U.S. set to pioneer free online college courses

Plus, study finds that online learning beats face-to-face instruction

According to discussion drafts obtained by Inside Higher Ed, a program that would give community colleges and high schools federal funding to create free, online academic courses is currently being finalized by the Obama administration.

The plan would also “provide $9 billion over 10 years to help community colleges develop and improve programs related to preparing students for good jobs, and a $10 billion loan fund (at low or no interest) for community college facilities.”

While a formal announcement could come in the next few weeks, John White, press secretary for the federal education department says he would only discuss the program “when the time is right.”

But according to Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, because the federal government would pay for, and subsequently own, the new courses, in addition to setting up a system to assess learning, and creating a college to coordinate these efforts, “the plan could be significant far beyond its dollars.”

“This is so spot-on in terms of what’s needed,” says Curtis Bonk, professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University at Bloomington and author of the forthcoming novel The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education. He says the impact of bringing free online courses to those who need basic skills and job training could have much more of an impact than free courses from elite universities.

According to the draft materials obtained by Inside Higher Ed, the program would fund development of 20 to 25 “high quality” courses a year, with a mix of high school and community college courses. Preference would be given to “career oriented” courses, and they would be owned by the government and made available to U.S. schools for free.

Courses would be up for competitve selection and would be peer-reviewed, and would work on a variety of technological platforms. (For more on this story, click here.)

In more online-education-related news out of Washington, one study by the U.S. department of education has concluded that online learning has advantages over face-to-face instruction when it comes to both teaching and learning.

The study found that students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction.

But don’t enroll in online-only classes just yet. The study also concluded that students who took “blended” courses, with a combination of online and face-to-face learning, did the best of all. (For more on this story, click here.)