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Big Data For Higher Ed: With $4.1M From First Round, Floodgate, Former Kaplan Exec Launches Civitas Learning

As colleges and universities strain their resources to accomodate an ever-growing, diverse student body, it becomes increasingly difficult to track the progress of individual students and figure out what's working in their curricula, coursework, testing, and teaching styles. An appalling number of students in the U.S. are still dropping out before they earn a degree, and despite Mark Zuckerbergian exceptions, attrition means sunk costs for students, difficulties finding jobs, and loan defaults.

To improve academic outcomes and keep students in school, teachers, learners and administrators need access to insight in realtime. Big data, predictive analytics, machine learning and recommendation engines are transforming the way we buy products, play games and watch movies, and Civitas Learning believes that the same should be true for education.

Historically, higher education has been anything but data driven, so this week the Austin-based startup came out of stealth to launch a service that combines student demographic, behavioral and academic info with next-gen analysis, recommendation and data modeling tech to let institutions build and make sense of their big data. The startup is working with community colleges, four-year universities, and proprietary schools to build what it claims is already the largest cross-institutional data set in the industry, with over one million student records and more than seven million course records on file.

To help the startup in its mission, Civitas has also announced that it has raised $4.1M in funding from Austin Ventures, First Round Capital, and Floodgate to help it bring big data insight to higher education.

With capital in tow, Civitas is looking to provide colleges and universities not only with smart learning tools but also the ability to create their own learning apps based on its "Learning Community's" application programming interfaces. By doing so, Civitas is providing an alternative path for scaling tools and solutions across institutions, through supporting publisher-created apps as well as those built by startups that otherwise could never invest in the integrations with campus systems or the sales cycles necessary to establish relationships with higher ed institutions.

In turn, the startup's participating institutions can identify trends across swaths of student learning data, including a realtime view of which students are at risk of dropping out (and why), the ability to identify specific courses and degree paths that are contributing to attrition, and, in turn, what specific resources and interventions are most successful and for what type of students.

Civitas, which was founded by Charles Thornburgh, a former executive at educational giant, Kaplan, who spent nine years as an in-house entrepreneur and launched a handful of edtech businesses for both K-12 and higher ed, is currently working with more than a dozen institutions to optimize their data sets. Student populations are becoming more diverse and learning modalities are expanding to include online and blended tools and platforms, and faculty responsibilities are changing (and growing) as a result. But leaving them without actionable data, crappy interfaces, and clunky reports as they take on more advising and student interventions is dangerous.

So, on the flip side, to help faculty channel the noise, Civitas allows them to flag which students are at risk based on realtime engagement data, providing informed intervention suggestions, examples of outreach resources that have helped similar students, and provide a glimpse into what techniques or curricular resources are working best. In turn, the service enables students to better choose degree and course selection, find better course combos, and recommend better ways to spend their time and get better grades.

As to how it's making money? The startup plans to generate revenue by charging subscription fees to its member institutions based on how many administrators, faculty members and students are receiving its personalized reports and recs. Of course, institutions aren't exactly rolling in cash, so the startup sees an opportunity to give a little bit back as its community grows by offering rev sharing apps made available through its learning network.

It's a smart approach to yet another big problem in our educational system: Optimizing big data. As more schools join and its data set increases, its value to those institutions and their teachers and students will increase. Just as scores of startups and tech companies have done with their own data sets and technologies. Of course, its all about building that network of institutions and just how well its recommendations play among teachers and students.

It took Netflix years to find the right concoction of algorithms, data, and intelligence to best optimize recommendations for movie recommendations and discovery, and hopefully Civitas has learned from Netflix and the many other examples. If it has, it stands to make the educational experience far more effective.