Alumna making her mark on e-learning

David Fitzgerald // Special to Western News

Crowdmark CEO Michelle Caers, BA’94 (Political Science), stands as one of the country’s leading e-learning entrepreneurs, forging new pathways for educators and students.

Michelle Caers has no fear of an open road unfurling in front of her.

Two years ago, Caers, BA’94 (Political Science), hopped on her motorcycle in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial and headed out on the open highway alone – Toronto to Vancouver. “Canada is such a beautiful country. I loved that ride.”

She is an explorer. Lived in four countries. Visited more than 50. One day hopes to make that 100. “Seeing the world has definitely made me a better person.”

That love of new horizons has served the Crowdmark CEO well as one of the country’s leading e-learning entrepreneurs, as she forges new pathways for educators and students.

The woman who loved September as a little girl, because it signaled the start of school, has continued to live that passion for education into adulthood. She worked as a regional sales manager of an e-learning solutions company, spent five years at an India-focused higher-ed marketing firm, and then helped develop the marketing campaigns for TOEFL, one of the most well-known English proficiency tests.

Helming the 5-year-old Crowdmark today seems like a natural fit.

“When I graduated from Western, I saw how the Internet was becoming popular and how it could have a huge impact on education,” she said. “I knew the Internet would democratize and open up education to people who couldn’t access it before.”

Crowdmark is looking to disrupt the grading process.

With roots dating back to University of Toronto professor James Colliander, the company digitizes paper-based exams and homework allowing educators to grade anywhere, anytime. Exams can be scanned into the platform after they are written; students can upload their homework assignments directly via laptop or even cell phone. Professors, along with teaching assistants, can then grade the work online.

“Everything is returned faster with richer feedback, all done electronically,” said Caers, who joined Crowdmark as its chief marketing officer in 2014. She was named CEO in 2018. “Students love it. And the professors are more productive.”

Crowdmark users have graded 42 million pages in more than 36 countries since it launched. Universities and colleges are the company’s core clients, the University of Toronto, and University of Waterloo.

Western was an early adopted of the system, using it for two and a half years within the Department of Mathematics. Department Chair Graham Denham called the experience “uniformly positive.” He found the system particularly useful within math, where exams are tailored to short written answers. The system allowed professors to look at variations in student responses, and assess each in a more organized and efficient.

“It was a fairer way than just flipping through stacks and stacks of papers,” Denham said.

Student feedback was positive, as well, with particular nods to being able to submit homework via camera phone.

Leading Crowdmark is light years away from Caers’ upbringing in Grand Bend, Ont., the daughter of a banker and homemaker. Echoing her teen self who adored everything about school, Caer began to watch how the rise of online communities and technologies intersected with her favourite sector.

When she later wrote her masters dissertation on e-learning, it inspired her to delve deeper into education-tech, where startups aimed to upend the usually staid sector of classrooms and corner-stapled essays. She worked for two years as regional sales manager of Desire2Learn, an e-learning solutions provider, and soon after served as Chief Customer Officer for Savvica, a higher education marketing company with a focus on India.

In 2013, she founded the design firm DesignedUX. “I’ve always had the passion to improve the user experience online.”

Her day-to-day Crowdmark responsibilities don’t follow the 9-to-5 regimen, par for the course for any startup gaining momentum in their space. She is wide-ranging. “Some days I’m working on contracts and other days I’m involved in HR, looking to hire new people. Other days, it’s fundraising and talking to investors and bankers.

“But my favourite part is getting feedback from customers. There’s no better feeling than pushing out a feature that solves a problem for our customers.”