Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Meet the edtech entrepreneurs - An interview with Mike Feerick

Long before the Stanford AI Class, before the acronym “MOOC” was even coined, ALISON, a free e-learning company was set up in Ireland.
The Good MOOC interviews +Mike Feerick, ALISON's founder and CEO, fresh from winning an innovation award at the Wise summit in Qatar.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I was raised in Galway, Ireland.
I graduated from the University of Limerick before getting my MBA from Harvard. I then worked in the corporate world before founding Yac.com. I sold Yac to J2 Global Communications in 2007.

I founded ALISON (Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online) in 2007. It now has two million registered learners worldwide, and more than 300,000 graduates of its courses.
Each month, nearly 200,000 new learners sign up, many from developing countries, where access to traditional education and skills training is limited.

The judges in the World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) awards in Doha, awarded ALISON a prize for its outstanding quality and its “exceptional impact”.

  • What do you make of the current MOOC craze when you've been in the game for much longer?

I think it is all good in making people aware that learning can and is free. When we launched in April 2007, many of our previously paying customers asked that they not be given access to the content for free as they preferred to pay (many were local authorities and schools who felt they needed to be seen to pay for services as a sign of quality). In that way, we broke some ground as a pioneer for those coming after us. Overall, it is easy to put content on the web. The challenge is to build around it a sustainable business model that can continue the initial investment and activity. Not many MOOCs and the like have shown us how they are going to be sustainable over the long run.

  • Where do see higher education going in the medium to long-term future with open resources, MOOCs and free tools?

I see more and more quality educational resources being made available to the public for free.  I see a small number of platforms and brands emerging - becoming very global.  Learning, and proving skills and competencies is going to become more informal all the time - that is not that the learning is however necessarily inferior.  Remember, services like ALISON are still only beginning.  What is truly exciting is where they can go from here - also considering where they have come to today. If they have been very innovative before, chances are they'll continue to innovate.

  • There's a fair bit of online learning skepticism out there (particularly when it comes to retention rates)... Do you have anything to say about that?

I talk about this in a talk I gave in Washington in Sept. The completion rates need to be viewed in terms of comparing apples with apples. If a course is free, then people will try it out - and many will choose not to do it. Are these people students of the course? No they are not. That's like saying that someone who walks into a shop and walks out again without buying something is a customer. Browsing needs to be considered. Evenstill, look at the completion rates of those who spend more than 10 minutes on a course. The ALISON completion rates move from 18% to 36% if you take in that factor. That is very encouraging.

  • What do you make of "Google Helpouts" and other similar online tutoring services?

It is a cool feature but getting people talking is not teaching.

There needs to be validation of someone's expertise. That's what we do on ALISON - not one can post up courses or comment academically without being reviewed by our highly qualified staff...

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