The 10 biggest higher-ed tech stories of 2011

3. Federal officials dole out the first installment of $2 billion that could spark an eLearning revolution.

It wasn’t the $12 billion in community college funding that officials hoped for in 2010, but a $2 billion federal grant program unveiled in January could encourage two-year schools to develop open education material that would be freely available online.

Officials from the federal departments of Education and Labor introduced the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grants Program on Jan. 20, inviting community colleges and other two-year degree-granting institutions to apply for up to $5 million per institution, or up to $20 million to applicants who apply for funds in a consortium of schools.

The Education Department (ED) doled out the first $500 million in funding this fall, and $2 billion will be distributed in the next four years overall, according to the announcement.

The federal program is about one-sixth of what community colleges were hoping for under the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), a $12 billion program introduced by President Obama that would have constituted the largest-ever investment in two-year college funding.
Getting the AGI through Congress proved untenable, so the $2 billion jobs-training package was included in the federal health care bill.

Advocates of open education resources said the reduced amount could be a critical step toward mainstreaming openly available college courses on the web.

Beth Noveck, a professor at New York Law School and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, said in a statement that the grant initiative is a “historic step forward for open education.”

In a Jan. 20 blog post, Noveck said that under the terms of the grant program, if a community college uses federal funds to make an educational video game, “everyone will have the benefit of that knowledge,” and “anyone can translate it into Spanish or Russian or use it as the basis to create a new game.”

The goal of the grants program, according to ED, is to “prepare program participants for employment in high-wage, high-skill occupations.” Accomplishing that will require an expansion of higher education, particularly online courses.

The incentive to develop high-quality web-based content comes as two-year college officials are struggling to find ways to accommodate unprecedented enrollment spikes. Since the economy’s downturn in fall 2008, Americans have turned to two-year schools to boost credentials while they are unemployed or underemployed.

“The big idea here for is for online [courses] to provide more capacity to serve more people and really fit the needs of displaced workers,” said Jim Hermes, director of government relations of the American Association of Community Colleges. “We need programs that will get people credentials faster than normal.”

The government’s grants program will support the development of “interactive software” that can “tailor instruction” for nontraditional students whose schedules don’t allow for in-person classes, as well as multimedia software and simulations that can provide experiential learning and create a range of “open-source courses that can ultimately be shared and distributed nationwide”—a concept first explored at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a decade ago, when officials there made lectures, syllabi, and other class materials free to anyone with a web connection.

Officials at Robeson Community College in North Carolina, which led a group of schools that won a federal grant, said the money would be used to bolster local community colleges’ mobile learning options as students more frequently use smart phones, laptops, and computer tablets such as the Apple iPad to do school work on the internet.

Improved mobile educational technology will mean “students will engage in interactive, anytime, anywhere learning that will allow them access to the advanced manufacturing courses, modules, and custom self-help on iTunes U as well as thousands of free education applications and apps for purchase for which each will have an allowance,” Robeson spokeswoman Lisa Hunt said.

See also:

$2 billion that could change online education

Open courseware on every campus by 2016?

Ed Department: Half of community college students need remedial classes

White House makes grants to boost online learning

eCampus News Staff

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