Philanthropist’s global vision for free degrees via the internet

Mike Feerick ... man of vision.

The entrepreneurship of one Galwayman reached the floors of a New York courtroom when Dylan Lewis, a 22-year-old drug offender was ordered by a Lockport City Court judge to take an online course provided by the Parkmore-based ALISON.

ALISON was set up in 2007, by Mike Feerick, to provide free online education in an effort to develop essential workplace skills.

Instead of incarcerating Mr Lewis or imposing community service, Judge William J Watson instructed that he should commit to a course on the e-learning platform.

Since then, a further three people have been given a similar order. That is according to the Galwayman behind ALISON, who believes that free education could be the solution to a problem that has long needed solving.

It is now generally accepted that in some cases, education could be far more useful in the rehabilitation of those convicted of petty crime. However, the costs of such education have to be considered when imposing such a sentence.

“The problem with any judge, anywhere in the world, whether it is in Ireland or New York, imposing an educational sentence of some sort, is the fact that they have to be cognisant of the cost,” said Mike.

Mike believed that the imposition of an educational sentence does not have to be confined to those who have committed crimes like those of Mr Lewis.

“Why can’t it be for every type of crime? Even if we have it for white collar crime, some of these bankers up in Dublin – why wouldn’t David Drumm get a good ethics course to do?”

ALISON began ten years ago when Mike spotted the opportunity of providing free education in the form of a sustainable, for-profit social enterprise, made easier with the decline in broadband and server costs and the growth of online advertising.

“I guess that said two things to me; firstly, what an interesting financial business, but also what an exceptional social impact you could have by making education free,” he said.

ALISON diplomas and certificates are not accredited in the traditional sense, but that is something that Mike sees as a positive.

“We want to get away from traditional accrediting because it is too expensive. We want learning to be free and if we were to be traditionally accredited, we would have to be paying some other organisation, whether it’s Harvard, Cambridge or NUI, to use their brand – but we don’t need their brand, we are smart people and we stand by the quality of our courses,” said Mike.

Mike believed that ALISON provides an edge in interviews because it shows potential employees to be proactive in updating their skills. It also gives employers a unique opportunity to test those who say they have completed a course.

“If someone says they can use EXCEL to a certain level, you don’t have to take their word for it; you can just say sit down there and take this test,” he said.

As well as this, following the completion of a course, there is a bank of questions that you will have to answer in order to achieve certification.

Mike argued that the completion of ALISON courses differentiates graduates who have achieved first honours at college as grade inflation is now damaging the reputation of traditional college courses.

“The point is that grade inflation is an issue; if someone comes in with an Alison diploma, the employer can then test them immediately on it,” he said.

ALISON has 160,000 users in Ireland, which Mike pointed out is a big chunk of the population, despite little fanfare at home for this internationally renowned Irish business that is about to hit seven million users worldwide.

“One thing that is interesting about us is that we are the largest single learning platform in Africa and we have one and a half million people online across Africa – which is interesting for a west of Ireland company.

“I guess I like the idea to just encourage people that you can create a business in Galway, in the west of Ireland, and you can have markets very far away from home and you can make a success of it,” said Mike.