“Boosted my career”, “built my confidence”, “empowered myself and my community”, and, simply, “got a job”. When reading the testimonials written by Nigerian students who have taken one of Alison’s free online education courses, its transformative impact on people’s lives is striking.
Inspired by Article 26 of the 1946 Declaration of Human Rights: “Education shall be free”, Ireland-based social entrepreneur Mike Feerick sought to break down existing barriers to education by founding Alison, one of the first truly free global learning platforms, pre-dating by some years the massive open online course (MOOC) movement.
Currently, Alison offers more than 1,000 free learning courses on a wide range of subjects including languages, humanities and IT. It has more than 13 million registered users in 195 countries, with one million of them actively using the platform every month.
“We need to create sustainable, scalable models to allow the information of the world to be freely available,” says Alison Founder and CEO Feerick. “There are those that know and those that don’t know, and we need to create a seamless flow from one to the other. We see Alison’s role as taking the skills and knowledge of the world and releasing them to everyone.”
Disrupting the system
Technology is key to achieving Alison’s mission. Feerick’s idea was to provide free educational content via a technological solution that would make it both affordable and accessible to all. “In education, video content is becoming very important and that is very applicable to online learning,” Feerick says.
The arrival of new technologies in the workplace, such as artificial intelligence and automation, has made Alison’s courses even more valuable, especially as education establishments are unlikely to have the resources to address the need for continuous learning and development.
Alison’s focus over time has shifted to the workplace, and on making people more employable. It wants to support those people who have not had access to higher education yet want to further their professional or personal skills. People in this position represent the vast majority of the global workforce, especially in less developed countries.
Disrupting a sector as large and economically fundamental as education would never be easy. “Education and skills is a large industry,” says Feerick. “Some people like the way it is – it is a very good business for some, and they don’t want it to change.”
Cultural and social norms that only value formal education present a formidable challenge to Alison, as they deny many outside those structures the opportunity to progress in society and earn a good living.
“Many employers search for talent only among the limited pool of college graduates,” says Feerick. By doing so, they focus very often on so-called “signaling” – i.e. placing more value on the completion of a degree at a renowned institution rather than judging the skills and knowledge of a candidate.
These obstacles to education have remained in place since Alison was founded and continue to fuel its founder’s motivation, giving the company a mission to achieve.
“Informal learning helps sharpen what people need to know and how to apply it in the workplace today,” he says. “We have a big gateway to education and greater employability that is currently denied to a huge percentage of people. Of course, there are skills shortages in the world when you’re only looking at the 7% of the world’s population who have ever gone to college.”
The figures speak for themselves in terms of the positive effect that Alison’s online courses can have. An in-depth analysis of student outcomes in Nigeria conducted in 2017, shows that more than 60% of users saw their workplace skills improve after taking a course on Alison. A further 17% stated that Alison had helped them advance in their careers.
Growing by numbers
At the start, Alison created and published most of the online courses. This was followed by a phase where it partnered with bigger corporations and publishers such as Macmillan. In more recent years, it has opened up the production of courses to smaller publishers – a path it continues by piloting a project in collaboration with 50-100 publishers around the world who are independently creating courses via a free web-based publishing platform that Alison provides. Feerick expects this to lead to the production of 100 courses a month.
Within this context, Alison is also seeking to engage more with corporations and help them transfer knowledge within their organizations through the use of its online platform and publication tool. It believes that the structure offered via the tool helps capture and share the knowledge of individuals that would otherwise be lost once they exit the company or the workforce altogether. Feerick suggests that every business should be training its employees and customers to a much higher degree.
For the coming years, Alison intends to continue on its path of 100% annual growth, taking its user numbers to 50 million, then 100 million and beyond.
“As a social entrepreneur and as an individual, you ask yourself, how can I make the world a better place with a single pursuit?,” says Feerick. “That pursuit has to be sharing the value of knowledge across the world – to enable people to be more confident, more empowered and more employable.”