Open Education for a Global Economy By DAVID BORNSTEIN
If you or your kids have taken an online lesson at the Khan Academy (3,200 video lessons, 168 million views), been enlightened by a TED Talk (1,300 talks, 800 million views), watched a videotaped academic lecture (Academic Earth, Open Courseware Consortium, Open Culture), enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, now being offered by companies like Udacity and a growing list of universities, including M.I.T., Harvard and Stanford), or simply learned to play guitar, paint a landscape or make a soufflé via YouTube — then you know that the distribution channels of education have changed — and that the future of learning is free and open.
This is good news for everyone, but it is particularly good for the vast number of people around the world whose job prospects are constrained by their skill levels and who lack the resources to upgrade them through conventional training. It’s a problem that a company based in Ireland called ALISON — Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online — is helping to address with a creative model. ALISON provides free online interactive education to help people acquire basic workplace skills. It’s not a megasite. It has a million registered learners, the bulk of whom live in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nigeria and the Middle East, where ALISON has 200,000 students. It is adding 50,000 learners each month, but the kinds of services it offers are likely to proliferate in the coming years.
To understand why, we only have to think back to last week, when the big news was the release of the June jobs report, which found that the unemployment rate had stalled disappointingly at 8.2 percent. As always, the story behind that number is more noteworthy than the political spin it gets. According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for people in “management, business and financial operations” is nowhere near 8.2 percent; it’s only 3.8 percent. For workers in “installation, maintenance and repair,” it’s 5.3 percent. It’s workers in certain occupations — like “transportation and material moving” (10.3 percent unemployment) and “construction and extraction” (13 percent) — who are experiencing the most severe economic pain.
That’s because the skills of many workers are increasingly out of sync with the demands of the job market, and the gap is likely to grow, particularly given that only a minority of companies provide formal training to employees. This isn’t just an American problem, however. There are 200 million unemployed people around the world, 75 million of whom are youths, and many lack rudimentary workplace skills — the ability to use a computer, make a budget, communicate in an office environment. According to a study published last month by the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2020, the world will have a surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers and a shortage of up to 40 million college graduates.
Free and open online education could help close this gap, but only if it’s intentionally directed to the people around the world who most need it. Right now, a lot of free education is thrown online without a clear sense of how it will help people prepare themselves for employment. In May, Unesco, the branch of the United Nations that focuses on education, held an international gathering in China, where representatives concluded that the development of technical and vocational education and training — what one official called the “poor cousin of mainstream education” — should be deemed a “top priority” to tackle global unemployment.
ALISON addresses this need. It offers some 400 vocational courses at “certificate level” (1 to 2 hours of study) or “diploma level” (about 9 to 11 hours of study) and plans to add 600 more in the coming year. Its most popular course, ABC IT, is a 15- to 20-hour training suite that covers similar ground to the widely recognized International Computer Driving License curriculum. (ALISON’s certification is free; ICDL certification can cost over $500). Other popular offerings are project management, accounting, customer service, human resources, Microsoft Excel, health studies, basic study skills, operations management and psychology.
Last year, 50,000 users earned certificates or diplomas, which indicate that they completed courses and scored 80 percent or above on ALISON’s online assessment. Employers can verify an applicant’s knowledge with an online “flash test” of randomized questions (reminiscent of typing tests for stenographers). ALISON doesn’t have the capacity to track its learners’ career progress, but it has thousands of testimonials on its Web site. A typical example is one from Mariyam Thiseena, from the Maldives, who wrote: “I love ALISON because you give the feeling that even the poorest person deserves an education.” (Thiseena wrote to me that she found ALISON through Google and is currently pursuing a diploma in environmental engineering.)
Another student, Zakiyu Iddris Tandunayir, from Accra, Ghana, completed a diploma in social media marketing. “I’ve been interested in social media for a long time,” he told me by phone, “but when I discovered ALISON, I committed myself to it. I studied day in and day out. I passed my exam, then I set up a page on Facebook to do social media for businesses. I put my number in there and people started calling me.” Tandunayir added that he has since received contracts worth $700. “For my eight years of Internet experience I have never felt the way I feel now,” he commented.
ALISON is a for-profit social enterprise. “My vision is that all basic education and training is freely accessible online worldwide and accessible by everyone,” explains the company founder Mike Feerick, who received an award last year from Unesco for innovation in online workplace education and has been recognized by Ashoka as a social entrepreneur. “Education underpins all social progress. If we can improve the general education level worldwide, global poverty can be dealt with profoundly and a general standard of living can be vastly improved.”
Feerick says that the scope of the problem necessitates a business approach. There is not enough philanthropy, and perhaps not even enough government investment, to meet the world’s workplace development needs. (Seven percent of the world’s people currently have college degrees.) ALISON works to leverage and redirect the large supply of for-profit courses, searching for high-quality vocational offerings and inviting publishers to put some of their courses on ALISON, available free. For example, it carries hundreds of hours of English and French language instruction from the British Council and Alliance Francaise. (It never offers short “teaser” courses that link to paid sites, only modules at a minimum of a certificate level.) It hunts for courses that meet the specific needs of workers or employers in specific industries. For instance, it offers a 5 to 6 hour diploma in European Union public procurement, which sounds a bit dry — unless you’re applying for a job in a company that hopes to win contracts from the E.U., in which case it is a standout credential.
Publishers agree to work with ALISON because the company generates business leads for them and shares its revenues, mostly from advertising, sales of certificates and token fees from learners. (A graduate can purchase a paper certificate for $30 or one on parchment for $120, and opt to pay for premium access that loads slightly more quickly and has no ads.) Given its model, the more ALISON grows, the more free courses it will be able to offer.
The decision to make everything on ALISON free remains the key factor that distinguishes the site from others of its type, and makes it globally valuable. (In addition to English, there are courses in French, Spanish, Farsi and Arabic, and the platform is going to be translated into Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese.) Unlike academic instruction, which is increasingly free online — you can take hundreds of lessons in algebra or calculus at the Khan Academy — quality workplace skills training is usually pricey. So is certification. Sites like Lynda.com, which offer training in software tools, require a paid subscription. Udemy, a relatively new education company with some excellent free courses, charges fees for many courses that offer workplace skills. If you’re a would-be programmer from Egypt, there is a world of difference between a free course in Microsoft Access and one that costs $99.
Just as there is great variability in teacher quality, online education is a mixed bag. “There’s an enormous amount of learning out there,” notes Feerick. “There’s also an enormous amount of rubbish. It’s hard to make out the difference if you don’t know what’s coming. We turn down a huge number of courses that are low quality.” What does ALISON look for? Feerick’s staff members ask the following. “Is it good content? Is it interactive? Does it ask you to do something? Sometimes the content really lends itself to video — like language learning where you need pronunciation help. Does it flow logically? Is the content from a reliable source? Is there a way to assess the learning?”
In the United States, ALISON is now offered through government workplace centers in 18 states. When a job seeker goes to EmployFlorida or Virginia Workforce Connection, for example, he or she can work with a counselor to survey the job market and assess skill gaps. The client may then be referred to traditional brick and mortar training or ALISON courses. ALISON also supplies digital literacy training to public schools in the United States.
Jaime Maniatis, the technology instructor at the Daylight/Twilight Alternative High School, in Trenton, N.J., which serves students who have previously dropped out, has been using its ABC IT course for a number of years. “It’s accessible from any computer in the building,” she said. “You can listen to it or read it, so it’s good for E.S.L. students. It’s interactive and has quizzes that help the students stay focused. And with all the cuts in education, it gives me security because I know I’ll always be able to use it — because it’s free.” She added that this year, she plans to spend $165 for a premium service that is ad-free and allows her to track students’ progress in three classrooms.
As the cost of formal education has skyrocketed and the job market continues to change at a rapid clip, the responsibility for keeping their skills up-to-date will likely fall more and more on individuals. Many will turn to online learning — for convenience and affordability. There are, of course, drawbacks to this. But there are advantages too — including the ability to work at your own pace and gain exposure to a broad array of topics. (The long tail of the Internet means that online courses can be highly specialized and still cost-effective. A university may offer a general electrical engineering course, but an online site can offer a course in how to operate a Siemens generator.) Perhaps the biggest advantage of online learning will be that women can more easily bypass the sexism and discrimination associated with traditional vocational education.
At ALISON, all students receive a learning record, a kind of archive of their response to life’s vicissitudes. Feerick notes: “The record says, ‘I might be 58 years of age, but I’m still learning.’”