With more than 1.2 million unique visitors per month and 250,000 graduates worldwide, Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online (ALISON), founded in 2007, is considered by some the first massive online open course (MOOC).
Not only is it older, ALISON's goals are distinct from younger MOOCs such as Coursera and Udacity, which have received much more press in part because of their alliances with elite universities.
"Our focus is workplace skills," company CEO Mike Feerick told InformationWeek in a phone interview. Indeed, ALISON started with two globally in-demand skills: English and IT literacy, the latter in the form of ABC IT, a 15- to 20-hour training suite that remains the site's most popular course.
Since then, ALISON has added other languages, as well as classes on project management, accounting, customer service, human resources, health studies and basic business skills.
The company says it is growing strongly in Asia and sub-Sahara Africa and the Middle East, where access to such basic instruction might be limited or nonexistent.
A man of strong opinions, Feerick doesn't shy away from making pronouncements about the educational technology market, a highly politicized topic.
"Is the famous professor the best to teach online?" he asks rhetorically, a seeming dig at companies like Coursea that have partnered with top universities. "It may very well be a community professor who is better."
He is no less forthright in his opinion about the recent interest of venture capitalists in the ed tech market, specifically the MOOC phenomenon.
"VCs don't understand what's happening, don't know where it's going," he said. His company, which has taken less than $2 million in investment, hasn't accepted any VC funding but is "cash-flow positive" and growing, he said.
Advertising supports ALISON's classes. The company currently offers more than 500 courses and says it registers 100,000 new learners every month.
Even more basic, however, is Feerick's belief that there's a mismatch between what higher education teaches and what employers want. "Employers don't care where you found those skills or how much you paid for them," he insists. Rather, employers want one thing: Verified competency. One service ALISON offers is tests for prospective hires that employers can administer to check the competence of job applicants who come with ALISON certificates. For a small fee, students can purchase an ALISON certificate after successfully completing a course, as a PDF, paper parchment or framed parchment.
A study published last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, estimated that 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.
Nor do employers want future employees indebted, said Feerick, referring to the alarming cost of a post-secondary education. Feerick isn't the only one concerned about tuition rates.
"The confluence of flat or declining enrollment, unsustainable tuition inflation, the government fiscal crisis, and mounting student debt has created a severe business headwind that will not be resolved through ever-higher tuition," Roger Brinner, partner and chief economist at The Parthenon Group, said in a statement last November. "To say that this is a difficult situation would be an understatement; it means education leaders must find new ways to operate. Simply increasing prices is not an option."
Because enrollment in post-secondary education is countercyclical, the improving U.S. economy will further challenge traditional higher education, noted Brinner's colleague Robert Lytle, co-head of the education practice at The Parthenon Group, in a phone interview with InformationWeek. "Enrollment at 4-year institutions is flat or down," he said.
Asked about ALISON and its ad-supported business model compared to the more-celebrated MOOCs, Lytle said this: "The difference is, they have a business model." Moreover, ALISON's focus on job skills makes them distinct. "You don't think of ALISON as offering a poetry class," he quipped.