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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

CEO Of The World's First MOOC Provides Hope To Former Prisoners Through Education

CEO Of The World's First MOOC Provides Hope To Former Prisoners Through Education

Mike Feerick leads a company that has been credited as being the first ever massive open online course or MOOC. He founded ALISON in 2007. Unlike other prominent MOOCs such as Udacity, Coursera, and edX, ALISON’s content is not drawn from elite US-based universities. Rather, the Galway, Ireland based company focuses on practical workplace skills that can be tested by employers to gauge growing competencies. Since I last spoke with Feerick, the company registered its five millionth user, and much of the growth has been in the developing world. India, for instance, is the company’s fastest growing market. ALISON has thrived on serving traditionally underserved education marketplaces.  

As Feerick probed for opportunity to serve additional groups of people that have been underserved, perhaps the most marginalized group of all became a target: the population of formerly incarcerated people. In the US alone, 20 million people are among the formerly incarcerated, and one of the triggers of recidivism is solid job opportunity. As Feerick describes in this interview, he believes ALISON is perfectly suited to serve this often marginalized population while reducing the rates of recidivism in the process.

Peter High: Mike, I was intrigued to hear this announcement about ALISON getting involved with the formerly incarcerated to provide training to make them both more employable and presumably less inclined to recidivism. The data is actually quite stark. There has been a lot written recently on the incarcerated population in the United States. The data indicates that 2.3 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, there are up to 20 million ex-offenders, and that up to six million people are still under supervision of one kind or another. There certainly is a big population you might serve. Could you talk about the genesis of this idea?

Mike Feerick: I enjoy using new technologies and business systems to organize solutions to address social issues. With ALISON, we are making education more accessible the world over, but some marginalized groups have greater challenges than others in accessing what we provide – incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people among them. The need is huge, not just in the USA, but globally. For instance, there was one article in the Guardian yesterday that said that 92 percent of those being released from UK prisons feel unprepared for the world outside the penitentiary. These people have some of the greatest educational need in society.

The percentage of the US population in prison is just extraordinary. You have 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and yet America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Something is seriously wrong. For the 20 million people you mentioned who are already out of prison—if you have a felony, it is hard to get on with life as there are so many roadblocks. The one thing a formerly incarcerated person can do however is educate themselves, and the beauty of ALISON providing a massive number of free courses at many different levels is that the starting point can vary to suit every potential student.

As we have been leading this education revolution, I have had an eye on this social group and I thought, “OK, there are very few education dollars left for these people when they get out, yet it costs $100,000 on average per year to keep prisoners in jail. But when they get out, the government pays very little money to keep them out.”

So how do you educate these people in basic skills? First, a large number of formerly incarcerated people do not know how to learn. You need to pick them up at a very low level and bring them on with a focus on the fundamental stuff like how to study. The second thing is that a lot of them have been behind bars for quite some time. Many simply do not know what a mobile phone is, or how it can be used. When they come out you need to teach them basic technology. Then the soft skills: do they really understand why it is important to turn up on time for work and why you have to work a full day? Now that might sound patronizing, but actually it is an issue in terms of reliability, dependability; there are issues that are not engendered in people that are under supervision all the time. the full article

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