Missouri universities receive $250,000 from foundations

The UM System was one of 29 universities selected from a pool of 600 for the grant money.

Missouri’s 13 public four-year universities will receive a $250,000 education grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Gov. Jay Nixon announced Thursday.

According to a news release from Nixon’s office, the Next Generation Learning Challenges funds will be used to redesign courses using technology to improve student learning and collaboration among Missouri’s universities.

In a nationwide, competitive grant process, the Missouri application, jointly filed by its 13 higher education institutions, was one of only 29 selected from a pool of 600 applicants.

“Working in close collaboration to redesign courses and make the best use of innovative technology, our public four-year schools can serve tens of thousands of students more efficiently and effectively, reduce costs, and meet higher academic goals, including college completion,” Nixon said in a statement.

Next Generation Learning Challenges is a collaborative, multi-year initiative created by the Gates and Hewlett foundations and others to address the barriers to educational innovation and tap the potential of technology to dramatically improve college readiness and completion in the United States.

"Online testing helps the economic process and the learning process for students,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said. "A teacher would be like a coach. It would create customized learning."

Nixon said the grant money would be supplemented by an additional $240,000 from Missouri’s public universities, $100,000 from the state and $15,000 from the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

In addition to benefiting university students with redesigned courses, the public four-year universities also eventually will share their redesigned course materials with the 21 public two-year colleges in Missouri, which currently enroll more than 100,000 students.

“About 10 years ago, the Gates Foundation decided to focus on health and education, and suddenly, big money was available for education reform,” Center on Education Policy President Jack Jennings said.

Education reformation has been a political hot topic for the past 10 to 15 years and was a focus of Nixon’s State of the State address given in January. Universities, especially state universities in the absence of state support, have become more dependent upon donations and outside support.

“This funding will provide all of us with an opportunity to pursue an unprecedented level of collaboration on a broad academic agenda, with a laser focus on providing a quality education experience for students,” said Christa Weisbrook, the faculty fellow at the UM System who is coordinating the initiative among Missouri’s higher education institutions, in a statement.

New York University research professor Diane Ravitch is concerned with non-educators controlling the debate in education reformation. She said it is important to realize education is intertwined in society, not simply a cause and effect between grades and tests. For example, if poverty decreases, education improves.

“It’s true that learning in the classroom would be different,” Bush said. “I think education reform should be a national priority, but not led only by the people within education. There's a national trend and I think it's good for people to get involved.”

Bush said he believes integrating non-educators is healthy for the system.

“I think change in the classroom is good for our teacher work force and will ultimately affect student achievement,” said Jim Hull, Center on Education Policy senior policy analyst. “However, you can't completely dismantle the old system. There are always unexpected consequences, so that's why taking baby steps is the best thing.”

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