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Thought Leaders in Online Education: Karen Francis, CEO of Academix Direct (Part 1)

Posted on Wednesday, Apr 16th 2014

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Online Education continues to be a fast-changing field, and various people are working on various aspects of the industry to make a complicated puzzle come together. This conversation explores some of those pieces.

Sramana Mitra:  Let’s start with introducing our audience to you as well as Academix Direct and CourseTalk.

Karen Francis: My name is Karen Francis. I’m the CEO and Executive Chairman of Academix Direct. I’ve been in my position for just over four years and I come with a strong marketing and general management background. I was fortunate enough to be on the Board of Trustees at Dartmouth College where I got my undergraduate degree. I have a Harvard MBA. That gave me a unique perspective on education and on what’s behind the curtain of putting together an academic institution. I’ve always been very passionate about education. I, myself, am a first generation college student. I feel very proud of my accomplishments and now I find myself in a unique position where I am able to help more people find the right educational outlet for them.

Academix Direct is a private equity-funded company founded in Silicon Valley in 2005. We provide marketing services to post-secondary colleges and universities and master’s degree programs. We help them find students. As a part of that, we have a site called CourseTalk, which is fairly new – less than a year old. It connects learners from all over the world to online courses whether they be free – what you would know as a MOOC – or paid. That’s what we do.

Sramana Mitra: In the Thought Leaders in Online Education series, the way we do these is talk about high level trends of your industry and get your perspective on that. We always pick people with interesting vantage points and see how they view the industry and the trends. From your point of view, what are the key trends driving your segment and how are you responding to them in the work that you are doing?

Karen Francis: I like to say that many people experience a time of revolution and they often don’t know it while it’s happening. You might look back 50 years ago and say, “Look at that revolution happening.” Today, we are experiencing a revolution in education and we know it. That’s a unique thing to be able to watch and experience. Certainly, it is enabled by technology. With the advancement of online courses as well as technologies that enable people, universities, and course providers to understand how learners learn, we are able to customize the learning experience to the person. The education sector isn’t ready for this yet.

I come from a consumer products background. You always think about what the consumers want. In all cases, the consumer is the student but the academic institutions haven’t necessarily always thought of their students as their consumers. Now, we’re in a time that technology is enabling the consumer to pick and choose and customize what they want for their particular purpose.

Sramana Mitra: To an extent though, right? In consumer marketing, the consumer makes the buying decision most of the time except when parents are making decisions for children. Here, the teachers are making the decisions and the consumers have to follow along.

Karen Francis: Not necessarily. Let’s say you are about to go to college and you have a choice of going to a Liberal Arts college. You will end up with a fantastic degree but without necessarily specific skills that you want for your career. Today’s student is actually in the position of saying, “I don’t necessarily want that combination. I want to be more precise.”

Sramana Mitra: In selecting curriculum, yes.

Karen Francis: And selecting colleges.

Sramana Mitra: In selecting colleges, they always had that liberty.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Thought Leaders in Online Education: Karen Francis, CEO of Academix Direct
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