Social networking soon could be used to help form a virtual community of campus educators charged with creating a national certification for teachers of remedial college courses, after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced $12.9 million in new education technology funding for community colleges Dec. 3.

The funding will be spread through a host of higher-education programs, according to the foundation’s web site–but a central goal will be boosting remedial education for students entering college without math and reading skills to meet basic requirements.

More than 60 percent of students in community colleges need some kind of remedial class–most often, math training–before they can take credit-bearing courses, according to recent studies. This comes with a price tag: A study published this summer shows that community colleges spend more than $1.4 billion on remedial courses every year.

The Gates Foundation has earmarked $3.6 million of the grant money to be used for remedial training. A group of 26 college faculty from 16 states will forge an online community aiming to boost the number of educators teaching remedial lessons in two-year schools.

"Using a mix of learning approaches, we can use technology to make learning more accessible to a wider range of students," said Ruth Rominger, director of learning design for the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (MITE). "We can create learning environments that let students work through the courses in a way that is suitable for their learning styles."

George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said offering a financial lift to programs and groups that lay the educational groundwork for remedial students would help tackle an increasingly common problem in community colleges.

"The investment announced … by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation addresses two of the most urgent challenges confronting community colleges today: how to improve success rates for the millions of underprepared students who come through their doors, and how to harness the power of technology to expand capacity and enrich the learning process," Boggs said in a statement.

The Gates Foundation also will allocate $5 million for the development of new remedial math learning material that will be freely available to students and teachers through the web site www.HippoCampus.org.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Community College Open Learning Initiative will receive $2.5 million for the development of web-based open learning platforms for "gatekeeper courses," or introductory-level classes that students must pass to enter a field of study. (See "Program goes beyond open course model.")

With community college classrooms filling up during the current economic downturn, these gatekeeper courses are more popular than ever, and many students are left on lengthy waiting lists, forced to delay their education. 

The New York-based National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) will get $1.8 million to help community colleges redesign remedial math classes that lack sufficient technology integration. Previous course redesigns at NCAT partner institutions have resulted in an average 51-percent increase in course completions and an average 37-percent reduction in instructional costs.

"We are targeting the best new ideas that hold the greatest promise for improving the odds for low-income young adult learners," said Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success, and special initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "The power of technology is its ability to connect people, foster collaboration, empower learners and teachers, and challenge the status quo."

College officials said they’ve always expected adults returning to school to require remedial classes, but an old phenomenon is becoming an escalating problem: Recent high school graduates coming to campus often lack basic skills in algebra.

"Remedial math courses are always one of the very large programs in community colleges," said Boggs, of the American Association of Community Colleges. "We’re getting more students in remedial courses … because math is one of the most prominent obstacles for student success. It’s not something [adult learners] tend to recall as easily as other subjects."

Links:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

National Center for Academic Transformation

American Association of Community Colleges