A poor online education experience can lead to negative reviews on social media sites. In the UK, there have been many complaints posted about Shaw Academy, an online education platform.
Shaw Academy may not be a household name but it is one of the biggest companies in online education and claims that 12 million people have “graduated” from its dozens of courses with an up to tenfold increase in students after the lockdown.
Courses range from digital marketing and web design to learning the guitar and wedding photography. They are typically free for four weeks, then £49.99 a month. But to sign up, users have to enter their payment details and some have complained that the company makes it very difficult to cancel the free trial – several claim that although they cancelled before the deadline, money was still taken out of their account.
We have also seen emails in which company representatives have asked customers to delete negative Trustpilot reviews or replace them with positive ones.
Although Shaw Academy highlights its “excellent” Trustpilot rating on the front page of its website, this week the review website put a prominent banner notice on the page, stating: “This company and its reviews are currently under investigation.”
Some customers also complain about being bombarded with emails, texts, WhatsApp messages and phone calls, some of which try to persuade them to buy more services.
However, Shaw Academy tells Money that “99.5% of customers have zero issues”, adding that its global ratings were “exceptionally high” and that while Covid-19 had been challenging, “we have worked tirelessly to make improvements”.
Founded in 2012 and with its headquarters in Dublin and bases in the US, India and South Africa, it specializes in online video classes aimed at helping people build their business, hobby or career.
When Daniel Smith, 40, from Hereford, spotted a Facebook advert for a free four-week online web development course, he could not believe his luck. Wanting to develop his skills, he clicked on Shaw Academy’s Facebook page and saw that it had nearly 1m likes, including from eight of his friends.
He signed up and when the final step of registration requested debit/credit card or PayPal details, Smith hesitated. But, feeling safe with PayPal’s customer security, he continued.
After choosing when he wanted to schedule his free lessons, a pop-up banner appeared on his phone asking whether he wanted a “toolkit” containing additional resources for the course for £39.95.
“My background is IT, so I am familiar with pop-ups,” Smith says. “But the peculiar thing about this one was it took up my entire screen and the ‘x’ to close it was tiny and right in the corner. So I very carefully made sure I used the edge of my finger to close it.”
Then another pop-up appeared, this time for an “e-certificate”. A moment or two later, he says, the toolkit pop-up appeared again. This time, when he was slightly hastier in closing it, a “PayPal payment £39.95 to Shaw Academy” notification appeared on the screen.
He emailed Shaw Academy explaining that he did not want a toolkit and did not click on the pop-up – he clicked on the “x”. Smith says: “What came out of these simple requests was a week of torture.” He disputed the payment with PayPal, prompting a “long back and forth”, but a few days later was told he had been refunded the £39.95.
A Shaw Academy Facebook group set up in January 2020 claims to have more than 3,500 members and features hundreds of negative comments.
Meanwhile, on Trustpilot, despite its alert about the investigation, vast numbers of reviews were still appearing this week, many very brief but with five stars. Money counted about 25 in the space of one hour (4pm to 5pm on Tuesday), of which nine were one star.
At the time of writing, there were about 3,800 one-star reviews out of 27,200, with many claiming money was taken out of their account even though they had cancelled.
Veronika Solnickova, 33, a retail manager living in Dublin, thought that ending her €179.95 (£162) yearly membership – she had signed up to a sports nutrition course – would be simple.
She says she selected an option to be notified one day before the subscription was to end but that did not happen and she was shocked to find she had been charged another €179.95 for another year.
She says she should have been notified before being charged – she checked all her email folders but says nothing was sent – and claims the company was in breach of contract, prompting her to file a complaint with PayPal.
A couple of days later, after she posted a negative review on Trustpilot, Shaw Academy emailed to say that a refund would arrive in a few days. Sent by a customer support representative – and seen by Money – it states: “I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t mind removing your review or giving us a good rating on trustpilot.com, just until I have the chance to rectify the problem for you.” Another similar request followed a few days later.
Solnickova did not change her review and did eventually get her money: “I assume Shaw Academy gave the go-ahead to PayPal to proceed with the refund.” She says: “I consider myself to be lucky. Many people all over the world are being taken advantage of during the pandemic. They make it impossible to cancel and keep charging people.”
Asked about the alert on the Shaw Academy page, Trustpilot tells Money: “We take the integrity of our platform extremely seriously. Should we become aware of any company breaching our guidelines and trying to mislead consumers, we will take action. Our investigation continues but we have already issued formal cease-and-desist proceedings and if we don’t receive a satisfactory response we will take further enforcement action.”
James Egan, the chief executive of Shaw Academy, says “the positives outnumber the negatives by many multiples”, adding: “We have tried to respond during this crisis as best we could and we appreciate that, at times, the influx of new students combined with the global lockdown has created suboptimal experiences for a very small percentage of users relative to the many millions we have educated. This peaked in March and April, which I note is when most of the customers you are quoting experienced these issues.”
Egan says: “Our refund policies are far more flexible than almost all B2C [business-to-consumer] subscription providers, ie, we refund even when users have not cancelled.”
The company says it had also been providing customers who cancel with an extra two months’ credit for free, “to help people in need during this crisis”.
Shaw Academy says the requests to change Trustpilot reviews were against company policy “and was not sanctioned”. It says: “We are working with the individuals involved to ensure this does not happen again. We would not want to undermine the trust that customers place in either us or Trustpilot.”
In response to Smith’s case, Shaw Academy says it has refunded him: “In terms of the toolkit purchase, Mr Smith had the option to close the ad, move to a different part of the page, close the web page altogether or just not make the purchase.”
In response to Solnickova’s case, it says that as she had not cancelled her subscription, technically she was not entitled to a refund but that it provided one “as it was the right thing to do given the circumstances”.