What if there was a platform that behaved like the brain, adjusting to your every move and predicting your next behavior? And what if that platform was used to support professional development for an entire country’s workforce?
That’s exactly the kind of platform that Palo Alto-based startup, Declara hopes to built. Today it announced a fresh $9 million investment from Singapore’s EDBI and Chicago-based Linden Venture Fund. That funding brings Declara’s Series A round to a resounding $25 million finish. And it is also fueling Declara’s ambitions to change the way we think about personalized learning for professional development for teachers, too, from Latin America, Asia to the United States.
Declara was founded in 2012 over a glass of wine as Ramona Pierson and Nelson Gonzalez brainstormed about how to find a more open and flexible way to support learning. “We were asking ourselves, how do we create a platform that works much like the brain?” says Pierson, who is the company’s CEO. “When you look at how adults and people learn, they are constantly interacting with content, as well as socializing around what they are learning.”
Both the founders were deeply interested in learning. Gonzalez, an entrepreneur, wound up as Chief Strategy Officer of The Stupski Foundation. Pierson has a personal story that could have made her a television star: run over by a truck and left for dead, she spent years relearning how to walk and talk--and went on to start a successful software company.
Together, Pierson and Gonzalez were drawn to thinking about how developing countries are struggling to close the gap between workers and jobs. “If you look back to the RFP’s in Brazil or Mexico, it was all about how do we re-educate adults?” says Pierson. “We set out to build a platform to that could be the answer to that.”
Australia was an early customer, followed by Mexico, Uruguay and Chile. “Latin America looks like Shanghai did ten years ago, with buildings growing like crazy,” Pierson says. “Fortune 500 companies are moving into those countries and demanding a workforce and it isn’t there,” she adds.
The learning platform that the Declara team set out to build has consequently been both inherently international--and inherently social--from the beginning.
As envisioned by Pierson and Gonzalez, the Declara platform allows users to collaborate with one another, to access shared resources and content on the platform, and to create groups with other users. That may sound like all-too-many social networks online. But rather than relying on individuals to build all the connections, the Declara platform proposes the connections to its users, based on the activities that they do.
The platform tracks things such as who you are, who you’re collaborating with, what you’re trying to accomplish, the intent of your collaborations, the networks you’re apart of, and what you’re learning from all that. It employs algorithmic approaches including semantic search and predictive analytics to recommend resources before you know you needed them, patterning your behavior against others with similar patterns.
“We wanted to create a platform that isn’t constrained by content and can learn the content on the fly,” explains Pierson.
In many ways, it sounds like Netflix, right? Wrong. Think of what Netflix does as measuring your behavior in one dimension. It tracks which movies you watch and like, then recommends additional choices you might like. Declara’s platform, by contrast, takes those predictions into 3-D: The platform follows data on many different interactions simultaneously and so recommends with whom you should connect as well as what resources will help that interaction.
“The platform understands who you are, what you’re trying to do, and in what context, and then pushes recommendations back to you,” Gonzalez says.
For instance, Chilean-based educator network, Tu Clase, Tu Pais uses Declara’s platform with more than 30K users in Chile and another 35K users in Uruguay. In addition to Declara, the Tu Clase participants use a “constructivist-MOOC.” As teachers participate in specific MOOCs that support their needs and interests, Declara tracks what they’re doing and how those interactions are impacting them. The system then matches users with mentors or classmates who have similar interests or behaviors as they take the same course.
For Pierson, the power of Declara isn’t in the technology per se--but the fact that the technology is enabling teachers to find others to help them. “Let the teachers figure it out through collaboration, and let’s [Declara] create an ecosystem of content discovery that will track what they do, then do pattern detection, and resource champions of change,” she says.
In 2013, Education Services Australia adopted Declara and invited public and private school teachers there to use the platform on a voluntary basis. The country’s education leaders hoped Declara would support teacher training as the country’s standards shifted, integrating Aboriginal standards for learning mathematics along with Asian standards for learning science. Almost a year into the project, more than 40K Australian teachers spend more than one hour a day on Declara, the company reports.
The platform is rolling out to 1.6 million educators who are a part of Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion (SNTE), the largest teachers union in Mexico.
Declara itself has been growing fast, too. The startup now employs 81 full-time people and has offices in Brazil, Mexico, Singapore, and Palo Alto. The new funding, says Pierson, will help fuel its effort to expand in Asia--starting in Singapore--and in the United States.
In the US, Declara will be focusing on higher education and enterprise clients. The platform is currently being piloted at the University of Pennsylvania, as a tool to deliver “constructivist MOOCs” to educators in the graduate program. The tool is also being used by Genentech to help train its workforce.
But serving the K-12 community may not be far off. The company recently told EdSurge that among its newest employees are people who will specifically focus on developing a strategy for serving the US K-12 professional development market.