Making magic with free online learning One man’s passion and commitment to free online education has given knowledge, jobs, promotions and self respect to enormous numbers across the world, and proved education is not the privilege of only the rich.


When Mike Feerick, the Founder CEO of ALISON, a pioneering e-learning organisation, decided in 2007 to make online education totally free “people said who do you think you are, providing free education and with your own certification? So I said look, when John Harvard started, he was just one guy in a room with a bunch of books. And he taught well. And look at where Harvard is today.” If you do things well, repeat them, people come back to you and also tell their friends and colleagues, and eventually you will develop a reputation.

Mike Feerick receiving the 2014 WISE award from Qatar Foundation Chair Sheikha Moza bint Nasser​.
Mike Feerick receiving the 2014 WISE award from Qatar Foundation Chair Sheikha Moza bint Nasser​.

“At the end of the day what is a bank? A bank is a very make-believe thing … yes they build nice columns outside the building to make it look like a fortress but really it is built on confidence and so is any reputation.” He believes that both ALISON’s reputation and services are getting much better.

If that weren’t so, his organisation, probably the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), wouldn’t have grown so fast. The last time I interviewed Feerick, in January 2014, he had reached free online education to 2 million people, including 300,000 in India. In 15 months that number has catapulted to 5 million with fast approaching half a million in India. So how did he achieve this feat?

Feerick says when they started offering free online courses, for some time people were suspicious of the freebie. Though technically good, navigation wasn’t too smooth on the website and the content was moderate with only 50–100 courses; now it has 750. There is an “element of critical mass; after the first million, the second million came pretty quickly and it got easier further down the line.”

600,000 with ALISON certificates

He says the website has improved and got navigationally better, “we’ve got smarter about how people find us on the web and 600,000 people around the world have now been certified on ALISON. People who’ve graduated from our courses have got jobs, promotions, college placements, so it is clear ALISON certifications are developing a real currency in the job marketplace.”

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And the growth continues; in February this year 200,000 people signed up. “You asked me the secret; the honest truth is that a lot of people need to learn, we have got our act together, and we have a good business model.”

That model is simple, the courses are free and you can get your certificates online. But if you want physical certificates, as a lot of people do, you have to pay, and this, along with ads on the website, ensures that he can pay his bills. “In the early days, I had to fund ALISON out of my own pocket, and that was tough!”

Feerick, who has two degrees in management, one from Harvard, ran an IT company and charged for digital literacy. When he turned it into a free model in 2007 by launching ALISON, some of his institutional customers wanted to pay because it was easier to do that than explain to their bosses why they were using a free service, “because free had a connotation of not-so-good quality.” Only from 2010–12, people became less suspicious of free learning.

Women learners

About 65 per cent of ALISON learners are women, and a good number of them come from the Middle East where women have broadband connectivity and time but are not allowed to go outside to study. So what kind of hope does ALISON hold out for them? Feerick says recently they sent out an email seeking innovative stories from learners. “Some people said they were disabled and can’t get out of their homes, or are sick and in hospital, or otherwise well but can’t move, or are in prison … they all use our services.” Many women, quite a few from Pakistan, said “ALISON has been a godsend to them because their husbands, families or communities won’t allow them to go out and learn. Some of the stories bring tears to your eyes.”

Tati Haryati from Indonesia.
Tati Haryati from Indonesia.

He adds that in very touching, heart-felt stories from some countries women said they’re accused of being dull and incapable of contributing to society. “We’re not that. We’re just being kept in a closet. Please help us get out of there…” and we are doing that by improving their skills, helping them educate themselves and generally increasing their confidence.

ALISON received the WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) prize from the Qatar Foundation in 2014. In partnership with a Qatari IT organisation it has translated five of its programmes into Kurdish. When the courses were launched in Iraq recently, a university told him that this was the “first online course in Kurdish that they are aware of!”

Course for NGOs

ALISON has just launched a training course for NGOs in association with the Aga Khan Foundation on how to monitor and evaluate their work. This should be of interest to India as here too several NGOs have been accused of siphoning off funds. Feerick says there are complaints of huge inefficiencies within the NGO community where people give money with good intentions but it is not being managed well, and donors see too little value emerging from it.

India and ALISON

Their most popular courses in India are English — particularly spoken English — and different kinds of business courses. He is working with AISECT (All India Society for Electronics and Computer Technology) and the National Skill Development Council in India to roll out his courses here in a bigger way. On Union Minister Rajeev Pratap Rudy’s submission at the Rotary Literacy Meet that only two per cent of India is skilled, Feerick says the only solution to really scale up is free online learning.

Anthony Alas from Nigeria.
Anthony Alas from Nigeria.

Today one thing that is stopping mobile companies around the world from expanding is not access, but literacy skills. “Their dilemma is that they are mobile people and not trainers. The difficulty is that when you get somebody online and give them a phone they need both the ability to read and be digital literate.”

ALISON also offers courses for entrepreneurs and Indians are lapping these up along with business courses. A survey done by ALISON last year found that 26 per cent of their graduates across the world said that completing ALISON courses had encouraged them to consider self employment. “Take women who have a craft; they may not have thought of working for themselves. They may not understand basic marketing, but they can learn this stuff for free and say, ‘it is not so difficult, I can do it.’ ”

Feerick says not only in India but also the developed world, the main jobs are coming not from companies that employ 500 or 1,000 people but from start-ups and scale-ups; companies that start with just one or two and then scale up to 10–15 and beyond.

Africa experience

Coming to Africa, there is such a huge hunger for education that “in Africa some learners do every course we offer. Access is becoming less of a problem and “the number of smart phones in Africa is stunning us.” This month his performance report shows that 23 per cent of his learners do so on the mobile, and “that is what is driving our huge following in Africa.”

An interesting nugget he gives is that if in a country like Nigeria 100 nurses apply for a healthcare job and there is none with a degree from a professional nursing college and only one with an ALISON nursing certificate or Diploma, she will be able to prove she knows enormously more about healthcare and nursing than the others, and will often get the job.

A recent research study where 1,000 businesses were surveyed by the Open University in the UK showed that informal certification from free online courses was the third most important factor employers look for. “These are not certificates from traditional universities. Employers want to see that employees, particularly in their 40s and 50s are still learning and interested to learn more.”

In 2007 the online learning space was a lonely place to be in “but you cannot be afraid of being a pioneer. If you believe in the vision of what you are doing, you have to stick to it,” says Feerick.

Mike Feerick with some of his staff members.
Mike Feerick with some of his staff members.

So what next? The benefit of having 5 million people on board is that the website is extremely busy. Building on the innovative certification model that anyone can be tested on any subject, anywhere at any time, ALISON will continue to give free online education to millions, and hopefully someday, billions. “As a social enterprise, we can take the long term approach. It’s not about immediate profit maximisation but an ideal and having the opportunity to make this happen. With such an opportunity of course, comes a responsibility too when you know the impact you can have. We have the capability, leadership, vision and a head start and tremendous momentum. We have an enormous number of people out there who want to see us grow and that helps … just like having a chat with Rotary News helps!”

Feerick adds that many people, like sheep, don’t know who to follow and often follow the loudest people in the room, which isn’t always the wisest thing to do. To that end, he admits that ALISON does not have a large marketing budget and that is why champions are so important. But there is always a small group of influential people who say we should be looking here in the corner and not the centre of the room/screen. Many of these type of people can be found within Rotary worldwide he says.

A parallel and related issue, particularly in fast growing countries like India, he says, is that though education is moving and changing so rapidly, how quickly can the government respond? “The truth is that it can’t because the system is so slow and cumbersome. There are some great people in these organisations but they are restricted in what they can do within the rigid system. So in India, it is too much to expect the system to be reformed. Something totally outside the accepted parameters has to come … an alternative, the economics of which are so compelling that those have to be adopted and the old will have to wither and die!”

Opening up the  world of knowledge

Innovation is the mantra at ALISON and the latest in its kitty is a course on Aesop’s Fables, where 60 fables have been selected. On why Aesop’s, ALISON CEO Mike Feerick says that being the father of four children he is “always reading Aesop’s fables and find them a wonderful tool for teaching children and adults. There is so much traditional wisdom and deep messages in these fables that not only children but also adults can learn from them.” Every employee should understand the fable of the Sun and the Wind, he says.

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Also, he adds, now that ALISON is doing very well and expanding, “which means I have the resources to commission courses I thought we’d do this, which is offbeat for us as we don’t focus on children.”

Interestingly, the woman who wrote these fables for him lives in a very remote and rural area of Wales in the UK. “I am sure in India too there is a movement to urban areas with the result that rural communities are really suffering. But the internet is an opportunity which is becoming ubiquitous in more and more rural areas. Here we have a published author who writes well, and this was also a way to provide people sustained work in rural communities. And when self publishing comes along which we will launch later this year, people can create courses and this will allow people everywhere to participate in the economics of selling what they know much more than they are able to do today.”

Elaborating, Feerick says that you need both native knowledge and structure to create a course. Many people have knowledge in their heads; “the difficulty they have, however, is that they don’t know too much about pedagogy in terms of the art of learning.” And online learning, he says, is very different from publishing a book. There are different senses that you have to activate and certain senses you don’t have to work with. “So we are teaching people how to approach teaching online. Before anyone can create a course, they will have to first understand how it should be best put together from a pedagogic perspective.”

So basically he is sharing his success story, I ask him. “We want to open up the world of knowledge and skills,” he responds. All basic learning, whether history or maths, tens of thousands of people know how to teach these well. “We want to make this learning free so that nobody can make extra money by publishing it and charging for it because it is already there free. So if you follow that idea all the way to its limits, the truth is that even if only 10 people know a particular subject and one of them is willing to publish it online, then the world will know and the other nine will not be able to charge a fortune for it. So we are using technology to break down the walls that have been created around knowledge and skills for eternity since life began.”

Like the education apartheid, I prompt, recalling a phrase used by Magsasay award winner Shantha Sinha at the Rotary Literacy Summit in Pune recently. “Yes that’s a good word. We can do that and we have a model to make it work. We are self-sustaining and don’t need money from outside. We make enough money from advertising and certification to grow as big as we might.”

Reminds you of Gandhiji’s famous quote: “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” But then greed is something Feerick doesn’t have. He has worked closely with an Irish-American billionaire. “He was and is a good man, very inspirational, extraordinarily bright. His net worth was $10 billion and he gave it all away. There is an old Irish saying: “There are no pockets in a shroud.” He taught me the true meaning of this — you have to give when you live.”

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