By Mike Feerick, Alison CEO & Founder
Just a few short months after launching Alison in April 2007, I received a curious email from China. It was from a professor at Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious universities (Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader, went there). The professor was excited by the launch of Alison and was an early user. He made an exciting proposal: If Alison would fund the purchase of a trophy cup, he would assign his students the task of developing a “Market Entry Strategy for China” for which the best business plan would win a competition.
It was an exciting proposal and it took no time to accept his kind offer. Three weeks later, ten 20-page Business Plans for Alison arrived into our offices in Galway, Ireland. It was overwhelming. Although hugely grateful for the efforts of these young business students (some of the plans were really excellent), I was left with one feeling: China was different. If Alison was going to engage with the Chinese market, it was going to have to do it right. If and when we were going to develop our learner and graduate database in China, we were going to need a focused team working on it, and most likely, a team based in China itself.
An amazing 12 years onwards, we have finally established that Chinese presence. Our Chinese HQ is based in Xian, the ancient capital of China. This is exciting for me as a history buff, and for those of you who know of my passion for tracing Diaspora around the world, it adds fun to the experiment. Our early efforts are bearing fruit. Last week, China was our 4th highest volume country in the world, after the United States, the United Kingdom, and India.
Our early focus in China is in Learning English. While a complete translation of the Alison website into Chinese is a while away, key pages such as Learn English and a general introduction to Alison are already busy with Chinese traffic. We are creating presences in Chinese on each of the Western equivalent platforms such as Weibo (Twitter), and Toutiao. We have literally millions of people studying with Alison worldwide, and over 2 million have studied English for free with us. Our free offering of over 60 free English courses matches very accurately with what is taught in the longer established English language standards from Cambridge and IELTS.
In 2015, I travelled to Dalian, China to speak at an online learning conference. This was my first visit to China in over 20 years. It was exciting to visit modern China – so full of optimism and ambition, and so clearly well progressed since my last visit. As I do wherever I go, I sought out Alison graduates to meet with and learn from. I came away with pages of notes of advice on how we should develop our presence in China. Hopefully, we will do some justice to all the effort that went into teaching me about the potential of free online learning in China!
That invitation remains open. If you would like to suggest how best we extend our free learning revolution into China, please do make contact with me through [email protected] or post your thoughts or ideas on our website or social media. We have a busy presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
As the Tsinghua students warned many years ago, we don’t want to treat China as ‘just another country’ that will accept a generic global offering. From the ancient days of Xian in its prime, to its growing strengths in the world today, we want to treat China differently, and help bring more people from the ancient kingdom the gift and empowerment of knowledge and workplace skills.