by Dean Gurden

ALISON CEO Mike Feerick Q&A on digital education

Apr 11, 20147 mins
IT Leadership

Education is being disrupted not only by the internet, but also in today’s age of austerity students are charged for desiring an education or workers find their organisations have slashed training budgets to reduce costs or bolster margins. However, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a growing alternative.

MOOCs are the digital disruption to the education sector and the CEO and founder of ALISON (Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online), a free, advertiser-supported online learning resource for basic and essential workplace skills, Mike Feerick is on a mission to harness digital technology to change the face of education forever. CIO UK caught up with him to find out why he decided to embrace e-learning and what he hopes to achieve.

Have you always had a business head on your shoulders? I was born in the US, but returned to Ireland aged four where I grew up in my parents’ small rural shop in East Galway. I guess I was always entrepreneurial – my first business was growing vegetables for the shop, but even at school I was always organising discos for my own age group, which was very profitable.

As soon as I could I applied to do a business studies course at the University of Limerick. It was there that I heard about an Irish-American billionaire businessman called Chuck Feeney; a quiet man but one of the world’s great philanthropists. After graduating, I tracked him down to New York and wrote him a letter explaining that my grandmother’s name was Feeney and I was Limerick graduate, where he had made substantial donations. I said: “Let’s do a deal – you put me under your wing for 18 months and I promise I’ll go back to the West of Ireland and try and drive things in whatever way I can.” It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that continues to this day. My internship with Chuck was an amazing opportunity for any young person.

When did you first start exploring the potential of technology? It was when I went to Harvard that I first encountered the internet. In a dorm in 1991 a guy from Switzerland showed me AOL and I immediately thought this is going to allow me to live back in the West of Ireland. But back then there wasn’t too many internet jobs going around, and the only thing I could get was as executive assistant to the chairman of Bertelsmann Music Group in London. Take That was one of their clients and I also worked with Simon Cowell, which was interesting. Whilst there, part of my role was exploring how the internet would affect the music industry.

So how did you get into the e-learning market? I left Bertelsmann in 1997 and arrived back in Ireland with a few quid that allowed me to take my time and figure out what I wanted to do.  I spent a lot of that time going to technology conferences in the US and, in 1998, got to know the person tasked with creating and managing e-learning at Microsoft. I did a deal and we set up a company called Advanced Learning here in Galway employing 60 people.

In the long run, however, it was impossible to compete with India for large contracts like that so, having spotted the market for IT literacy worldwide, we focused on developing coursework for certification around the European Computer Driving Licence. That gave us a lot of global exposure. I also set up a unified messaging company called YAC, which did well, but I realised I liked e-learning for its social benefit, so decided to concentrate on it full-time.

When was ALISON launched? By 2005, I could see server and broadband costs dropping, as was the overall cost of creating quality e-learning. At the same time, the ability to monetise any page on the web was going up, and that instantly highlighted for me how it was going to be possible in the future to provide education for free, and profitably. So I went into the office and announced we were going to provide all our content for free, which you can imagine went down like a lead balloon. We then launched ALISON in April 2007.

What did you want to achieve? What I learned from Chuck Feeney is that when faced with trying to solve a large global problem, money is generally not enough. The most powerful thing is an idea, because it can run riot. Education is a three-trillion-dollar business worldwide. Throwing money at it will be a drop in the ocean, so I thought if we’re going to change education, we’re going to have to change the processes and systems that are used to educate people. And if I could create a sustainable way that education could be free, that really excited me. That’s what I wanted achieve.

What was the biggest challenge you faced? There’s a huge status quo in the education fraternity and a lot of people don’t want things to change. There are a lot of happy people on their £200k a year. Providing free education online pulls the rug out from under a lot of the poor-value supply out there. I wanted ALISON – and others are welcome to the fray – to harness technology and education to really create prosperity in society by making people and companies so much more productive.

What motivates you? I love the social aspect of this kind of work and I guess there’s a little bit of religion in there as well. I believe there are good and bad ways of living and that if you give you receive. I’ve seen an awful lot of business people with the same skillsets as I have that get to the end of their lives and suddenly decide to do some good, but it’s often too late. For me, if you can give during the best years of your life, then I think the impact you can have can be so much more.

What’s the best aspect of job? We expect to have five million registered learners around the world by the end of 2014. It’s the appreciation of those learners that is so satisfying – it might be the recent immigrant who can’t access education due to money issues, or the young mother at home that can’t afford childcare, or the disabled. We did a recent survey worldwide of 30,000 of our registered students and over 80% said it had improved their confidence, with 14% saying it helped them get a job.

A further 79% said that it made them more competitive in the workplace. A lot of companies want their staff to be more positive and competitive, but they often don’t want to pay for it. But if these people can be training and keeping themselves current and learning stuff that they can almost certainly apply in the workplace, then that can only be good.

So how is the pervading digital culture changing the corporate world? I think it’s going unleash a lot of prosperity, particularly with free education and work-based learning. We have a number of partners in south-east Asia and India that are saying there are lots of high-level managers, but a curious lack of low-level managers – people who have done well in the workforce, for example, and now want to be a manager. You’re not going to send them to university, as they only need basic skills. That’s where we come in.

What I always say is that in the world to date, we’ve all been learners. Today’s technology essentially allows us all to be teachers as well. And if all of us are happy to teach what we know, then the supply of knowledge is going to spread around the world at a phenomenal rate, allowing us to up-skill billions of people that need it. But it’s going to take agitators and digital disrupters like myself to make these things happen.

How do you relax? I play football twice a week with a bunch of guys that know nothing about what I do. I’ve also been playing guitar and singing for years. You can find me on YouTube! My wife plays the fiddle and our four kids all play music, so we have some great sessions together.