Mike Feerick founded Alison on the principle that anyone, anywhere should be able to learn anything, at anytime, for free. The inception of Alison in 2007 as a social enterprise marked a radical shift in online learning. Motivated by Article 26 of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free.”), Mike and the Alison team created an online learning platform that offered free education to people all over the world and which was both sustainable and scalable.
Now with over 20 million learners and 3.5 million graduates, Alison is a world leader not just in education, but empowerment. Our 2,500+ courses have enabled millions of people around the world to rise above their circumstances, to choose and pursue their own life path, and to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves.
Hi Mike, tell us what inspired you to choose a career in education?
I’ve always believed that education underpins all human advances, whether that be political or economic, social or personal. Quality education is the cornerstone on which positive change is built and unfortunately, it has remained the privilege of a relatively small percentage of the world’s population. I founded Alison with the goal of bringing quality education to anyone who needed it, regardless of income, background, or any other factor.
Education is unique among progressive forces in terms of the disproportionate size of its positive effects. A little learning goes a long way. Whether as a teacher or a provider of free online learning, education remains the best way for an individual to have the best chance at changing the world.
What’s your single proudest achievement in the education sector?
My proudest achievement in education is founding Alison. I say that not just because of the sheer number of people we’ve empowered but because we were pioneers in the sector. When we started Alison, there was no one else providing free education like it. I had no lead from anyone else that it was possible, I had to figure it out for myself. I believed that you could provide free quality education through a sustainable and scalable model paid for by advertising and that the social impact could be massive.
I’m proud of having seen the opportunity and having gone for it, and for having done it because it was the right thing to do. When I graduated from Harvard I could have gone into Wall Street but I wanted to do something more socially-focused. You’ve got to do something meaningful with the time and the talent that you have. Alison hasn’t just helped millions individually, we also set the benchmark by showing people what was possible.
What has been the most important development you’ve witnessed in education in your professional lifetime?
The internet, hands down. Not just because of the breakthroughs in communication it has enabled but because of the free flow of knowledge and skills that has been made possible via these new communication tools, and the incredible changes that it has led to. The access to resources the internet has provided has allowed countless people to enhance their personal capacity endlessly. The internet is unequalled in terms of what it has done to enable and empower people.
Why is free education so important in addressing global inequality?
There’s so much inequality in the world. The statistic I repeat ad nauseum is that only 7% of the world’s population have ever been to college. People in the western world grossly overestimate how educated the world is and how accessible education really is. Free education is vital in order to empower masses of people at scale, equally, regardless of income, race, sex or gender.
Not only are millions of people being denied their right to an education, but at the same time, there are employers struggling to find people qualified to carry out jobs across a number of sectors. There’s a huge shortage of people for jobs and yet there are so many people around the world who could be doing this work if only they were empowered through education and free workplace skills training.
Why do you think that online learning has been such a game changer when it comes to democratising education?
It comes down to the cost of delivery: with online learning, education can be free, or rather, online you can enact a model by which advertising facilitates free education. Because free education isn’t actually free, it’s paid for by the learner’s value as a consumer and their potential purchase of a product or a service. This online model is already driving educational costs to zero and allows for all knowledge to become freely accessible and instantly available. We want to be a champion in making this potential happen. Just because something is possible does not mean it will automatically happen.
What in your opinion is the most pressing educational issue globally?
Unfortunately it’s the strength and resistance of the status quo in the education sector itself. People tend to underestimate just how huge a business education is (approximately $5 trillion per annum, according to UNESCO 2020) and how protected it is by people who want no change in the status quo.
Teachers often have the very purest motivation, but behind them are management and often investors who see a balance sheet and not an education scorecard. While many politicians want to increase access to education, they’re surrounded by people who are bought and paid for by the education industry and who, while they’ll talk about how they want change, don’t want to see any real change whatsoever. At Alison we’re driving down costs across the industry and putting knowledge out for free digitally. We know that by upsetting the old market we can create a new, much larger market of people accessing education who’ve previously been excluded.
If you were to recommend one online course to our Learners, what would it be and why?
Touch Typing is invaluable for all online or computer-based work. Over the course of your professional life it will save you months of time and, so often at work, it’s only 5 minutes that can make the difference!
What advice would you give to Alison’s Learners who are using free online learning to empower themselves?
Always keep learning. Education never stops, regardless of age or qualifications. By continuing to empower yourself, you also empower those around you – family, friends, community. The positive ripples of education are endless.