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Are traditional universities ‘dinosaurs heading for extinction’?

11 Aug 2020598 Views

CEO of online learning platform Alison.com Mike Feerick explains why he believes non-traditional education routes will be the future.

Mike Feerick is CEO and founder of Alison.com, an online learning platform he launched in 2007 to offer education resources and skills training. It is credited as the world’s first-ever massive open online course.

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Here, he explains why it might be time to rethink how we approach third-level learning.

‘The idea that one has a degree they earned 20 years ago that is somehow valuable in the workplace today is simply laughable’
– MIKE FEERICK

Mike Feerick is wearing a pink shirt while standing in front of a red brick wall and smiling into the camera.

Mike Feerick. Image: Alison.com

What led you to set up Alison.com?

Since I was a young teenager, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But it was only when I learned of the internet at Harvard in 1991 that I knew that communications and online technologies would be where I would focus my time.

I remember my first day at the University of Limerick in 1985, going through the library on a campus tour and the tour guide mentioned a project that was ongoing between universities to connect electronically with each other. That rang a big gong in my head and when the world wide web was created by Berners-Lee a few years later, the concept was not a complete surprise to me.

Being an entrepreneur has its challenges, of course. You need to believe in yourself and get others to believe in you, and it’s not always that easy when you are putting things together in a way that has never been done before. You need to take risks and you need to be disciplined and hardworking, that is a given. But in the end, although never straightforward, the choice of being an entrepreneur and one focused on addressing social needs is a very fulfilling one.

Why do you believe that less traditional routes of education are becoming more valuable?

It is not just a case that non-traditional routes to education are becoming more valuable. They are the future.

With the growth of communications technologies, we need to rely less and less on third-party institutions to qualify for others what any one person knows. The idea that one has a degree they earned 20 years ago that is somehow valuable in the workplace today is simply laughable.

What is important in the workplace and what was always important, is what you know now. What has changed is our enhanced capability of assessing what anyone knows, or moreover, what one can do today.

With free online learning, anyone can learn anything at any time, any level and in any language at no financial cost. You don’t have to spend four years in college paying exorbitant fees to learn today. More and more, subject-matter experts can publish what they know online through publishing platforms and still earn enough to make it worth their while.

The traditional education institutions as we know them are dinosaurs heading for extinction. They will remain important in research and providing specialised facilities, but that’s it.  Many educational institutions have seen this coming and have diversified their businesses.

Look at all the accommodation universities have built in recent years. That’s a real estate and tourism investment and the businesses they are becoming are to provide a social experience. The core of what they are providing is no longer learning. Students can do that at home.

Are employers accepting of people with less traditional educational backgrounds today?

What you must be aware of is that just because a traditional college education is becoming of less and less value, it does not follow that employers, particularly traditional ones, will change their way of hiring in the immediate future.

In the US, some progressive employers like Goldman Sachs on Wall Street and others such as Disney are looking more and more to psychometrics rather than formal education qualifications to understand how bright new recruits might be.

What employers are being more open about than ever is that what is most important is what a new employee can actually do when they arrive in a company, not what some college says they know.  To overcome this, what is most important for those taking the untraditional route is to learn skills to get them in the door of an employer. Once in, keep learning and impress with what you can do with your learning. Once in the door, as everyone knows within any sort of organisation where productivity is important, the ability to execute work is what counts.

Traditional education is too slow, too shallow and too costly. To create greater access to employment opportunities for everyone, we must encourage governments, first of all, to give greater recognition to informal learning and to non-institutional learning. Governments can introduce this concept very simply by making sure, for instance, that in every job interview, the question ‘what informal learning have you done lately?’ is asked as often as ‘what did you study at college?’.

What advice would you give people interested in pursuing non-traditional education?

The first thing you need to do is to understand yourself better. What is it that you would like to do?  What are your innate strengths? What careers might be best suited to you? As Sun Tsu, the author of the famous treatise The Art of War wrote, the first rule of battle is “know yourself”.

Secondly, I would advise them to follow their heart. If you are passionate about some area of work, follow it and let nobody stop you. There is always a way. It may take a more circuitous route but take it, because the fun of life – as anyone who has lived a while will tell you – is the journey, not the destination. Be accepting that you may need to step back to go forward and that hard work and discipline are prerequisites to success.

Finally, I would say keep learning. Always set time aside every month to do a new course online. Keep your curiosity, as that will feed your imagination and that is where the greatest power of the mind lies.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa joined the team as senior Careers reporter in July 2019 with previous experience in science communication and media. With a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication, she is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos.

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