He’d like to teach the world – for free

Mike Feerick, founder of Alison, the free online educational site, has just won an innovation award at the Wise summit in Qatar

Watching the CEO of an Irish company receive one of the world's most prestigious prizes for innovation in education, it was surprising such celebrated international success should have such a low media profile in Ireland. With nearly 100,000 learners registered in Ireland, Alison is one of the largest education providers in the State – and all its courses are free. Alison founder Mike Feerick and his Galway-based team continue to set the pace in free online learning, an area of international education that is absolutely booming.

Alison (Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online), founded in 2007, now has two million registered learners worldwide, and more than 300,000 graduates of its courses. Each month, nearly 200,000 new learners sign up, many from developing countries, where access to traditional education and skills training is limited.

Thousands of colleges and universities are launching Moocs (Massive Online Open Courses), though few are as profitable and fast-growing as Alison. The judges in the World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) awards in Doha, Qatar, last week awarded Alison a prize for its outstanding quality and its "exceptional impact". In the thousands of testimonials on Alison's website, the phrase "you changed my life" crops up frequently. In a quiet moment after the glitzy ceremony – where Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the mother of the ruler of Qatar, presented him with the award trophy – Feerick reflected on how Alison has impacted on many lives.

He has always been interested in social entrepreneurship, believing you should set up new creative organisations not just for your own benefit, but for the wider betterment of society. A fortuitous friendship with Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney showed Feerick how little even billions of euro of philanthropic giving can do to address global issues. It occurred to him the best way to address a social issue was to create a sustainable business model to deal with any problem.


Extraordinary opportunity
In late 2005, Feerick saw his chance. Reflecting on the emerging new economics of the web, he realised the increasing ability to monetise online content would make it possible someday to provide high-quality educational content free online. It would open up an extraordinary business opportunity, but also the chance to revolutionise access to education worldwide. Alison signed up its first learner in April 2007; it was the beginning of an enterprise that has since flourished.

As the number of courses expanded, advertising revenue grew, which facilitates the site’s free access. The challenge was how to verify the learning on Alison, and Feerick came up with a very simple but powerful certification system based on the familiar typing test from the pre-PC world. Typing was once a qualifying skill for a job, and your claimed typing speed was tested for speed and accuracy on the spot.

Similarly, if you pass an Alison certificate or diploma course and cite it on a CV, you may be asked to sit an immediate “flash-test” on the course you studied, anytime, anywhere. Through the ubiquity of smartphones, employers can set an applicant an Alison test once they have an internet connection. Feerick says that while this may not be the way to test a PhD, it works fine for workplace skills such as spreadsheet, database, accounting or language. Employers, he says, care little about how much it cost to learn something, how long it took or where it was studied. They want the employee to possess the skill or knowledge they state they hold. This is particularly true with younger workers, he says.

As international attendees at the Wise summit congratulate Feerick and the Alison team on its success, the impact of the business internationally is clear; in Egypt and Nigeria Alison has 60,000 and 50,000 learners respectively.

“It is rather embarrassing” says Feerick. “I was told by one American journalist that Alison is now the largest online education provider in Africa – and I have never been there!”

While Alison’s success has been satisfying, Feerick says much can be improved. The range of courses is set to expand next year, and the company has started to align much of its free content with the Irish and UK school curriculum. “With the help of Project Maths teachers in Ireland, we have aligned a series of 300 maths videos to the ordinary and higher level maths Leaving Cert curriculum. Already, many hundreds of teachers and students are using these resources and we have got some rave reviews,” he says.

Published in partnership with traditional education publisher Macmillan, the project will be formally launched by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny soon. “He is actually responsible for us developing these resources in the first place,” says Feerick. “When I visited him last year (to discuss how Ireland might position itself as a leader in online learning), he challenged me: ‘What can you do for Leaving Certificate maths?’ He sees maths as exceptionally important to Irish economic development and long-term job creation, and he expressed concern that not every parent can afford to send their child to expensive grinds. That’s an issue I too feel strongly about.”

Free maths content
Next year, the company launches free maths content for other national standards, as well as an International Tech-Ready Certificate (the modern equivalent of the ECDL cert). As well as its office-based skills it will incorporate basis programming and analytics. It's developing workplace health awareness courses in partnership with a leading pharmaceutical multinational, and recently launched aptitude tests.

Over the past five years Feerick has separately founded what has become one of Ireland’s leading volunteer organisations, Ireland Reaching Out or Ireland XO, which now has over 3,000 volunteers across Ireland. “The Irish Diaspora is one of Ireland’s greatest unharnessed assets,” says Feerick. “However, it has been poorly organised of late, and that is about to change. It is my hobby gone mad,” he says. “I see Alison as how I might change the world for the better, and Ireland XO is my Irish project. It’s hard and constant work, but all you need is a warm and enthusiastic welcome in a parish hall some night and it makes it all worthwhile.”

A Harvard MBA and with a business degree from University of Limerick, Feerick has been honoured by both Ashoka and the Arthur Guinness Fund for his social entrepreneurship.

“A simple fact of life is that you cannot give without receiving, and if you give much, you will receive much,” he says.