He sets you thinking with the question: “Education has always been the preserve of the rich, or those with social support to be able to study, right? But we say if you want to learn, it doesn’t matter how much money you have or who you are; if you have the time and can get online, you can learn.”

Meet Mike Feerick, an educator who has revolutionised the way learning is disseminated to people with little money and very little opportunities. The founder-CEO of ALISON (Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online), a pioneering e-learning organisation and the first of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), he is a serial entrepreneur from Ireland. ALISON was one of the five global organisations that bagged the WISE Award in Qatar at a recent global meet on education.

He was quite embarrassed when recently an American journalist quizzed him on ALISON’s ( >www.alison.com ) largest pool of learners coming from Africa… embarrassed because he has never travelled to that continent! “Can you believe it? In Africa we find some people study every course that we produce, because most of them have no access to learning at all. And they are very bright, hard-working people but they don’t have training centres down the road that they can go to.” He started in Africa seven years ago with very little money, but word of mouth really helped there. “What is different in Africa from India… and I don’t want to be disparaging about India… is that in India people want certificates. Not necessarily for knowledge, but to get jobs. This is a sweeping generalisation, but in Africa there is an enormous hunger for learning. But people generally don’t have the money to afford or access education and learning in traditional ways.”

He recalls how four years ago, a man in Tanzania organised ways to teach 60 people in his village what he was learning on ALISON. “With such enormous community interest, support and involvement, when one person teaches 60 or 70, you just need to have a small core before you can reach hundreds of thousands of people online, even though this is anecdotal, and not statistical evidence,” he says.

Thirst for English in India India is now his second-largest market, with the US a little ahead. “We already have 300,000 there and India might surpass the US quite soon, given the numbers going online there.”

The content is totally free, and even though a for-profit organisation that is run like a business, ALISON is still a social enterprise and its revenue comes from online ads.

When I express surprise and say online ad revenue is rather meagre, Feerick smiles and says: “That is only in India, because yours is a very poor advertising market, because culturally Indians do not click on ads. So in India, we make very little money through ads, and America pays for India, as Americans like to be sold to, and culturally they click on lots of ads.”

The courses popular in India are English language and articulation skills. ALISON offers many courses in English, beginning with grammar. Being a partner of the British Council, “we have nearly 400 hours of their learning, and the full Australian secondary school curriculum in English too, along with other courses. So whatever area of English language improvement you seek, we have something available. A lot of people also end up learning English doing something else, like learning biology, because the content is in English”, he says.

ALISON has two million people doing its courses and “perhaps one million of them have learned English here”.

After English, Indians go for HR management, operations, projects, marketing management and technical skills such as “how to build a website or a business online, how to develop e-marketing. I like these courses because they’re very enabling; and from the remotest corner of India, if you know English, you can create a website for your business and compete with anyone in the world”, says Feerick.

The way ALISON certifies learners is very different, and a jobseeker who says he has done a particular course online can be easily tested by the employer. Take, for example, its diploma in nursing, “which is not aligned with American or UK standards and won’t get you a job in the UK or the US. If you’re competing with somebody with traditional accreditation from a large expensive university, we don’t claim to equal them. But if you’re in Nigeria among 100 applicants for a healthcare job and the only one with an ALISON nursing diploma, you can prove you know enormously more about healthcare and nursing, and will surely get the job.” Its content is from the American Medical Association.

Inhuman standards in India Feerick adds that millions of Indians can’t afford traditional accredited educational institutions. “Also India’s top institutions are incredibly difficult to get into, as they have very high, almost inhuman standards. So our courses — which teach English, and basic IT and business skills — are useful for the developing world. These are the things that billions of people need to know.”

But, warns Feerick, ALISON courses are not easy, they have very tough standards. He next startles me by saying, “I’m sure you’ve been to college. Can I test you on the subjects you studied?”

Shuddering at the thought of being quizzed on Chaucer or Dante’s poetry, I say a quick ‘no’, adding “I am sure I’d fail”.

“So would I,” is the comforting comeback from the Harvard-educated social entrepreneur. “I too hold two degrees. But do I want to be tested on them tomorrow? Absolutely not!”

But, he adds, somebody certified by ALISON can go for a job interview, be quizzed on what he has learnt and would pass. “If he said he could speak English at a particular level or use an Excel sheet, he could be tested on ALISON in a few minutes. Educationists will say, well, this is too simple, but there is power in simplicity and two million people are learning different things for free.

“I often say that there are only two billion people on the Web, and five billion who are not there. To focus on their education, we have to see the level they are at, and what is needed at the workplace.” Traditional education ignores certain vital things. Such as testing a doctor for emotional intelligence, ability to communicate with people or feel empathy. “All these are needed to be a good doctor. It is stupid that the only thing we rate potential doctors on is academic excellence. That is not how good doctors are made.”

Gender profile There are more women (about 65 per cent) than men on ALISON. And many of them are mothers. In the developing world, many women do chores at home and can study online when their kids are asleep or gone to school. So, it is self-paced learning; “you can start learning when and where you want. It really works for them”.

Also, in regions such as West Asia, women’s education is neglected because they don’t, or can’t, go out. “We have a very high percentage of women from wealthy countries with Internet access. They think: Well, I might not be able to go to a university but I can go online and learn an awful lot. I am really pleased about that, because women are a great resource of the world that is not being fully used... it’s about social justice and so much more.”

Feerick on being a social entrepreneur

I think you have to be smart enough to realise that money is not what life is all about. But a lot of people are not smart enough to figure that out. What we value most in life is family… children, spouse, parents, siblings and our freedom. A Harvard professor once asked us: Go to the graveyard, look around for an hour and come back. We thought it odd; when we returned he asked what we had seen, so we said: ‘We saw lots of graves and many dearly beloved’. And he said, ‘did you see names of any corporations on any gravestones?’

At the end of the day, what is important is what you give in life and not what you get. I get enormous satisfaction from doing this. I’m also privileged that whatever god I believe in has given me the gift of being a good organiser, knowing a lot of good people. I have worked very closely with an Irish-American billionaire. He was a good man, very inspirational, extraordinarily bright. His net worth was $10 billion and he gave it all away. There is an old Irish saying: There are no pockets in a shroud.

Many businesspeople in their 60s and 70s work really hard all their life and then turn around and say ‘we want to do something good’. But they often die before they can do it. I thought the best impact would come from doing something meaningful through the best years of my life, rather than wait till the end to make a lot of money without any consideration to anyone else and then try to do good at the end. If you can do it in the prime of your life, you can make more impact. That makes sense to me.