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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced on Monday a $20 million project to fund Internet and other high-tech ventures aimed at boosting the nation’s troubling college graduation rates.

Through the use of the Web, social networks, games and gadgets, the foundation said technology provides new opportunities to keep students engaged in their studies and provide more flexibility to attend classes online.

At stake is a brewing educational and economic crisis, the foundation said. Only half of Americans at age 30 have a college degree. But in eight years, about 64 percent of all jobs will require more than a high school diploma.

“American education has been the best in the world, but we’re falling below our own high standards of excellence for high school and college attainment,” said Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Gates Foundation, which has put $5 billion into grants to improve education. “We should harness new technologies and innovation to help all students get the education they need to succeed.”

It is too early to assess the affect of technology on efforts to improve rates of education. But The Gates Foundation points to some projects that have shown some impact: Carnegie Melon has put many of its classes online. New York City public schools are experimenting with an algorithm to match students with activities that best suit them and online tools to connect teachers with students.

Starting Monday, the Gates Foundation said, it will accept applications for initial awards of $250,000 to $750,000 for the following:

  • Increasing the use of blended learning models, which combine face-to-face instruction with online learning activities.
  • Deepening students’ learning and engagement through use of interactive applications, such as digital games, interactive video, immersive simulations and social media.
  • Supporting the availability of high-quality open courseware, particularly for high-enrollment introductory classes such as math, science, and English, which often have low rates of student success.
  • Helping institutions, instructors and students benefit from learning analytics, which can monitor student progress and customize proven supports and interventions.

The deadline to apply is Nov. 17, and awards will be announced next March. The Gates Foundation, with nonprofit EDUCAUSE and the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, plans to fund similiar awards every six to 12 months. (disclosure: Melinda Gates sits on the board of The Washington Post Co.).

photo credit: CES

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