In brave new world of online ed, Smarterer wants to track what you’re actually learning

When Boston-based Smarterer launched in late 2010, it was conceived as a way for people to quickly show others what they know. But, two years later, the company says it’s stumbled on to an important lesson: especially with the emerging crop of education startups, life-long learners need a way to assess their progress for themselves.

To that end, Smarterer (see disclosure), which uses crowdsourced tests to measure skill mastery, is shifting its attention away from being a site for public validation to being a platform to track personal learning.

“We started with the vision of you’re doing this because you want to prove to the world what you know – it was more about reputation management [and] trying to get the job,” said co-founder Dave Balter, who is also the CEO of marketing firm BzzAgent. “The deeper we got, the closer we came to the realization that people were using the system for much more intrinsic purposes … to understand if they were growing or not.”

People want to track personal growth

For example, he said, just three percent of active users this year have shared a Smarterer score externally. But, for some of the site’s most popular tests (those which assess user’s familiarity with Twitter, Facebook(s fb), HTML, Google(s goog) Analytics and others), the average number of sessions per user ranges from 6 to 8, meaning that people are returning to the test to see how they’re improving, Balter said.

Starting today, the biggest change users will see is the replacement of public profiles with personal dashboard, which follows the site’s removal of competitive leaderboards (although users can still privately see how they rank compared to others on the site).

The company has also improved its test flow so that people have a clear end to each test session (previously, users could continue answering an ongoing list of crowdsourced questions). Other additions include a new question review mode for looking over right and wrong responses and an easy way to continually benchmark and reassess the same skills at different dates.

Down the road, Balter added, Smarterer also plans to give users the option to add more information to the site, so that people who correctly answer questions can explain their responses and ultimately help educate others.

Identifying areas of strength and weakness

The new focus on benchmarking is an interesting and potentially big opportunity given the explosion of options for self-directed learning – from Udemy and Lynda to Coursera and Codecademy. For example, if someone takes a Udemy course on Excel(s msft), they could use Smarterer to see how they’re progressing. It’s true that a Udemy course likely already has skills assessments built in, but Smarterer could help users determine their progress within a larger context of crowdsourced questions.

Ultimately, Balter said, the site could add even more value — not just telling a user that she is “proficient” at Excel, but isolating the particular Excel skills she seems to have mastered and the ones that need more work, which could help her determine her next step.

As we’ve reported previously, the growth in online education has opened seemingly endless paths for learning, but figuring out the best courses to take and proving mastery of the skills you’ve set out to learn have become new challenges.

Many of the learning platforms themselves, as well as other startups, are creating new credentialing and certification models so that students can prove new skills and course completion to employers and others.

But there’s definitely still room for third parties to validate skill mastery for recruiting purposes, as well as to help students themselves figure out their next steps. LearningJar, an early-stage San Francisco startup, is similarly focused on helping people track their progress and navigate the growing world of informal instruction, but instead of using tests, it relies on the site’s community.

For now, Smarterer data is confined to its site, but, over time, Balter said, the startup could partner with online education platforms to help them figure out how their students are performing and the effectiveness of their products.

To date, the company has raised $3 million in venture funding and said users have answered more than 15 million questions.

Disclosure: True Ventures is an investor in Smarterer and the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.