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Transforming education into continuous learning via AI services - the Declara story

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 30, 2016
Declara CEO Ramona Pierson has an amazing survival story. But the most interesting chapter is how she's channeled those lessons into a push to re-invent education. We talked about the disconnect between education and digital careers, and how an AI-powered learning platform can help.

We're all suckers for a comeback story. Declara founder and CEO Ramona Pierson has one for the ages. That's an incredible story already told, but Pierson's near-death experience has an enterprise twist. In the process of rehab, she re-taught her body and brain - and she took notes.

Those learnings evolved into the AI-powered services Declara now offers. Example: Declara has a bot called "Dot" that fetches personalized content - a bot modeled after the learning behavior of Annie, the seeing eye dog Pierson relied on during her own rehab.

Pierson and I talked about the concerning state of education, and how learning platforms might offer a new way forward. Declara would know - amongst their clients are the governments of Australia and Mexico. More than 3 million users are now supported.

Declara bills itself as "A bot-driven idea acceleration engine for modern content connoisseurs and busy teams." That's a fancy way of saying Declara provides users with relevant content in a collaborative setting. This is done via Declara's online "social learning" platform which gets smarter as users participate. Personalized resources are offered to users via Declara's semantic search, machine learning algorithms and recommendation engines.

Our educational system - poorly aligned with our digital future

I believe our current educational system is poorly aligned with the types of digital jobs that are emerging. My concern is heightened when I talk to young people who are smart-phone-savvy, but seem unconcerned about AI and automation. What does Pierson think?

I'm very concerned about it, because we work a lot with educational systems... A lot of education systems are ill-prepared. The students of the 21st century are not going to be in the same roles in the workforce that our parents were in.

Pierson brought me back to the disruption of assembly lines:

Back then, you had 1,000 students a month dropping out of school because there are no jobs and there's no purpose for learning.

The right type of education can be transformative:

There's never been a greater need for learning as there is today, but it's for different skills.

Even a continuous learning advocate like myself has to face the music: people either find those resources inaccessible, or they lack the motivation when Netflix is just a tempting click away. Pierson:

If we don't mold people into being able to look at what their skills are, plug into their learning goals and their learning paths themselves, they're not going to be lifelong learners. They're forever going to be out of work. Whereas if you're a self-regulated learner where you can learn and plug into different systems, you'll always be upskilling yourself. You'll become the architect of your future instead of the victim of technology.

And that's Declara's mission:

When you think about it, even the education system is still in the quadrant of external drivers of learning, instead of teaching people and empowering people to be self-regulated learners. Our platform really drives towards self-regulated learning.

That's not Declara's sole focus. They also have a track record in compliance-based learning programs and teacher training. The goal is to keep students engaged via a defined learning path that also connects them to collaborators.

Learning is about collaboration and networks

So who's using the platform?

We have a lot of researchers that do healthcare and molecular IP work like stem cell research. They are up in that quadrant of self-regulated learners. Our bots look at their behaviors, and start to reach out into both their molecular IP store, and then look externally for research from the different innovative research organizations like MIT, FDA, NIH, CDC, whatever. We pull the new research for them, and then surface experts for them to collaborate with.

Ramona Pierson, Declara

Knowledge acquisition has changed from memorization to the ability to craft inquiries and build networks. The professionals with the best peer networks have a learning advantage. You build those networks not by hoarding knowledge, but by freely sharing it:

It's all built around 21st century skills, right? Being able to quickly grasp knowledge. Interact with others. Collaborate to get at the insights, and then crowdsource insights and solutions, so that others who may be similar to you, or working in the same area, can collaborate and help you accelerate your learning.

Using these platforms isn't just about learning. It's about unlearning old ways of working:

Researchers tend to come up through an academic world where they're used to closing the door and focusing. We actually have to help them break some of those habits, and help them take the risk to put themselves out there as experts - so that they can guide teams around learning and innovation.

Lessons from Declara's large-scale educational projects

Declara's large-scale educational projects fascinate me. Why would they be drawn to Declara? What can they do on Declara that they couldn't do before?

Australia's agri-business and mining business is being reduced due to global warming and other factors. Instead of being a victim to a shrinking GDP, Australia decided "Let's change the outcomes of our workforce by changing the professional learning requirements for educators. Let's change the curriculum standards for students." In order to do that, they brought us in.

So what did the project entail?

We released our bots, our search crawlers, into the five different content stores that they have. We surfaced that in an intelligent way, so that the educators could crowdsource the re-alignments to the new standards. They were going to have to spend billions to replace all of their content to the new standards. That's why they leveraged us, so that they could get there more efficiently and cost-effectively.

In Mexico, Declara was asked to help move the country away from a struggling educational system:

In Mexico, the government had not funded education through high school. They only funded to basic education. Then for the first time ever, they arrested the head of the teachers union. People inherited their roles as teachers; they weren't certified.

The Mexico project is driven by a similar goal:

Now the law was they have to be certified, and they have to have a third party assessment to show that they're prepared. The union brought all their educators - 1.6 million of them - onto our platform to quickly bring them up to the professional learning standards that were just adopted.

The politics weren't easy:

They seriously took on the politics of this and took it straight on. Educators came in. We surfaced learning journeys and learning pathways for them based on what we learned. We then built a cognitive graph on all these educators so that we could better recommend courses and curriculum. Now they can have social learning and mentorships to help guide their learning.

And what about results?

When they compared us against other platforms, they said that we had an 80 percent pass rate, so we improved teacher learning faster and better than other systems have.

The wrap - why the enterprise needs learning platforms

Declara's use cases are relevant to enterprises:

Multi-national companies, enterprises and big educational systems have similar needs. Especially right now, because all of them are trying to modernize and digitize their workforce.

There are gobs of enterprise collaboration tools. So what sets Declara apart?

When you look a lot of collaboration platforms - and I won't mention them by name - you get set up and people put in content. You might connect with some of your colleagues in there, but there's nothing continuously driving you into a team to continue to work. We realize that engagement is a big thing to tackle. That's why we leveraged our NLP and machine learning.

There's more to the Declara story; I expect to return to this one. Our outgoing president has already given his thumbs up. Pierson told me behind the scenes. Obama said to her, "Oh, this is sort of Facebook for smart people." In part, that reflects Declara's UX approach: be intuitive and familiar. With a grant from Mark Zuckerberg, Declara is now adding a "portable cognitive graph" that enables decentralized learning on other platforms such as Facebook.

That's a wrap for now, but this is one to keep an eye on.

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