Author // James Henderson
The founder of free education platform Alison, Mike Feerick, tells Tech For Good about the people who have inspired him, how education has to change and why free online learning will prove to be one of the biggest disruptors of our time
After graduating from Ireland’s University of Limerick and at the age of 23, Mike Feerick found himself in a unique situation. He had a standing offer from Harvard to join its MBA programme, but at the time he was deemed too young. In its own words, Harvard wanted to see Feerick go out into the world and “do something interesting” for 18 months and then attend school. Born in New York City, Feerick was brought up in Limerick City before moving to rural East Galway, which he now calls home. Considering his options, he wrote a letter to Chuck Feeney, outlining why he wanted to work with him and promising that he would create meaningful employment in the West of Ireland after he graduated. As learning trees go, they don’t come much better than Feeney, the Irish-American businessman and philanthropist, and the founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies, one of the largest private foundations in the world. To date, he has donated around $8 billion - his entire fortune - and is known for his frugal lifestyle, living in a modest rented home and not owning a car. Feerick received a call from him the day after he posted the letter, offering him the chance of an 18-month internship during which he travelled around the world. The two remain friends to this day. “The only reason he agreed was because I had the offer letter from Harvard,” Feerick recalls with a laugh. “He really instilled within me that idea that you can’t take money with you when you’re gone, so if you want to truly help people, do it while alive, and better still, use the best years of your professional life to do so. Don’t wait.”
After graduating from Harvard, Feerick was good to his word, returning after three years in London to Ireland, firstly with the franchise rights to JFAX Ireland (sold to Esat telecom in 1999), and then as CEO and founder of a web-based unified messaging telecoms provider, Yac.com, which was sold to Nasdaq-listed J2 Global Communications in 2007. The year 2007 proved to be significant in Feerick’s life, not just because of the sale of Yac, but also because it was the year he launched Alison as a for-profit social enterprise, having previously developed an e-learning sub-contracting business for Microsoft called Advance Learning. The vision was clear: to make learning accessible for all for free. Alison is generally considered as the pioneer of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which today is a flourishing industry attracting serious interest and investment from some of the biggest names in technology. A recent sector analysis by ResearchAndMarkets projected that the value of the MOOC market will grow from $3.9 billion in 2018 to $20.8 billion by 2023. In isolation, Alison can boast some pretty extraordinary figures of its own with 16 million registered learners, nearly 3 million graduates and almost 2,000 online courses to choose from, ranging from dog grooming and food preparation to courses on computer networking and DevOps engineering. Alison alumni includes graduates from 195 of the world’s 197 countries as by the United Nations . “My passion for opening up education and knowledge for all came from thinking about how I, one person, could best enable real change and make a meaningful difference for as many people around the world as possible in my lifetime,” says Feerick. “I realised that the best way to do that was to democratise access to education and learning. “New technologies presented social entrepreneurs like me with new tools no one ever had before, and for those of us who understood the possibilities, we had a responsibility to utilise these technologies to improve society. That for me is the very essence of tech for good. “Nelson Mandela said that “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world” and those words are absolutely true.”
“New technologies presented social entrepreneurs like me with new tools no one ever had before, and for those of us who understood the possibilities, we had a responsibility to utilise these technologies to improve society. That for me is the very essence of tech for good"
Alison’s courses are free to all, but the company is very much a business, supported by two separate revenue sources: advertising and graduates buying certificates, both of which Feerick is keen to justify. “We accept advertising in so many walks of our lives, whether it be on the television, the radio or other media mediums, many of which live online,” he says. “Advertising is all around us so there is no reason at all that it shouldn’t be used in education. “If you’re on the site and looking at a computer course, you might see an advert for an American university trying to get you to look at their course on the subject. The money spent on that advert is covering the cost for hundreds of people gaining access to knowledge that they would not have had previously. I love the equity of advertising in that respect. “With certifications, graduates like to buy them for different reasons. Sometimes, our graduates want to put something on their wall because they are proud of the work they’ve put in. There are other economies and markets where potential employers ask to see them as part of a job application. “However, many buy them simply to support the platform and as an acknowledgement that they’ve spent 15 or 20 hours using Alison to improve their skills, and they also want to keep this service thriving for those who genuinely can’t afford to pay.” The data that Alison holds is a goldmine and helps Feerick and his team to monitor and evolve the site’s selection of courses, and how they are structured. Data has guided the team when it comes to the length of each course - Certificate Courses takes two to three hours to complete, Diploma Courses eight to 10 hours, and Learning Paths 18 to 20 hours. “We could see that after about two hours of study, people were looking for a pat on the back, as was the case after around 10 hours, so that has helped inform us on the length of our courses,” says Feerick. “We know that some people love to speak about completion rates, but it is a red herring because what we are offering is free. People come in, have a look about and leave, as they would do in a shop. “However, we know that when a user completes seven minutes, the percentage that go on to complete a course shoots up to 35%, which is incredible when you consider that users can give up at any point and it costs them nothing. “You see some universities and colleges trying to say that free online learning has completion rates of 2%. That is just not true. In fact, using AI, we are getting better and better and understanding our learners needs, and completion rates are steadily increasing. There is a big story here waiting to be told.”
Alison has rolled out a new feature that will help take its datasets to the next level, says Feerick. At the beginning of July, it introduced the first in a new line of Psychometric Evaluations, with Workplace Personality Assessment to help users better understand which career paths were suited to their skills and psyche. The assessment highlights workplace strengths, as well as pinpointing your weaknesses and directing users to the relevant Alison courses that will help you address them. More than 10,000 evaluations were completed the week after they went live on Alison. “I am hugely excited about the introduction of Psychometric Evaluations to Alison,” says Feerick. “How often do you hear people talking about how they have, or had, no idea what they wanted to do or what their skills were suited for until they were in their 30s or 40s? “What this is going to do is allow individuals to understand where they have innate strengths, and also weaknesses that they can work on. With remote learning, companies need other ways to evaluate staff, and this is one costless and insightful way of doing so. “I see so much potential with using our data from these tests, and pointing people to the courses that suit them and how we can work with the recruitment world to help fill all of these positions in industries where we have real skills gaps.” With COVID-19, Feerick says the world of work is about to change dramatically. “Within Alison, we have 100 staff with all but six working remotely around the world in over 25 countries. Remote working, now on steroids with the COVID-19 crisis, opens up the world to us for talent, with the majority now based in developing nations. “As our international base grows, so does our Irish base too but our international expansion enables that. It is another part of the social impact we have – enabling smart, hard-working people in less developed economies to be part of an international team”. With the COVID-19 pandemic, and people retreating into their homes, the landscape of higher education has changed dramatically, at least for the short-term. Feerick’s old stomping ground, Harvard, has come in for criticism for announcing that all of its undergraduate courses will be online-only for the 2020-21 academic year. Many are questioning the logic of paying for the kudos of a Harvard education, but only experiencing it from behind a computer screen, Feerick being one of them. And he believes that the pandemic will accelerate a trend away from traditional higher education where you live on campus for up to four years.
“It’s funny that you mention Harvard, because I wouldn’t have wanted to go there if I couldn’t meet all these like-minded people, to share ideas and share a beer with all of these great minds after lectures,” he says. “That is a huge part of the experience and one of the key benefits and main reasons people want to go to Harvard. “COVID-19 is speeding up what is happening anyway, and universities to survive will have to adapt. They used to be these centres of learning and knowledge, but with the internet and online learning, their genie is out of the bottle and there is just no way they are going to survive in their present state. At the very high-end and with highly technical learning that needs to be hands-on, they will be successful, but there is just no need for thousands of courses to be taught at universities. “If a young person is considering paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to study, my advice would be to think extremely carefully about whether you need to do that. Unless your course is really specific or technical, you’re better off learning online and combining that with the experiences that come with traveling and working.” Now in his 50s and settled in Ireland with his family - “I love working from home, I’m completely happy with it and being around family”, he says - and with Alison now 13 years old, you could forgive Feerick for beginning to consider his exit plan, but he’s having none of it. “I honestly believe we are just getting started,” he says, leaning into the camera as he does. “Very recently we became the busiest Irish-based/owned website worldwide, overcoming the traditional number one, Ryanair, in the process. There is so much we can do now that we couldn’t do previously that is just going to take us to the next level, especially with the possibilities of what we can do with the data we have agreed to access. “I've been asking governments for years to just give me 10 minutes of their time, because I know there is a better way to spend learning and education budgets. Traditional universities and skills training providers have the ear of politicians, and it is hard for even the most insightful and assertive of politicians to see innovation is passing these providers out, and taxpayers money is now being very poorly spent given the alternatives available.” Feerick says the day is dawning when governments will entirely withdraw from financially supporting education and training beyond that provided to young people up to 18 years of age. “That day cannot come soon enough. Billions of dollars are being wasted worldwide. Everyone knows it, but few are incentivised to change that system. We will change it, but it's going to take a while. “Charles De Gaulle once said: ‘always bet on the inevitable’ and I believe we are part of the inevitable and part of that change. Free online education for all on every subject, at every level, in any language, is going to be one of the biggest disruptors of our time.”