Written by Laura Urrutia

It’s a sobering fact that 93% of the world’s population has not had a college education, but statistics like that may soon become outdated thanks to innovative projects that are tearing down barriers to entry such as expensive tuition fees, the living costs that come with studying in person, and programmes that can’t keep pace with employment needs on graduation.  

A free online platform with 25 million learners from 195 countries, offering over 4,000 courses and registering 5,000 graduates per day, is among the pioneers of this educational revolution – and the effect goes beyond widening access to learning.  Alison.com, founded by Ashoka Fellow Mike Feerick in Ireland back in 2007, has certainly achieved that, as the numbers confirm. But the platform also provides opportunities for students to become teachers and pass on their knowledge to other learners. Add in the opportunity to connect not just with teachers but employers too, as well as the availability of practical advice for people on how to strengthen skills in areas that matter most, and the effect really scales up.  

“Fundamentally what Allison is doing, as opposed to any of the other large learning platforms, is that we're driving the cost of learning content towards  zero. Every time that you ask for money to somebody who wants to learn, you are creating a barrier,” says Feerick. “What we´re trying to do is to provide full scale education to people at no cost. So really what we're doing is just opening up education to people who have very limited opportunities.” 

“When 93% of the world have never been to college, it´s clear that we cannot continue to educate people in the way that we've been doing. The higher education system needs to open up and be much more flexible.”  

Feerick’s work is featured in a research report on leveraging platforms for the good of all, carried out by ASPIRe, that has identified key guidelines that initiatives focused on having a positive impact on society could apply to achieve a massive increase in their impact.   

“Why shouldn’t we live in a world where anyone can learn anything, anytime, in any language at any level for free? Why don't we do that as a society? It's just because there are people who realise that they can make money by withholding information by becoming an expert, and not allowing other people to understand what they understand,” reflects Feerick. 

“But look at the benefits that would be to society if actually information was free and people could upskill. We would not have physical poverty in this world, with no question, we would have greater political stability, because it would be much more difficult to tell people stories about things when actually they were way better educated. So we can transform the quality of life in many ways by actually making education and skills training for free.”  

A key pillar in the impact Alison.com has made is the psychometric testing function of the platform, designed to help learners understand their strengths and opportunities better and choose their training or education accordingly. It is also an important step towards recruitment for a position that will really suit them.  

“It's about empowering people with knowledge, empowering people with self confidence through self awareness,” he says. “So it's good for people as self knowledge leads to self confidence. If you have a large global platform like we do, with hundreds of thousands of people doing these tests, then actually, we are in a really sweet spot that we have average profiles from all over the world. And we're genuinely able to tell people how they compare with each other and how their assessment of themselves compares with what we see of them. 

He adds: “Through the data generated in the platform, we know what their psychometric profile is, their learning habits, their psychological profile, their physical place, which is very interesting information that allows us to be able to offer useful recruitment opportunities, which is another part of the business that is being developed.”  

The platform is creating a much more empowering and impactful education and workplace  system where data and knowledge strengthen its key players (students, teachers, employers); where networks are a major driver, as everyone involved is encouraged to build connections; where learners may become teachers; where students take the lead not only in terms of what, how, when and where they learn at basically no cost (there’s a small fee if you request an optional certificate) and where they take ownership in shaping their professional careers.  

At the same time the impact of Alison  benefits from this set up as it allows growth and the development of new ideas and activities. “Certainly, when a publisher publishes on the website they don't just publish,” explains Feerick. “They also bring their network with them. So, we gain from the network effect. When people qualify, you know, complete a course on Alison, we give them an alternative to cover the cost of the certificate instead of with cash through a ‘refer a friend’ particularly in developing countries not to pay us cash. So that's, again, another way to use the network of people coming in.” 

The report published by ASPIRe includes the case studies of another 13 innovative projects using platforms at the core of their theory of change developed by Ashoka Fellows and extrapolates enlightening design principles that successful impact oriented platforms such as Alison have applied. The principles are a useful guideline for anyone trying to apply platform thinking and technology for social good, as every design decision about participation, data, openness, agency of the users is a fundamental building block of the impact a platform can create in society.  

Providing relevant education to 25 million people seems like an unsurmountable task. However Alison.com by bringing together a network of learners and teachers and by being a matchmaker and facilitator, instead of a service provider, is able to achieve this scale and they are only getting started with millions of new users joining every year.   

“It takes time, it really takes time to build what we have. And to put people in the right place that really know what's going on, and to have it in a model that's actually efficient and sustainable. It takes a long time, but, when the model starts "clicking" as it is doing now, and starts to gain real scale, it is a joy to be at the helm. For example, Alison signed 7 million new learners in 2022 and we expect to hit 40 million next year and maybe 100 million by the end of 2023. Knowing we are developing the scale to have true global impact is exciting for me and all the team - and we are very keen for others to join us on this journey,” concludes Feerick.  

Alison is one of the models we have studied along with the 13 others for our recently released Leveraging Platforms for the Good of All report.