Last week we got the time to interact with Don Loonam, CEO, CourseTalk to get his insights on the global growth of online courses, some of the common observations about online learners and the impact of crowd sourced reviews on student enrollment and completion.

He is CEO of AcademixDirect, which connects learners with the right educational opportunities for them, Don also leads CourseTalk, the world's largest source for reviews of online courses, acquired by AcademixDirect in 2013. Don has more than fifteen years of executive leadership experience and a passion for expanding access to education that springs from his experience as a first-generation college student. Previously, Don was Executive Vice President at AccuQuote and Vice President of Sales at Washington Mutual.

Watch the interview video or read the transcript below.

For those who don’t know about Coursetalk, tell us about it from different stakeholders’ perspective.

Key stakeholders for CourseTalk are young students preparing for universities or the undergraduate students who are looking for exposure in their area of core concentration; and even individuals seeking certification for particular skills for employability.

We offer over 40000 courses, many from elite universities and course providers. This offers learners to browse, audit and enroll the students. The real value proposition here is that it offers a universal online course catalogue with a benefit of over 100000 student reviews that talk about quality and relevance of courses by fellow student with 90% of reviews by enrollees who have completed the course.

They get to learn “Is this the right course for me?”

We have found that the enrollment rate is higher when student sees the course description well with rating and reviews in a paragraph form.

As the MOOC industry matures, how important a tool are reviews for helping online learners navigate the proliferation of courses?

CourseTalk is a collective experience of those hundreds and thousands of students who have reviewed and rated the courses. We are happy to report that is there is a strong co-relation. The 3 observations are:

  • We have seen a 10x increase in click through rate when a course had description and rating mentioned in comparison to ones which didn’t.
  • And if we have minimum of 3-5 reviews, not only the enrolment rate went up but also the completion rate.
  • The willingness to pay for highly reviewed content is positive.

What are some of the pressing issue facing online learners?

Access to internet is still an issue for masses.

Another issue is the issue of distinguishing a particular course one from the other, without the benefit of hearing where the courses went right and wrong without the context of a review. Crowd sourced review can communicate the quality to the new students taking the course. For example from the description the course might sound to be a practical course but after going through 3-4 modules, you find out it is a theoretical one, so again assuming that the particular student does not have hours to discover that it’s a wrong course, a review system is a great proposition.

MOOC providers are currently making major investments in the Indian market, how do you see it growing in a country like India?

We are excited as we are global. As the Indian MOOC providers begin the process of developing and scaling, we hope to be at the forefront and making them part of our catalogue. I think we will see similar challenges what we have seen in the US. For example, the common mistakes were simply taking the classroom environment and putting it online.

For us it is the second largest market currently, but I think because of the size it might click and we see rapid innovation taking it ahead of the US in coming years. This will be a result of Tier 1 colleges and universities not having enough seats to facilitate the need of the huge market.

What are your views about the current MOOC model from your experience? Do you suggest any improvement?

There are challenges around relevance for students, but in general what we missed was completion rate, they are usually below 10%. I think we can close the gap between employability skills and higher education and stay relevant for online learners.

The industry has grown in these 3-4 years and I think we have found the problems already and are working to improve the ecosystem.

Tell us about your team, who do you have supporting you?

We have a fantastic group of people here in Silicon Valley. But it stretches beyond that. We have team members in Seattle, Denver and we also have an offshore development team who are part of our family.

What bonds us is that we all see our work as a mission to provide access for all people to world’s best educational content. Our private equity partners, board of directors, staff and consultants all share the powerful vision of contributing to the society and this is a source of inspiration for me.

What/Who motivates you? Any thought leader(s) whom you follow for success?

The future of my two young daughters and by extension all young people in the world is what motivates me the most. If we are to thrive in coming generations, it is going to depend on the choices we make in next 10-15 years and access to education must spread rapidly.

Being able to play a small part of this revolution is a true motivation.And finally being in Silicon Valley you can throw a stone and find someone who is inspiring :)

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