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To make this happen, Obama said he plans to spend a total of $12 billion over the span of 10 years. The "American Graduation Initiative" sets aside $9 billion to create competitive grants offered to schools to develop new programs and expand job training and counseling. Obama's hope is that the programs will improve learning for students, completion rates for schools, and the ability to track academic progress. Additonally, the plan designated $2.5 billion for renovating community college facilities.For some, though, college simply isn't an option due to high costs, unaccommodating schedules or inability to travel, especially in this uncertain and limited job market.
Such cases have inspired Obama's plan to set aside $500 million in federal funds to create new online courses for community colleges. According to an article from Inside Higher Ed, the funds would support 20-25 government-created high school and college courses a year. They would then be freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department's distributed-learning network," according to a US News report.
The Chronicle of Higher Education touts the program as "Obama's Great Course Giveaway." Though details are still emerging, the government-owned courses could be offered for free via a "21st century library" that reached students through a computer, handheld device, or an e-book reader like the Amazon Kindle. Community colleges would have the option to couple the courses with traditional elements like professor interaction for fees that would be less than those for courses developed internally.
In one proposed scenario, the courses would be created through a joint effort from federal agencies and an external research/education organization. By centralizing the production of course material, it may be possible to keep costs low and provide a more diverse slate of courses to students than separate college programs. The government would also support a "National Skills College" that would develop final examinations so that colleges, students, and employers could assess course results and retention.
Online degrees have overcome many stereotypes of cakewalk semesters and off-the-shelf diplomas. Thanks to advances in technology like video streaming, blogging, instant messaging, and high-speed Internet connections, online courses can be modeled exactly like (and perhaps improve on) their offline ancestors. Prominent universities have created pioneering programs to prove the value of the virtual classroom experience. MIT's renowned OpenCourseWare system has been posting videos and other class materials for nearly their whole class spread since 2001. YouTube EDU, where prestigious universities upload thousands of free course videos, has been very popular for self-educators not looking for actual credits. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon and its new focus on community colleges has been of particular interest to the Obama administration, despite concerns over student privacy and coordination with existing college courses.
Larger schools like West Virginia University have been offering online courses for years. "There seems to be a trend in all areas of offering at least some courses online," said Toni Jones, associate director for career services as WVU. Jones has taught several different courses for WVU and confirms that online classes are able to replicate their offline counterparts. "They have to do the same exercises, they have to have so many interactions with their classmates," she said. "It's not like they can't go in there and not interact. They have a blog or a feed where they're answering questions and interacting."
Jones is a fan of the flexibility and convenience of an online curriculum. Students can work on their own time, at their own pace, and for a much lower price. She also says some students and professors even prefer the virtual setting. "In class you have to put them in groups, call on them, et cetera to get them engaged," Jones said. "And for students, sometimes people can even feel a little more comfortable typing an answer in responses as opposed to speaking in front of a large group in class."
But these WVU courses are often more of a hybrid than wholly online offerings. Professors put their own courses on the Web, track them as part of their internal degree program, and may occasionally meet with students for traditional lectures. Jones says she pushes WVU freshmen to go the full traditional route in order to develop their social network, opting for a few online courses down the road when schedules get more hectic.
With internally-run programs like WVU's, the procedure for accessing and interacting with material is well established, as is the path to receiving course credit. Jones says it's unlikely a transcript from WVU would even indicate whether the student participated in online, traditional, or hybrid classes.
It's still unclear whether colleges using external, government-supplied courses could create the systems necessary to be accepted by professors, students and potential employers. While community colleges drawing from government course material may be able to use a similar model as WVU for their hybrid offerings, students accessing materials directly will have to count on new tracking and administrative processes.
Still, Obama's plan has the potential help community colleges drastically increase their course offerings, offer new degree packages, keep fees low, and level the playing field by chipping away at remaining online degree misconceptions. It could also give independent learners a new platform for structured, rewarding education. In these difficult times for current and aspiring students, it's a bold investment that could impact increasingly wired students on campus and off.
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