Higher-education officials will have to seek new avenues for funding and seed money for online programs after the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced this week that its online-education grant program will end this year.
The Sloan Foundation, based in New York City, started the grant program in 1992, years before the internet was used for expanding distance-education programs at colleges and universities. The program has doled out more than $80 million over 17 years.
Frank Mayadas, the founder of Sloan’s online-education grant initiative and an online education pioneer, said the country’s economic downturn was not the reason the foundation ended its grant program. Sloan officials had pumped enough money into web-based education, he said, that online programs could now thrive without the funds.
"Foundations are not sustainers, they’re starters," said Mayadas, who will retire at the end of the year. "And Sloan opted to carry the ball all the way to where [online education] was pretty solidly established. … It’s a very healthy area, and [online learning] is something that has become more and more accepted."
Mayadas and campus IT chiefs who have seen their schools benefit from the millions in Sloan grants said recent statistics show that the foundation’s efforts have paid off. The Sloan Consortium released a report last year that showed a substantial increase in online enrollment: About 4 million college students took at least one web-based course in fall 2007, marking a 12-percent jump from the previous year.
"I do understand that foundations change over time, and that is absolutely their prerogative, but they have absolutely done so much," said Ray Schroeder, director of the Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning and the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "They have brought us so far, [but] we’ve only begun to scratch the surface."
Mayadas acknowledged that the current recession is "unquestionably affecting all foundations," but he said the struggling economy did not prompt Sloan decision makers to shutter the grant program. The foundation awarded grants to more than 100 colleges and universities during its nearly two-decade run.
"Every year, the goals of the program were evaluated, and we’ve found that it’s far enough along that it will now roll forward," he said.
Schroeder said all three of the University of Illinois campuses have benefited from Sloan’s online grants over the past decade. The university, which has received between $8 million and $9 million from the grant initiative, used the funds to establish an online degree program that now offers 16 degrees, including eight master’s programs.
While that program is "self sustaining" and no longer relies on Sloan Foundation grant money, Schroeder said other Illinois undertakings will require more grants in the coming years. The university has teamed up with seven other schools from all parts of the United States in an effort to boost online learning opportunities for college students. Schroeder said he would research other grant programs aimed at enhancing online classes.
He said the MacArthur Foundation–with assets totaling $7 billion–could help fill the void left by eliminating the Sloan grant program. In 2006, the MacArthur Foundation allotted $50 million for a five-year study that examines how digital technologies affect children’s lives, including how technology is used in the classroom. The foundation’s findings explored the technological generational gap, young people’s desire to learn in a community-based online setting, and children’s minimal use of the internet for educational purposes.
"We’ll have to look elsewhere," said Schroeder, author of a blog called Online Learning Update. "But [Sloan] has brought us so far."
The University of Massachusetts is among the elite schools that have reaped the benefits from Sloan Foundation money targeting online courses. A $650,000 Sloan grant helped UMassOnline launch blended learning courses–classes that use both online lessons and classroom lectures–at all five UMass campuses in 2007. Using both learning methods has helped the university cut on-campus learning by two-thirds–a model that caters to students’ on-the-go lifestyles.
Longtime university IT officials credit Mayadas for his leadership in online education since the days before the internet was used on college campuses.
"In many respects, Frank has been the father of online learning," Schroeder said. "And he has shown the way."