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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Interview with Emad Rizkalla, Bluedrop Performance Learning: Innovators in E-Learning Series

Finding cost-effective ways to provide e-learning to small users and to online institutions offering online education has been a challenge from the very beginning of e-learning, and many attempts have been made to provide "on-demand" repositories of courses, some with instruction, some without. Many of the solutions provided a cloud-based solution, with hosting of the entire process, while others simply provided the content (along with cartridges that would fit in the most commonly used LMS solutions). Many have had middling success, but found they could not sustain their model, either due to high overhead or undercapitalization, or both. Coursepark, developed by Bluedrop Performance, is taking an approach that pares down the LMS features and focuses primarily on the e-learning process rather than the technologies that facilitate it.

What is your name and your connection to e-learning?
My name is Emad Rizkalla and I am the President and CEO of Bluedrop Performance Learning. And I am also the President of our CoursePark Division. I began this company as a student in Mechanical Engineering to commercialize a class design project in 1992. I have been involved in e-learning since 1996 when we fell into the space while working with a French Pharmaceutical company. In 2000, I was profiled in TIME Magazine as one of 10 “Young Dynamic Entrepreneurs Who Will Create The 21st Century”.

For the past 15 years, Bluedrop has been a pioneer in the eLearning space, mostly by developing customized courseware for clients. In 7 different industries Bluedrop counts the global leader as its client. We have about 100 employees in five offices in Canada and the US and that is growing very quickly.

2. What is CoursePark? What is the underlying concept? What are CoursePark's functions? Who can use it? When? How? Why?

CoursePark aims to become the world’s Learning site where individuals and companies can select from thousands of courses by top publishers and experts. Companies can select or build courses to assign to employees, customers and partners…then track the results. Individuals can create their Lifelong Learning Profile and connect to others. All types of users can build, sell, share or rate courses. In the past few months alone, 25,000 new users from 50 countries have registered for CoursePark.

For companies, CoursePark provides a strong alternative to the traditional LMS. Simply put, CoursePark is where people go to build, buy, take, administer and schedule training. The underlying concept is that CoursePark is built from the “learner up”… not the “company down”. CoursePark delivers value to individuals in managing their lifelong Learning Profile and sharing it with colleagues or employers. This value to individual employees also makes it a logical choice for companies to manage their corporate learning.

Anyone can use CoursePark—in seconds.

3. What are some of the gaps you see in course management / learning management systems today?

Traditional LMSs are overloaded with many unnecessary features that have been put in place to compete against each other in the “LMS War”. They are pricy and complicated... and mostly geared towards larger organizations. Most companies need technical people to implement and use them and sometimes corporations take years to evaluate, select, implement and populate an LMS. More importantly traditional LMS’ have ignored a key ingredient... focus on the learner! Learning management systems, in the traditional sense, cater overwhelmingly to corporate interests and offer little for the employee which results in minimal employee engagement.

The “corporate university” is a dinosaur that no one buys into anymore. Alternately, CoursePark is the true embodiment of individual learning and empowerment. It combines individual learning autonomy, corporate training structure and a dash of the virtual water cooler. Simply put, it contains all the elements for individuals and corporations to build a true learning culture. And there is no “IT guy” required!

4. Please explain how you see elearning evolving over the next few years.

Loaded Question. First of all, content is becoming more difficult to source due to the proliferation of options. Learners tell us overwhelmingly they want to go to one place for courseware – it doesn’t matter if it is company mandated training, professional development or personal development. Banking has been “person centered” for decades. Health information is moving towards “patient centered” models…. Likewise, we believe that learning histories will also become “person centered” so individuals can control and share this date and don’t find themselves chasing this data all over the web.

As the new generation of workers cycle through workplaces eLearning will evolve accordingly. These groups of younger workers tend to combine learning, working and entertainment—and their optimum learning curve will become a mix of the three. eLearning platforms will encompass more social learning features and will become “smarter”, help identify learning styles and recommend appropriate courses. In addition, with the increasing use of iPads and mobile devices, eLearning delivery platforms will expand into these spaces. We constantly monitor how eLearning requirements progress and will continue to add features to keep CoursePark on the cutting edge of technology and delivery.

5. What do you think are the key determinants in student success, including retention and graduation rates?

In the corporate world, we look for performance and behavioral changes that occur as a result of the training that we develop for clients. Has the number of safety incidents decreased? Are people faster and more efficient in the operation or repair of a particular piece of machinery? Is time to competency for a particular action reduced?

From an individual learner perspective, we look to ensure first of all that content is being “pulled” by eager learners versus being “pushed” by desperate employers. Then we also look to see if the employee is achieving their particular learning needs.

We believe that by empowering the learners this will increase individual success. CoursePark allows learners to take charge of their learning futures at their convenience and at their own pace. We also aim to let every learner become their own learning institution by contributing to discussions, rating courses and even building their courses with our CourseBuilder tool. Many studies link successful uptake in a corporate learning environment to A) a great platform B) great courses C) having a communication plan, D) tying e-learning into performance reviews E) recognizing learning achievement in the organization and F) calling or contacting users within the first 2 weeks of them registering for a new course (to see how they are doing).

Our success for clients—is ultimately measured by our impact on employee turnover, increased employee morale, a reduction in corporate training costs and an overall return on investment. Not easy to measure—but critical to focus on!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Interview with Mac Adkins, SmarterServices: Innovators in E-Learning Series

Colleges find that they can help their students by providing support services such as tutoring and writing lab / math lab support in a distributed, online environment. The colleges and universities that are primarily online find they often need to offer a variety of courses and support services which often include links to Purdue's Online Writing Lab, the West Texas A&M Math Lab, and others including learning readiness tools, including SmarterServices.

Welcome to an interview with Mac Adkins, CEO and founder of SmarterServices, an array of services that help online students succeed.

What is your name and your relation to e-learning?

My name is Mac Adkins, with SmarterServices ( We provide four web-based services that schools use primarily in their distance learning departments. Our services measure online student readiness, collect & report perceptions of course effectiveness from students, provide a searchable database of online faculty, and provide a searchable database of neutral testing proctors.Please see the information on our Products page at

How has your vision / mission changed over the last few years?

What caused it to expand, change, become modified?SmarterServices was founded in 2002 as DECADE Consulting (Distributed Education Consulting And Development Experts). Our initial mission was to identify common problems in leading distance education programs and then develop low-cost yet robust resources. After doing that for four years, we had crafted a "tool box" of resources that many schools were using to make their distance education programs stronger. In 2006 we changed the name of the company to eLearningToolBox to denote the set of tools that we provided to distance learning leaders.

Toward the end of that decade, schools were using our tools across the enterprise and not just in their eLearning programs. At that point we recognized that the name eLearningToolBox was a limiting descriptor. In 2010 we changed the name to SmarterServices. At the same time we also changed the name of each of our four products using a consistent naming strategy with the word "smarter" as the first part of the product name.

Since 2002 over 830,000 students from over 500 colleges, universities, K-12 schools, and corporations have used our tools and services.

What do you see as the most important emerging trend of the last 18 months?

What do you see emerging right now? How will the emerging trends of today affect tomorrow's elearning environment? In the last 18 months the emerging trend has been passing the educational buck on to the students. Because of the declining budgets of most states schools have had to reduce services and/or increase prices. The cost of education, in most cases especially online learning, has substantially increased.

What often happens is that the students then finance these increased costs through student loans. Now as those students are finishing their degree programs their student loans are coming due yet the economy is not much better and many of them are experiencing problems obtaining gainful employment with their degrees. In the next 18 months I see mobile learning as being a growing trend.

Students are expecting to be able to engage in their learning experience using small segments of time as they connect through their mobile devices such as smart phones, tablet computers, etc. Most of the major learning management systems providers are not scrambling to make sure that their interfaces and communications channels are accessible through these mobile devices.

Where do you see the biggest bright spots in education for at-risk populations?

I am not sure in which sense you are using the term “at-risk populations.” So if my response does not fit your question please let me know. I consider the term “at-risk population” to mean a subset of learners who are at-risk of not doing well in an online course due to individual attributes, skill sets, or external circumstances. It is a fact that some learners are more ready to learn at a distance than others. I think the bright spot is that schools are not realizing this and doing something about it.

Very often the first thing they do about it is using the SmarterMeasure Learning Readiness Indicator to identify the students who may be at risk. Then they are providing appropriate forms of remediation and support to make them better equipped to succeed. Finally they are using forms of business intelligence such as online course participation metrics that can be harvested from learning management systems to quickly flag students who are not participating at an acceptable level then intervening with appropriate forms of communication.

Using these three steps of assessment, remediation and monitoring schools are not longer just tossing the at-risk students into the pool and hoping that they can swim.

What do you do to assure that online assessment is the best it can be?

The only assessment that I can speak for is the online assessment that we provide – the SmarterMeasure Learning Readiness Indicator. Almost monthly we make enhancements to the assessment and/or the related services.

These enhancements almost exclusively come from suggestions for improvement from the schools and students that are using the service. In addition to this constantly evolving process every other year we have a professional psychometrician conduct an item analysis to make sure the reliability and validity of the assessment remains strong.

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