View to a skill: The next big education player?

Galway Bay Not 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.

Mike Feerick Mike 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.

Stone wall in Co. Galway The 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.

Assembling Egypt's tablet computer, May 2013 Building 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.

Students in Rwanda Moocs 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."

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

BBC Business Live

  1.  
    KITTY NOT CAT 10:20:
    Kitty visa card

    With something of a jolt, Business Live stumbles on this story from our youthful colleagues at Newsbeat. Japanese top icon Hello Kitty is not a cat. An anthropologist from the University of Hawaii who is organising an exhibition about the cartoon character, says owners Sanrio got in touch: "That's one correction Sanrio made for my script for the show. Hello Kitty is not a cat. She is a little girl." And, incidentally, an English one, she was told.

     
  2.  
    FUNDING FOR LENDING 10:06:

    It is worth noting that the raison d'etre of the FLS scheme may have expired. As the bank pointed out earlier this month, overall bank lending to non-financial businesses rose slightly in the second quarter of the year. That was the first such increase since 2009 and the bank expects it to keep on improving.

     
  3.  
    FUNDING FOR LENDING 09:49:
    Money

    Figures from the Bank of England show that its Funding for Lending Scheme, which has revived the mortgage industry, has still not increased lending by participating banks to small, medium sized, or large businesses. The Bank says in the second quarter of this year, banks and building societies borrowed a further £3.2bn from it under the scheme. But in fact lending by those banks to their business customers shrank again, by a further £3.9bn.

     
  4.  
    FRACKING CASE 09:29:

    Frackers have some backers. A court will hear a case later from farmers and landowners trying to evict anti-fracking protestors from sites in Lancashire. The group of 10 landowners say the protests on sites at Little Plumpton and Rosacre Wood have been affecting business. Their legal action is being supported by the shale gas company Cuadrilla.

     
  5.  
    MARKETS UPDATE 09:09:

    European shares have opened lower. The FTSE 100 is down 15 at 6,815. Frankfurt's Dax is 64 lower at 9,505 and Paris's Cac 40 is down 17 at 4,378. London shares are lower after key mining companies' shares fell in response to a fall in the price of iron ore in China. The pound is not much changed at $1.6585 and at 1 euro 25.56.

     
  6.  
    RUSSIAN HACKING? 08:50:

    Our World Service colleagues are reporting that the FBI is investigating reports that Russian-backed hackers are suspected of launching a co-ordinated attack on American banks' computer networks. The FBI says it is trying to find out whether the attack on JP Morgan, one of the biggest US banks, along with four other financial institutions, was in retaliation for sanctions against Russia. The hacking is reported to have involved the theft of sensitive customer data.

     
  7.  
    PADDY POWER 08:29:
    David Moyes statue outside Anfield

    The betting business says it has experienced a record 35% rise in the number of new customers at 795,000 more punters. It says it has done this without increasing spending on marketing. Spending on stunts, however, included these: "We put an 'In case of emergency break glass' encased Alex Ferguson wax model outside Old Trafford... and erected a giant bronze statue of Moyes for services rendered - outside Anfield before the Liverpool versus Chelsea showdown."

     
  8.  
    AEROFLOT RESULTS 08:18:
    Aeroflot

    More airline news. Russia's state-controlled Aeroflot reports a loss of 1.9bn roubles (£35m) for the first half of 2014. That compares to a 45m rouble profit a year ago. The slowdown in the economy and a fall in the value of the rouble against other world currencies are among the reasons.

     
  9.  
    QANTAS 08:03:
    Kangaroo

    Shares in the Flying Kangaroo are up 7.3% at A$139 in the wake of its hefty loss. "We are focused now in the short to medium term on the transformation program," said chief executive Alan Joyce. "We are not actively out there looking for an airline investor." Investors are actively buying its shares though - a new law is opening the doors to foreign investment in the international arm of the airline.

     
  10.  
    AA RESIGNATIONS 07:48:
    AA logo

    There seems to be some upheaval at the top of the AA. Its chief executive Chris Jansen is resigning immediately. The chief financial officer Andy Boland is leaving too.

     
  11.  
    ICE SALES 07:39: Radio 5 live
    Alex Brown of Exeter Chiefs takes part in the Ice Bucket Challenge

    The charity ice bucket challenge appears to be boosting the sale of ice cubes. Tesco says they're up 20%. Paul Doughty, managing director of The Ice Company told Wake up to Money his firm had been busy restocking supermarkets - which saw big sales last weekend. But he explained that this was a bit of a challenge. "At this time of year, we are actually ramping down production, sales get run down over the summer, and we start to reduce our staffing levels in our factories through August."

     
  12.  
    LIVING WAGE 07:31:

    What is is? It is set at £8.80 an hour for London and £7.65 for the rest of the UK. Find out here. The minimum wage - the government's base line, is £6.31.

     
  13.  
    PADDY POWER 07:26:
    Paddy Power pic from website

    Betting giant Paddy Power says pre-tax profits are down 13% at £62m for the first half of the year. The company says many football punters had "dream weekends" in January and March, with 16 and then 17 teams of the 21 most backed winning. "This proved costlier than John Cleese's divorce", says Paddy.

     
  14.  
    HAYS RESULTS 07:16:

    Profits have risen at the recruitment business Hays, which operates in 33 countries. Profits rose 12% in the past year to £132m. Dividends are up 5%. "In many of our global markets, the vast majority of professional and skilled recruitment is still done in-house, with minimal outsourcing to recruitment agencies which presents substantial long-term structural growth opportunities," the company said.

     
  15.  
    LIVING WAGE 07:05: BBC Radio 4

    On the TUC Living Wage story: TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady tells Today that women come off worse because there is low value attached to the jobs women tend to do, such as care working and shop work.

     
  16.  
    LIVING WAGE 06:53: BBC Radio 4
    Care worker

    Today is discussing the Living Wage concept. In many parts of Britain, women working part-time earn less than the Living Wage, says the TUC. Three quarters of part-time women workers in Lancashire do, as do two thirds of part-time women workers in West Somerset. TUC chief Frances O'Grady explains: "The minimum wage is an absolute floor, the Living Wage is the level that means you can take your children on holiday for a week - nothing fancy." The minimum wage is £6.31.

     
  17.  
    QANTAS 06:42:

    Can Qantas solve its huge financial problems? The BBC's Phil Mercer in Sydney says: "The airline's annual accounts have become a horror story of decline as it tries to chart a path back to profit and sustainability". Read more.

     
  18.  
    MALAYSIA AIRLINES 06:32: BBC Radio 4

    Can an airline survive two major plane disasters in a single year? Today says that's the question for Malaysia Airlines. Those who have flown on the airline recently report near empty cabins. Can Malaysian Airlines survive? David Learmount from Flightglobal thinks so. "Malaysia will be given a chance by the government and it will be given some money. People don't like seeing airlines go bust," he told Today listeners.

     
  19.  
    BUSINESS LENDING 06:22: Radio 5 live

    Wake Up to Money looks forward to later this morning when the Bank of England will give us an update on its Funding for Lending scheme - introduced two years ago to encourage banks to lend to small businesses. It's not been a rip-roaring success: a previous report said, despite all that help, the amount of money being lent was down £2.7bn over the first three months of this year.

     
  20.  
    QANTAS 06:12:
    A Qantas Airline plane gets takes off at Sydney Airport in Sydney on August 28, 2014

    Overnight Australia's national airline Qantas reported a huge loss of A$2.8bn for the past year - its biggest ever. That was partly due to writing down the value of its planes by A$2.6bn. Qantas added weak domestic demand, poor consumer spending and rising fuel costs also contributed. Chief executive Alan Joyce tried to put some gloss on the figures: "There is no doubt today's numbers are confronting... but they represent the year that is past".

     
  21.  
    SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE 06:03:
    Saltire

    Pro-independence business people in Scotland have hit back. 200 of them have signed a letter, appearing in the Herald online, saying that the business case for independence "has been made - and it's strong and ambitious". They add: "The real threat to Scotland is the real possibility of a British exit from the European common market".

     
  22.  
    Rebecca Marston Business reporter, BBC News

    The monitor has been fitted and off we go. You can plug in to us bizlive@bbc.co.uk or @bbcbusiness. Here until 13:00.

     
  23.  
    06:00: Ian Pollock Business reporter, BBC News

    Good morning, the Business Live page will have its finger on the business pulse, just for you.

     

Features

From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • Going through ice across the Northwest PassageThe Travel Show Watch

    Navigating the treacherous Northwest Passage through ice and Arctic storms

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.