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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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