$2.5 Million Gates Foundation Grant Will Go Toward Online Education Resarch

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Posted By Eliana Osborn on November 20, 2015 at 9:22 am
$2.5 Million Gates Foundation Grant Will Go Toward Online Education Resarch

There are major differences in online classes, just like there are with in-person courses.  Some instructors make you feel like part of a community, just separated by your screens, while other courses leave students in a vacuum. And, until now, it’s been relatively difficult to evaluate these courses on any kind of standard criteria.

A $2.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is aiming to help solve that problem by targeting learning outcomes, especially for low-income students. The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) will use these grant funds “to promote awareness of research, pedagogy, and best practices in the broader digital learning domain to speed adoption and facilitate the kind of innovation that is critical” in making higher education available to all students.

The OLC will continue to expand their Quality Scorecard, a way of rating online education programs to help colleges and universities can improve their offerings.   Surveying students about their experiences with online learning can give professors and institutions insight far beyond pass/fail information.

At the recent International Conference for Online Learning, where the grant was announced, educators spoke about the need to make technological advances available to all students.  Improving online courses is part of a push to get more students to graduate from college — an emphasis of the Gates Foundation as well as many others.

The OLC Scorecard will be enhanced in its next iteration, thanks to the grant grant funding.  According to a press release, next-generation technology will produce a “scorecard that will include the steps needed to identify, measure and quantify elements that define quality, with a focus on attributes which result in a positive impact on student success, especially for students from minority, first-generation, low-income or other disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The courses most in need of attention by colleges are general education ones—those taken by a large number of students, especially early in their college careers.  A positive educational experience in that first foray into online learning is crucial to retention.  Improving these general education requirements is daunting, however, as they cover multiple departments on any given campus.  The Gates Foundation grant support will help identify what is working and what needs to be improved, not just at individual institutions but across the higher education space.

The gap between America’s wealthiest and poorest students earning college degrees is staggering, and online education is often seen as a way to shrink that gap.  The OLC reports that only 9% of students from the lowest income families earn a bachelor’s degree, as opposed to 77% of those from the wealthiest.  Improving online education will help change these numbers and open more opportunities for all college students.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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