The Obama administration said technology would be a centerpiece to enrolling more students and boosting completion rates.

The United States used to lead the world in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees; now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations. That’s something the Obama administration hopes to change by focusing heavily in the last year on boosting the nation’s college completion rate—and technology has played a key role in many of these efforts.

During a first-ever White House summit on community colleges in October, Obama administration officials and junior college leaders discussed ways to position two-year colleges as training hubs that could be instrumental in the country’s economic recovery. And technology, they said, would be a centerpiece to enrolling more students and boosting completion rates.

Ceci Rouse, a White House economic advisor, said colleges that have launched virtual financial aid offices—websites that guide students through the often-tricky application process—have seen spikes in applicants and Pell Grant recipients. And Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spoke to educators and community college officials during the summit’s opening session, highlighting two-year schools’ use of online classes to make education accessible for non-traditional students.

The Gates Foundation later that month announced a $20 million grant program, called Next Generation Learning Challenges, that aims to help dramatically improve college readiness and completion in the United States through the use of technology tools.

Goals of the new grant program include increasing the use of blended learning models, which combine face-to-face instruction with online learning activities; deepening students’ engagement through the use of interactive applications, such as digital games, interactive video, immersive simulations, and social media; supporting the availability of high-quality open courseware, particularly for high-enrollment introductory classes like math, science, and English, which often have low rates of student success; and helping institutions, instructors, and students benefit from learning analytics, which can monitor student progress in real time and deliver proven interventions.

An example of the latter kind of project can be found at Purdue University, where a tool developed by the school to warn some students that their grades are dropping, offer study-habit suggestions, and provide positive reinforcement to students who are acing quizzes and exams was made available to other schools nationwide this past fall.

Course Signals” is being made available to higher-education institutions through a joint effort by Purdue and SunGard Higher Education. The program was developed at the university and piloted for three semesters before its 2009 launch.

“We found in our research that this can improve student [achievement] an average of one letter grade for many students,” said Gerry McCartney, Purdue’s vice president for information technology. “Course Signals is an important step forward for higher education that can be implemented successfully at many universities and community colleges across the nation to improve student retention and success.”

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