BBC News

View to a skill: The next big education player?

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionNot the San Francisco Bay area, but the Galway Bay area for this digital firm

This is the biggest education provider you've never heard of. Until now.

The Alison project - Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online - has already signed up more than two million students to more than 500 online courses.

It's adding another 200,000 each month and founder Mike Feerick is confident this expansion could accelerate even more rapidly and reach a billion students towards the end of the decade.

But this ambitious project isn't another Silicon Valley spin-off, fuelled by venture capital and a surfeit of sunshine and flow charts.

This global digital empire is based in a technology park in Galway in the west of Ireland.

If there was such a thing as successful grey skies thinking, on a damp autumn day, this would be a prime location.

Award winning

But Alison's days in the shade could be numbered, as it has won a prestigious international award this week at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar.

image copyrightOther
image captionMike Feerick, founder of Alison, says online learning will concentrate on a small number of platforms

The online learning platform has already won an innovation award from Unesco.

So how has it stayed below the radar? While the new wave of online courses - so-called Moocs, such as Coursera and edX, have become darlings of the digital media, why has Alison not had the same attention?

Mr Feerick says the big difference is who they are trying to reach. It's the academic versus vocational divide being played out in the digital market.

"The people we're helping do not have a huge voice," says Mr Feerick.

While the Moocs are associated with high-status universities, Alison's focus is on the vast numbers of people around the world needing to improve their vocational skills and training.

There are courses in subjects such as computer skills, learning English, basic accountancy, building a website, food safety, immunology, introductions to legal studies.

He is planning to expand into secondary school level, with video lessons customised for national exam systems, beginning with maths.

Youth unemployment

Organisations from the IMF to the OECD to the European Union have all spoken of the urgency of providing vocational, workplace skills to tackle dangerously high levels of youth unemployment.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionThe Alison project is teaching millions in North Africa from the west of Ireland

But Alison has been putting this into practice. A deal struck earlier this year will provide online training for 12 million young people in the Arab world.

Many of those accessing the free courses are at the margins of formal education - low-skilled workers, the unemployed and immigrants.

Within the coming months, India is expected to become the biggest source of learners, overtaking the UK and US. Nigeria and the Philippines are rapidly growing markets.

Mr Feerick wants to use online technology to offer free lessons in the most important basic skills that people need.

As he puts it, 99% of the people are learning the same 1% of information, again and again.

His other challenge to the established order, heresy to some, is to question the necessity of exam certificates.

If people are studying for a specific skill, such as learning to touch-type or a language, he argues the key question is whether they can put the lessons into practice.

He says the fixation with a paper trail of certification is part of protecting an educational status quo. "They desperately want to keep the same system."

Financial foundations

Alison's other big difference is that it is profitable. The courses are free because of advertising revenue. The social mission is underpinned by a strong business sense.

Mr Feerick says his approach to social entrepreneurship was influenced by his own business mentor, Chuck Feeney, a celebrated US investor in ideas and education, who took him under his wing when Mr Feerick had been studying at Harvard.

image copyrightReuters
image captionBuilding Egypt's tablet computer: Skills are key to cutting unemployment

Mr Feeney is a famously frugal and publicity-shy billionaire and philanthropist, who is currently helping to fund New York's hi-tech science campus.

Inspired by his example, Mr Feerick says he wanted to combine thinking big commercially while maintaining a sense of social purpose.

The idea of free education online, available around the globe, became his focus.

"Education underpins all social progress. It's the tool of the most ambitious revolutionary in these technological times, you can change the world if you can change education."

He sees the internet as making an irresistible impact on education, in the way it has in other industries, with a few giants emerging to dominate the multi-trillion dollar education market.

"There is going to be huge consolidation worldwide into a small number of platforms for learning, because it's going to be very hard to compete with them," he predicts, likening it to how Amazon has become the global bookseller.

"So these platforms are going to be huge, some of the biggest and most valuable companies in the world."

Not just about Harvard

There are other projects challenging the idea that online learning should be dominated by prestigious Western universities.

The Kepler project, launched in September, is using online technology to bring university lessons to Rwanda, to students who otherwise would have no chance of getting into higher education.

image copyrightKepler
image captionMoocs are not only about elite universities: Kepler's university in Rwanda

Using laptops they can take lectures and resources from top universities putting course material online. In the Rwandan campus there are local teachers who are able to provide face-to-face lessons, with a ratio of 30 students for each member of staff.

If they successfully complete their course they can get a US accredited degree.

There are 50 students in a pilot phase, being charged $1,000 per year. If it works, this will expand rapidly and the longer-term aim is to reach 7,000 to 10,000 students.

"There is a rising demand for higher education in Africa that can't be met by traditional models," says Jamie Hodari, chief executive of the non-profit organisation.

The economy in Rwanda is growing, but if it wants to compete with other countries it is severely limited by low levels of education. "They have completely hit a wall," says Mr Hodari.

Rwanda has ambitions to become a regional technology hub, but it lacks a supply of suitably-qualified graduates.

At present, Mr Hodari says "so many children leave as the top of their class and go on to become taxi drivers, because there is no other pathway".

The Kepler idea reflects the way that technology is dismantling the component parts of education - separating the local teaching from the online course materials and the international accreditation.

If the format works, Mr Hodari says it could be replicated in other parts of Africa and beyond.

It could be a "university in a box" that others could copy, he says. "The playbook will be right there in front of them."