We can learn from each other. That’s the idea at the core of Chapel Hill-based tech startup Participate, which combines your favorite parts of social media and online learning to connect professionals and increase organizational impact.
As a former math teacher, Participate CEO Mark Otter originally asked the question: How do we share lesson plans—and lessons learned—with other teachers? The first version of Participate answered that very question, connecting math teachers across the state for professional learning. Fast forward a decade, and Participate uses the same model to support other professions and organizations.
“If you take a step back and ask yourself, is there something specific about teachers?” Otter said. “Or is that true of all of us in different professions, that we need to be connected to each other, that we need to be learning together? You start to see how the model itself lends itself to different groups of professionals.”
In 2018, Participate made the leap to expand beyond teachers, including professional learning for legal and medical professionals, athletic directors, coaches and venture groups.
“It’s really kind of expanded beyond just teachers because there is that one consistent theme,” Otter said. “Which is: people like to learn together.”
The concept has caught on. Late last month, NC TECH recognized Participate as one of its 10 statewide “Startups To Watch.”
Otter built an early version of his idea back in 2006-’07 when he was still a math teacher in Orange County looking to connect other math teachers across the state. Later he joined Participate Learning, which has been around since the 1980s—well before there was anything called “edtech.” He led the way for Participate Learning to build a much bigger and better version for teachers across disciplines. Participate eventually spun out of Participate Learning when it began to apply its model to other professions.
Participate operates as a network of online communities of various professions, or what Participate calls “communities of practice.” Organizations have their own branded spaces, but members of communities can be members of more than just a single community, Otter said, as human beings have more than a single passion. Organizations contract with Participate to create these communities for employees, who grow in knowledge and skills.
With a tiered business model, Participate currently has around 100 organizations and 35,000 users. Users can achieve online certifications and digital badges to earn credit for their continued learning in what can be seen as a gold standard of professional learning models, Otter said.
“Our vision is to really bring this incredibly powerful model of professional learning to everybody who wants to use it, to provide the support to every organization who wants to do that,” Otter said. “We think if there’s one thing that Covid has demonstrated to us, it’s that it is a great model for the dynamic world we live in.”
In traditional learning models, one expert creates or encapsulates the knowledge and transfers it to others. But with Participate, you create a community of trust and actually create the knowledge yourselves.
Participate is increasingly focusing on specific professional “segments” that they’ve deemed ready for the models. While there are online communities like Facebook and Twitter, plus school management systems, Participate fills the gap of an informal learning space with others who share the same profession or passions.
In these times of teachers adapting to virtual learning amid the coronavirus crisis and figuring what works best, Participate has offered a crucial service. Otter said Participate wants to ensure everyone can learn the way they want to learn, where they want to learn.
“We knew that we were going to get out ahead of the market quite a bit,” Otter said. “But what Covid has done and the pandemic has done is it’s moved a lot of people who didn’t think they were going to be doing what they’re doing online, or thought what they were doing could never be done online, is now being done online.”
Even amid the pandemic, there are silver linings for startups like Participate.
“It’s really highlighting the shortcomings of our traditional learning models,” Otter said. “Both face-to-face, for obvious reasons, and our traditional online learning models.”