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Microsoft gift supports distance learning for migrant students

A $40,000 gift from the Microsoft Corporation to the Distance Education Center in Continuing and Extended Education at The University of Texas at Austin will help bring new educational technologies to bear on problems facing Texas migrant students.

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AUSTIN, Texas—A $40,000 gift from the Microsoft Corporation to the Distance Education Center in Continuing and Extended Education at The University of Texas at Austin will help bring new educational technologies to bear on problems facing Texas migrant students.

As they travel from state to state harvesting crops with their families, migrant students face special challenges in completing the courses needed to graduate from high school. Often they leave their Texas schools before the end of the spring semester, attend schools in some of the 48 states where they migrate, and don’t return to Texas until the fall semester already is under way. Because of the frequent disruptions to their education, these students have the highest dropout rate in the country and the lowest scores of any population on the state-mandated TAAS examination.

UT’s Migrant Student Graduation Enhancement Program in Continuing and Extended Education offers migrating students the opportunity to earn high school credits outside the traditional classroom setting. Through correspondence courses and on-line instruction, students can maintain continuity in their education and gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the workforce.

Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of Microsoft Corporation, said his company is committed to improving education and empowering disadvantaged students through technology. “UT really understands how technology can level the playing field and provide continuity for children who are unable to stay within a single school system,” Ayala said.

“Microsoft is proud to be a part of this incredibly innovative program that strives to ensure children are not disadvantaged by the challenges of a migratory work force,” he said. “Our hope is that technology can help to fill the gap and allow these kids to graduate from high school with the skills they need to be in control of their life and career choices.”

Microsoft’s gift to the program will be used in part to develop an on-line mathematics course designed to meet new high school graduation requirements of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Recently, TEA increased the number of math courses needed for graduation from two units to three units, a change that could make it more difficult for migrant students to obtain a high school diploma. The new course, “Mathematical Models and Applications,” will fulfill the requirement for a third unit and will be the final mathematics course most migrant students take in their high school career.

The Migrant Student Graduation Enhancement Program has hired consultants from UT Brownsville to help design the new course, which will be web-based and highly interactive. Regardless of where they are located, students will be able to access course materials on-line, communicate continuously with teachers and peers, work in electronic teams and receive specific, individualized feedback. The course not only will solidify students’ mathematical skills and knowledge at the secondary level; it also will introduce topics to be covered in university mathematics courses, giving migrant students the foundation needed to succeed in higher education. As an important added benefit, these students will gain technological familiarity and expertise that will help them keep pace with their peers in traditional classroom settings.

In a pilot component of the program, funding from Microsoft also will be used to purchase laptop computers for use by selected migrating students. This will enable the students to do on-line course work while at their Texas schools, while at home, while they are in transit, and while they are attending schools in other states. Training in the use of the laptops will be provided at the Texas schools before the students migrate.

More than 300 schools in Texas and receiving states participate in the Migrant Student Graduation Enhancement Program. These schools provide computers with Internet access to students who enroll in the courses.

Microsoft’s donation is a good example of how a corporation can work in partnership with universities and schools to meet the needs of a disadvantaged school population, said Peggy Wimberley, director of the program.

The Migrant Student Graduation Enhancement Program, funded by TEA as part of Continuing and Extended Education at UT Austin, has served approximately 7,500 students since it was started in 1986. It currently enrolls approximately 1,000 students per year in correspondence and on-line coursework and serves additional students by providing Exit Level TAAS preparation materials.