White House makes grants to boost online learning

Obama promised $2 billion in grant money to community colleges last year.

White House officials announced the first installation of a $2 billion grant program that could help community colleges better – and more quickly – ready students for openings in the slumping job market through industry partnerships and an expansion of free online courses that would let students move through curriculum at their own pace.

During a conference call Sept. 26, Obama administration officials said the first $500 million in the workforce training program would be distributed to community colleges and college consortia nationwide after a rigorous application process that lasted almost a year.

President Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor, joined hundreds of educators last October at the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, where Obama made it clear that community colleges would serve a key role in his administration’s economic recovery plan.

Martha Kanter, undersecretary of the U.S. Education Department, said part of the first $500 million in federal grants would target the creation of more open – free – web-based class material, an initiative long championed by campus technologists.

Open courses will “greatly expand learning opportunities … and allow students to learn more quickly,” Kanter said. “Learning is no longer one size fits all.”

The open-learning money would also ensure that whatever new online course material is developed will be “continually improved” by educators tweaking curriculum that students will study largely on their own.

“No worker is denied valuable training due to financial constraints,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Every community college grantee will work with an industry partner to better prepare students for specific workforce needs outlined by businesses seeking qualified candidates.

More than 200 community colleges and groups of schools applied for the first round of grants. Thirty-two applicants received grants of between $2.7 and $25 million. White House officials will work with states that did not win any grant money to develop an initiative that might win federal funds next time around, according to the White House.

Solis said the White House’s focus on community colleges and Obama’s college funding in the American Jobs Act would make two-year schools a “linchpin” in creating a workforce better prepared for the jobs available in today’s market.

“There’s no silver bullet that will end our economic crisis overnight,” she said, repeating Obama’s call for Congress to pass the jobs bill. “But we know that if Congress will invest in American workers, our economy will adapt and recover.”

The federal community college funding 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 in 2010 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 and Director of the White House Open Government Initiative, said in a statement that the grant initiative is a “historic step forward for open education.”

“In practice, this means that if a community college wins a grant to create a videogame to teach how to install solar panels, everyone will have the benefit of that knowledge,” she wrote in a blog post. “They will be able to play the game for free.”

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.

The Community College of Philadelphia said in a statement that decision makers would use the injection of federal funds to build an online platform to prepare students for careers in “advanced manufacturing and logistics, energy distribution, production and conservation, and health care technology industries.”

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