Funding Your Distance Education Program

You've read the stories in this month's feature and you're eager to put science courses online. Now you're wondering what kinds of resources are available to you. ...

Frankly, at this point in the evolution of distance education, it can be difficult to find grant support. Many programs are either no longer open to new applicants or are winding down. (The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant detailed below, for example, funds only extensive distance education programs within institutions; the foundation is no longer accepting applications from those interested in teaching only one or two courses on the Web.) Other programs cover infrastructure, such as the computers and phone lines necessary to run online courses, but provide little or no money for curriculum development. Still other grants are designed to benefit specific audiences--rural communities, continuing education for medical professionals, K-12 teachers, or students, for example--that may or may not be your intended target.

And if all that is insufficient disincentive, you'll also need to round up some colleagues who wish to join in: All the grant programs that Next Wave found make awards to institutions; individual faculty are ineligible to apply.

But despair not! There are ways to get involved! You should start by checking whether or not your institution already has an existing distance education structure (a couple of clicks on your institution's Web site may provide the answer ...). Some universities are old pros at putting their courses online and even have a centralized department (and funding!) to handle all the online courses for their academic units. But not every university has such a well-organized way of dealing with distance learning, so you may just have to ask around.

If your institution does not have ongoing Web-based classes, you can still qualify for grants, as long as you can get your colleagues involved. The grants described below are all intended for institution-wide distance education projects.

Asynchronous Learning Networks

Beginning in 1993, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has made awards for the development of Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALNs), which include distance learning via the Internet and computer technology. Although these networks are "asynchronous" in that they do not require students and teachers to be online at the same time, quick exchanges of ideas and the human touch are still considered integral to this learning process. Nonprofit organizations, such as colleges, universities, and societies, are eligible to become members of the Sloan Consortium, which offers courses in subjects ranging from accounting to life science to Spanish.

There are various stages to the ALN program. However, A. Frank Mayadas, program director, says that the Sloan Foundation is no longer funding Stage I grants to institutions wishing only to offer one or a few online courses, although the foundation will "send a speaker to tell them how to get into the game ... in selected cases." Some larger Stage II grants may be funded, but the focus is now on the third and final stage of the grant program, which supports large-scale distance learning programs at institutions--so-called "Virtual Universities"--at which ALN enrollment is expected to be 10% to 20% of the total student number. Mayadas anticipates that Sloan will have $4 million to $6.5 million available for Stage III programs this year. There is no deadline--inquiries are encouraged anytime.

Distance Education Collaborations

If your institution would like to team with other universities or organizations to coordinate a larger distance learning program for postsecondary education, then you may want to check out the U.S. Department of Education's Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnership Program (LAAP). Computer equipment and infrastructure are not covered, but the LAAP grant does provide funds for developing interactive courses. This program was initiated in 1999 and was authorized for a 5-year period. According to LAAP Program Coordinator Brian Lekander, the average grant has been for $1 million. In its first year, the Department of Education awarded 29 grants, and 11 projects have been funded so far in 2000. Lekander expects that the next deadline for submissions to LAAP will be this winter.

Public Health Training Centers

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the Department of Health and Human Services offers grants for the distance education of health professionals via the Public Health Training Center program. Preference is given to schools of public health, but other nonprofit public health institutions may apply. John Kress, public health advisor at HRSA, explains that "the key issue is for schools of public health to partner with the public health workforce ... in learning projects to build skills and competencies where there's a deficiency, using modern technology." In 2000, its first year, the program awarded eight grants, and Kress says that in 2001, the HRSA "hope[s] to fund additional centers [to cover] larger parts of the country." Ten to 12 new centers may be selected this year to share in the $5 million that is expected to be available, and interested institutions will need to reach out to geographical areas where there is little access to education for public health workers. Applications must be postmarked by 11 December 2000 for the next round of review.

Rural Distance Learning and Telemedicine

Although the focus of the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is on building the telecommunications infrastructure for rural communities, their Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) Loans and Grants Program does provide funds for putting classes online, allows program manager Mark Seiler. In the past, projects have included distance learning courses for medical professionals and patients, as well as links from rural physicians to specialists at distant medical facilities.

The DLT Program offers three types of assistance--grants, loans, and combinations of grants and loans--to set up distance learning and telemedicine systems to benefit rural America. For each type of support, there are different eligibility requirements, so check the program Web site for more details. The new deadline for 2001 grants has yet to be announced, and there are no deadlines for loans or loan/grant combinations; applications for these awards are accepted on an on-going basis.

Science Education (K-12) Projects

The Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) , which is funded by the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health, allows basic and clinical scientists to pair up with science educators to show K-12 students and teachers how fun science can be. According to Information Officer Kathy Kaplan, various kinds of educational activities may be supported, such as online science classes for teachers or students. Examples of SEPA projects that have been funded include CityLab, a Boston University mobile teaching laboratory, and the University of Washington's Brain Research in Education Program, an online distance learning project to enhance the neuroscience skills of K-12 teachers.

As Kaplan points out, this is a real way for scientists to give back to the community and to train the next generation of scientists. Applications are accepted at any time, but to be considered for any up-coming fiscal year, submissions should be received by October 1, annually. In FY2000, 58 SEPA awards were made, totaling over $13 million.

So, fortunately, some distance education grants are still out there. You just have to look hard and team up with like-minded colleagues! And once you do find an opportunity that matches your interests and/or your audience, be creative and open-minded as you put your application together. Cyberspace awaits!