Forbes Education Technology Innovation Series: Mike Feerick, ALISON

December 31, 2013
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Lessons From The CEO OF The First Ever MOOC

by Peter High, published on


There has been much press for the massive open online courses or MOOCs, including in my series of interviews to date with Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller, CEOs of Udacity and Coursera respectively. If one is new to these companies, one might be under the impression that the MOOC phenomenon is less than two years old. That is not the case. The company that many credit as being the first ever MOOC is Advance Learning Interactive Systems ONline, better known as ALISON. Irish-American entrepreneur, Mike Feerick founded that company in 2007, and whereas many other companies in this industry are still trying to determine the business models, Feerick has nearly seven years of testing, experimenting, and succeeding behind him. In this interview, Feerick talks about the genesis of the idea, his rationale for focusing on vocational training, and his vision for the future of the company.

(To listen to an extended audio version of this interview, please visit Forum on World Class IT. This is the fourth in the education technology series. To read the prior interviews, please follow this link. To read future interviews with the CEOs of Khan Academy, edX, and FutureLearn among other companies, please click the “Follow” link above.)

Peter High: Mike, as a MOOC pioneer, what was the inspiration behind ALISON?

Mike Feerick: Spreading education more broadly has long been a passion of mine. I worked in a number of internet businesses in the 1990s and also had exposure to philanthropic giving. This experience showed me that no amount of money invested in the traditional educational channels would suffice to overcome the problems in the sector. During the Christmas holiday of 2005, I read a book about Google, and as I read on, I realized that with the decreasing costs of servers and bandwidth, and the increasing ability to monetize any webpage via the likes of Google, it would be possible to provide self-paced education and skills training online for free on a sustainable basis. For MOOCs, once the digital content has been created, the marginal cost to share it is nearly zero.

ALISON started with seven computer literacy courses because it was a very practical field of focus. Prior to launching ALISON we charged for the service, however when we changed our model to free, a curious thing happened: our paying clients wanted to continue to pay as they did not believe that something free could also be of sufficient value! We have changed a lot of minds on that score, and in that sense ALISON has helped open up the market for free education for other MOOCS to follow.

Additional topics covered in the article include:

  • How did you come to the conclusion that you wanted to focus on vocational training as opposed to, say, liberal arts courses?
  • How do you find content for ALISON?
  • What metrics or key performance indicators do you hold dear?
  • What is the revenue model for ALISON?
  • Describe the ALISON team.

To read the full article, please visit

To explore other Education Technology Innovation Series articles, please click here.

To explore the Technovation Column library, please click here.

To listen to a Forum on World Class IT podcast interview with Mike, click here.

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