How To Use HEERF Funds to Improve Remote Learning

By: Sarah Roberts

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At the start of the pandemic, the US government acknowledged the hardships that educational institutions were facing and created grant opportunities. Currently, these funds are continuing to help relieve some COVID-19-related financial burdens. Many schools and universities used these funds to support the rapid shift to remote learning.

Although some of the initial funds expired, the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) III is still supporting educational needs. Fortunately, schools and universities can use the available money to pay for projects and technologies that will continue to help students for years to come. 

Applying grants to technologies that meet the needs of the new modern education system can help institutions better serve the needs of learners in physical and virtual classrooms. Automatic Sync Technologies (AST) is partnering with universities to build accessibility solutions into their budgets to better support all learners in today’s virtual courses.

Silhouette of student working on a computer in a cafe

A Quick Refresher on HEERF Funds

In the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns, Congress created the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. That law included $14 billion for higher education under HEERF I. HEERF I divided allowable use-cases into those for students and those for institutions. When lawmakers initiated additional HEERF programs, they followed the same structure.

Approved HEERF Use Cases for Students

Students can use the funds to cover expenses related to their schooling, including tuition, as well as emergency expenses that the pandemic created. For example, the fund can cover food, housing, childcare and healthcare-related costs. 

Approved HEERF Use Cases for Institutions

Institutions have to use their funds to cover expenses that COVID-19 contributed to or caused. Some examples include technology to support the move to remote learning and training for instructors on how to make the shift to a virtual classroom.

Utilizing HEERF III Funds

In March of 2021, Congress passed a third relief bill, the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The ARP included $40 billion for HEERF III, which follows the same structure as the original HEERF.  HEERF III is available through September 30, 2023. Additionally, institutions can use those resources to cover costs dating back to March 2020. Universities that haven’t done so yet should start looking for intelligent ways to allocate these resources.

One option is to use the funds to build a remote learning infrastructure that will support all students. Considering current trends in education, developing a strong online learning presence is sure to help universities in the future.

Student working on tablet and computer

Remote Learning is Here to Stay

Many educators and students had their first real eLearning experience during the pandemic. Some professors came up with innovative ways to engage their classrooms. Unfortunately, others struggled to switch their methods to a virtual environment and to use the new technology. 

However educators felt about remote learning, virtual classrooms are here to stay. Why? The drop in college enrollment is forcing these institutions to think creatively about how to accommodate and attract more students. eLearning and hybrid education formats are some ways that schools are developing college and post-graduate programs that allow students the flexibility they want. 

With online learning becoming mainstream, institutional leaders are placing greater attention and budgets on the tools and technology now needed to make remote learning programs successful.

Ways to Use HEERF Funds to Support Remote Learning

Ivy League schools and other traditional universities are rapidly learning how to enhance their online education experiences based on discoveries from the past two years. HEERF funds can help institutions effectively incorporate greater remote learning opportunities into their curriculums. Here are a few ways for institutions to allocate these resources. 

Hardware to help remote learners

Some students may need assistance acquiring technology for online learning. At a bare minimum, effective remote learning requires access to a decent computer. Therefore, universities can use their funds to provide laptops to students who don’t have access to their own devices. Additionally, funds can also be allocated toward hot spots for remote learners who may not have other ways to connect to the internet. 

Classroom technology

Departments can also use funds to purchase recording equipment, cameras, microphones and other technology that will allow professors to present professional online instruction. The quality of video for recording lectures and streaming tools, can’t be downplayed. Naturally, to keep remote students engaged and attentive, ensuring strong video quality is essential.

Strong Internet 

Universities can use HEERF funds to provide students and instructors with high-speed internet access. Without a strong connection, online learners are more likely to drop off lectures and lagging videos and other connectivity issues may hinder students’ abilities to learn. 

Distance learning platforms and educational software

Online program managers (OPM) are platforms that universities can use when building out their online courses. OPMs are for-profit companies, which means these services come at a cost. Fortunately, HEERF grants can pay for the use of an OPM.

Female student with glasses working on a computer and looking at a phone

Accessibility solutions

Whether in a physical classroom or a virtual one, universities must continue to offer accommodations for students with disabilities. AST is partnering with eLearning platforms and universities investing in online courses to offer them captioning for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing and audio description for students who are blind or have low vision. Additionally, AST’s highly accurate solutions help institutions meet the benchmarks of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other compliance guidelines.

Importantly, in-person and remote courses must offer these solutions for recorded video content and live lectures. Therefore, live captioning services are a must for educational institutions and an expense that HEERF grants can cover. 

Captioning like AST’s integrates into common learning management and video platforms, such as Blackboard, Panopto and Zoom. This feature makes delivering accessibility much easier for institutions. Also, AST provides the scale needed to caption and transcribe multiple simultaneous courses.

Security and data protection

Students and educators keep sensitive information on their computers, on shared drives and in other online locations. In fact, remote learning increases the amount of online data and can potentially expose universities to data breaches. 

A data breach can be extremely expensive and damage an institution’s reputation. Naturally, the consequences for individuals can also be devastating. Therefore, university leaders may wish to devote some of their HEERF money toward protecting against cyber-attacks.

Additional Advice on HEERF Funds

AST has been supporting accessibility efforts at educational institutions for 18+ years. AST’s leaders can serve as an essential partner to you in not only providing captioning, transcription and audio description solutions but helping you to determine how to allocate funds and manage your budgets. Our specialized education team can support you in your efforts to include all online learners and make your videos and streamed courses more engaging. Contact AST for more information about using HEERF III resources and improving the online learning experiences.