Ed-tech grant program aims to boost college readiness

The Educause-backed program will fund ed-tech projects designed to make high school graduates college ready.
The Educause-backed program will fund ed-tech projects designed to make high school graduates college ready.

Six months after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pumped $3.6 million into a national certification program for teachers of remedial college courses, a new initiative will dole out grants to education-technology projects aimed at improving college readiness, especially among low-income students.

The Next Gen Learning Challenges program, launched in late June and headed by nonprofit education technology supporter Educause, will aim to raise America’s high school graduation rate – which hovers around 50 percent among Hispanic, African American, and low-income students – and ensure that college freshmen are ready for higher education without having to take non-credit-bearing remedial classes.

Only half of Americans who enroll in a postsecondary school will earn a degree, according to national statistics, with as few as 25 percent of low-income students completing a degree program.

The program’s first set of goals includes combining online courses with traditional classroom curriculum, devising ways to measure students’ learning progress using algorithms in real time, and expanding access to free online educational tools, according to the Next Gen web site.

Next Gen’s first grants, which will focus on postsecondary education, will be announced this fall and will range from tens of thousands to more than $1 million per grant, according to the site. The second wave of grants will be directed toward high schools.

As of press time, Educause said it was still forming guidelines for the application process and would announce the details shortly.

The group said its Next Gen Learning Challenge would include partnerships with organizations representing two-year and four-year colleges, including the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The Next Gen web site includes a section that allows educators and stakeholders to comment on discussion topics asking what direction that program should take.

A question posted to the site June 22 asked, “What are the biggest opportunities for overcoming Next Gen learning challenges in grades 9–12?” A teacher at an online school responded to the question with an emphasis on creating individualized curriculum for today’s high school students.

“If we can break away from the stovepipe curriculum of today and develop modular, granular curriculum, we can then tailor a personalized learning program that matches the students’ interests, learning needs and learning goals,” the teacher wrote. “We must reinvent education as a schoolhouse of [one] student. Then, we can acquire the technology needed, and the learning content bits needed, and the infrastructure needed, and the human resources needed to allow the student to succeed at meeting their learning goals and society’s learning requirements.”

The teacher continued: “Online learning is, in my opinion, the only way we will ever be able to afford to build small, granular bits of learning, and then cobble them together dynamically to suit the specific needs of each student.”

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced in December that it would donate $12.9 million in new education technology funding for community colleges, including the creation of a national certification for teachers of remedial college courses.

More than 60 percent of students in community colleges need some kind of remedial class–most often, math training–before they can take credit-bearing courses, according to recent studies. This comes with a price tag: A study published this summer shows that community colleges spend more than $1.4 billion on remedial courses every year.

The Gates Foundation has earmarked $3.6 million of the grant money to be used for remedial training. A group of 26 college faculty from 16 states will forge an online community aiming to boost the number of educators teaching remedial lessons in two-year schools.

“Using a mix of learning approaches, we can use technology to make learning more accessible to a wider range of students,” said Ruth Rominger, director of learning design for the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (MITE). “We can create learning environments that let students work through the courses in a way that is suitable for their learning styles.”

George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said offering a financial lift to programs and groups that lay the educational groundwork for remedial students would help tackle an increasingly common problem in community colleges.

“The investment announced … by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation addresses two of the most urgent challenges confronting community colleges today: how to improve success rates for the millions of under prepared students who come through their doors, and how to harness the power of technology to expand capacity and enrich the learning process,” Boggs said in a statement.

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