UNCF launches new digital platform for HBCU students

The United Negro College Fund, an organization representing historically black private colleges and universities, and Deloitte Digital have partnered to create a new online learning platform for HBCU students, faculty and staff.

The plan, which was announced on Wednesday, represents “an ambitious strategic initiative to reimagine online education in partnership with historically black colleges and universities,” UNCF said in a press release. It will allow users of the platform “to learn, grow and build a community together from anywhere”.

The distance learning center is called HBCUv and will allow students to take courses for college credit and connect with HBCU peers and scholars across the country starting next year. The platform will provide synchronous and asynchronous learning options for students and predictive analytics on student performance and other tools for instructors to track student academic progress.

“One of the greatest benefits of online education is the sheer volume of data generated,” Edward Smith-Lewis, vice president of strategic partnerships and institutional programs at UNCF, said in an email. . “There are literally thousands of data points that HBCUv can track and analyze to not only predict challenges, but also match students with courses that match their learning style or give professors deeper insights into who their students really are.”

About 8,000 students will be able to participate in a pilot of the platform at nine HBCUs. The initial group of institutions where the platform is being developed include Benedict College, Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Jarvis Christian College, Johnson C. Smith University, Lane College, Shaw University and Talladega College. UNCF and Deloitte Digital, a creative strategy, data and technology consulting firm, plan to expand the platform to more HBCUs in the future. Eventually, students will not only be able to take classes, but also complete degree programs fully online at participating HBCUs through the platform.

“We’re not trying to recreate the HBCU experience, we’re trying to reinvent it,” Smith-Lewis said. “The on-campus experience will always provide unique experiences that simply don’t translate into a virtual environment. Our goal is to create an online platform that expands access to an HBCU education while providing a community-driven experience that connects students everywhere.

UNCF leaders say one of the platform’s goals is to foster a sense of online community among black students. As part of this mission, the platform will offer courses taught by renowned black scholars and will include courses on black history and race relations in America, in addition to physics, political science and other subjects. .

“It’s not just about having more online courses,” said Julian Thompson, director of strategy for the Institute for Capacity Building at UNCF, in the statement. “It’s about providing a safe space for Black joy and expression, giving students the opportunity to find their ‘tribe’ of people, and inspiring students of all ages by showing them Black leaders. which are part of the same HBCU legacy. HBCUv will do this by integrating the Black culture, community and commitment to excellence embodied by HBCUs into a unique online experience that will form the foundation of the future of Black education.

So far, the effort has received more than $10 million in total funding from the Karsh Family Foundation, Lilly Endowment, Citi Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Bank of America Charitable Foundation. .

HBCUs, like higher education institutions across the country, had to quickly transition to remote learning when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency in 2020. But overall, HBCUs had more difficult than other types of institutions to adapt to sudden change.

Robert Palmer, chair of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said HBCUs were “behind” on developing online infrastructure before the pandemic, in part because of constraints of resources, especially among smaller private HBCUs, compared to predominantly white establishments.

“When you’re a small institution and you’re just trying to keep your doors open and you don’t really have the money to upgrade the infrastructure or to invest [in] platforms…or forming partnerships with online venues, that’s just not a priority, because you don’t have the resources,” he said.

Patrice Glenn Jones, executive director of online education and programs at Alabama State University, said there’s also some resistance among faculty members and administrators who feel attached to the online experience. person and fear the “change of culture” that could accompany the new modality. This hesitation among HBCU faculty members and leaders is the subject of an article she co-authored for the National Education Association Journal of Higher Education in 2018. She says the resistance has been a setback for institutions and risks making them less attractive to students today.

“As HBCU, we have this heritage with tradition and doing things a certain way,” she said.

Glenn Jones believes the pandemic is accelerating the growth of HBCUs’ online offerings in a way that will have lasting benefits for students, especially older students who may want to return to college but don’t want to live on campus. .

Serving students who need or want that extra flexibility is one of HBCUv’s goals, Smith-Lewis said.

“One of the things we learned from researching HBCUv is that 66% of HBCU students have part-time or full-time jobs in addition to their school responsibilities,” he said. declared. “HBCUv is designed specifically to give students more flexibility and more options to achieve their educational goals.”

The pandemic has already spurred a number of new efforts to strengthen and expand the online learning infrastructure of these institutions. For example, Morehouse College launched a new online bachelor’s degree completion program last year, targeting older learners with some college credits but no degree and former Morehouse students who left without a degree. Complete College America, an organization focused on increasing college completion rates, launched the Digital Learning Infrastructure initiative last year to help a group of at least six HBCUs expand their offerings. online and to create online environments that reflect the distinct culture of support provided by HBCUs.

“Some institutions are already loaded with platforms and systems, and they want to figure out how to make those systems talk to each other and work based on the investment they’ve already made,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, President from Complete College America. . “Some are in a place where they have no investment in such technology or platforms, so they want to start from scratch.”

UNCF has trained more than 2,500 HBCU faculty to develop online courses in response to the pandemic, but “what we’ve learned from the pandemic is that better training isn’t enough,” said Shawna Acker-Ball, senior director of the UNCF Center for Teaching and Learning. in the release. “We need better tools and technologies to deliver rich education and the strong culture of America’s HBCUs and extend this transformative experience for online students.”

HBCUv will be designed by Ethos, a division of Deloitte Digital dedicated to helping institutions and businesses promote equity, sustainability and social well-being. The engagement team working on the project is intentionally diverse – 90% people of color, 61% black, and 28% HBCU alumni.

“Our diversity has always been our strength,” said Betty Fleurimond, managing director of Deloitte Services LP and Deloitte national higher education practice leader, in the release. “The team we have assembled reflects our commitment to building a strong foundation that will serve HBCU students, faculty, and staff well into the future.”

Nathan Young, chief strategy officer at Ethos, said in an email that the team has engaged with hundreds of HBCU students, faculty and administrators to inform their work.

“The role played by HBCU students, faculty, and administrators in the design process was critical,” he said.

Glenn Jones of Alabama State University sees the development of online education opportunities for HBCU students as the next step in the institution’s founding mission to promote equity in education. She hopes public HBCUs will follow UNCF’s lead and consider building similar platforms.

“HBCUs emerged from a deficit where black Americans were not allowed to follow traditional pathways of education,” and today, online education is a key educational pathway, she said. . “I think it’s incredibly important that we continue to recognize that sense of community that has created so many of our institutions, that we must be prepared to address and foster that same sense of community and nurture it where we are now. There are many students who would like a degree, but online would suit them better.

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