Remember when the Internet was going to democratize the world, giving everyone access to information, opportunity and self-improvement?
Mostly what I see is a tool for self-indulgence. I am surrounded by people who are on Facebook, who tweet, and who Link In and Out. Dollars spent on online shopping have skyrocketed over recent years. There's a cellphone app called Skout designed to help people flirt with each other -- really -- that may have led to cases of sexual assault.
It seems like the web is all about what I like, what I bought, what I want, what you ought to like about me.
But as part of my work with the Ashoka Globalizer Conference, where I helped moderate a meeting of social entrepreneurs trying to ramp up their groundbreaking projects, I've run into one fascinating, powerful program that is in fact unlocking new worlds of opportunity for people around the globe who want to advance their educations and professional competence.
And in the best spirit of the Internet, it's free.
It's called ALISON -- for Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online -- and it's the brainchild of an Irishman named Michael Feerick. It offers more than 400 courses, from fundamentals of accounting and various levels of English language to understanding systems engineering at ALISON.com. According to Feerick, more than a million people all over the world have plugged into ALISON. Learner traffic is highest in the United States, but the fastest growing number of users is in India.
Most ALISON users are trying to learn more so they can earn more for themselves and their families. In the United States, ALISON is now part of the official workforce development websites in 17 states; when the new unified California workforce website Caljobs is launched next month at www.caljobs.ca.gov, those receiving unemployment benefits will be urged to go to ALISON.com to "up-skill" themselves. California and other states will soon be looking for evidence that unemployed people receiving benefits are taking active steps to improve their prospects.
ALISON has now developed a "flash test" where an employer can say to a job applicant who says they've taken and mastered an ALISON course: "You say you've learned basic auditing? Sit down, get on this computer, and take the ALISON random flash test to see if you really know your stuff." Applicants log on to ALISON on the spot and take a quiz of randomly selected questions about the course material they say they've mastered -- and either they pass it or they don't.
How can all this be free to the user? How do Feerick and his band of merry entrepreneurs survive?
They have a revenue model, but it aims to maximize access, not profits. With a million users and growing fast, there are a lot of advertisers willing to pay to be on the ALISON site. Feerick is adamant that ALISON not charge for access to the basic course material. "This is for those who are hungry to learn, who are motivated to advance themselves, and whose starting lot in life is modest or worse," he told me. "We are not going to charge them money to learn."
What ALISON does charge for is a certificate or diploma. If you want a written certificate that says you've taken and passed an ALISON course, it will cost you $30. And if you want the fancy deal -- an elegant diploma on parchment it'll cost you $120.
Only a few in ALISON's target audience can afford these certificates. But there's a whole world out there that wants to learn, grow, improve its skills and advance the old-fashioned way. No flirting or tweeting necessary.
Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.