How you can gain new skills and qualifications – for free
Irish online education provider ALISON.com is changing the way we learn
Fancy doing a course in Chinese, law, computer studies or business skills from the comfort of your own home and at your own pace?
Oh and by the way it's free and you can get a certificate or diploma to help sell your new skills in the workplace.
That's the idea of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are opening up free educational opportunities to millions of learners worldwide with top universities including Harvard and Stanford among those now offering them.
Ireland is home to one of the biggest such free online education providers – Galway-based ALISON.com.
This started up in 2007, and now has a massive three million learners worldwide with another 200,000 signing up every month.
The US, Britain and India are its biggest markets for learners, but there are around 100,000 learners in Ireland availing of free courses on ALISON, says its founder Mike Feerick.
It focuses on work-related skills offering 600 different courses in a vast range of subjects, with more being added every month.
Computer literacy, English language, project management, psychology and business management have proven the most popular worldwide.
In Ireland, the most popular courses include Excel, building a website and business and computer skills. A free Project Maths video course released just two weeks ago is proving hugely popular with Irish students and teachers.
Mr Feerick, who previously worked with philanthropist Chuck Feeney, describes Alison as a "for-profit social enterprise" that is harnessing the technical capabilities of the internet to deliver free education globally.
In general, the same information is needed over and over again to learners, meaning that the internet is the ideal way to make education widely available to millions, he says.
"Once the content has been created, it doesn't cost any extra to deliver it all around the world, and we are providing a platform to do that," he says.
He notes that ALISON is now the biggest provider of online education in Africa with more than 600,000 users even though he's never been there – showing the scope to reach people who might otherwise never get these learning opportunities.
The company makes its money through web-based advertising, and also has an ad-free premium service that you can sign up to for around €50 a year.
Users taking diploma or certificate courses follow step-by-step lessons and have to score at least 80pc in online assessments to pass the course, after which they can download a PDF certificate for free – or there's an option to purchase a more substantial parchment cert.
It also offers a low-cost – typically around €1 – testing service to allow employers instantly verify the skills levels claimed by a potential employee by delivering a random selection of questions on the topic via mobile or computer.
It has won a UNESCO award for innovation in education.
ALISON employs 30 people in its Galway headquarters, who mostly work on developing the technical platform to deliver its courses worldwide via computers, mobiles and tablets.
Courses are all assessed by educational specialists with at least a Masters qualification to ensure they deliver on quality.
OTHER MOOC PROVIDERS
Non-profit online education site offering interactive online classes from prestigious universities including Harvard, Berkeley and MIT.
The courses are free but there are generally charges for certification.
For-profit company founded by Stanford University academics and offering science, engineering, social science, computer science and other courses.
Courses are free to study but you pay for certification.
EU Commission-backed site that offers diverse courses ranging from computer programming to legal studies, languages and fiction writing.
Courses are free but certification for modules counting toward a degree costs from €25 to €400.
Website hub that lists more than 100,000 online courses from various providers, both paid and free. If you search for courses on Facebook Marketing, for example, you'll get details of 587 different online courses.