across the globe.”

Registration for the next session of the course is opening today and will remain open until July 6. The course itself will run from June 25 to August 27. As an extra incentive to register early, the first 1,000 students to register will be eligible to have the apps they create as their final project for the class evaluated for “special showcasing on Stanford’s iTunes U site.”