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Philanthropists help HBCUs pursue their education online

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Historically, black colleges and universities have faced an unusual mix of challenges as they enter the digital age. Traditionally underfunded, they often have less money to build digital infrastructure and ensure that online courses are attractive than many other institutions.

HBCUs also offer a very special brand of education that can be difficult to translate in an online environment. Their model is based on promoting a sense of belonging for students – and it has been shown to be extremely effective in reaching low-income first-generation students in particular – but experts are now trying to figure out how to replicate that feeling. of community. on an online platform.

Now, as the pandemic has made it clear how important it will be for colleges and universities to migrate online with effective programs, philanthropists and private businesses are rallying to support HBCUs. The United Negro College Fund is spending $ 1.75 million to train faculty in better use of learning management systems and in designing culturally rich curriculum. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting a $ 2.5 million effort by Complete College America to focus on how to improve digital learning infrastructure and bring the unique cultural attributes of an HBCU education. to a digital platform.

In May 2020, once it became clear the pandemic was here to stay, UNCF leaders realized there was an urgent need to support professors at historically black colleges and universities as they moved forward. online education.

The UNCF has found a very receptive audience.

“HBCUs are looking at the online space,” said Edward Smith-Lewis, vice president of strategic partnerships and institutional programs at UNCF, in an interview. “It is desperately needed.”

Smith-Lewis said UNCF officials quickly realized that HBCUs would need support to hone faculty members’ online teaching skills. Armed with $ 1.75 million in funding from the Lilly Endowment, UNCF is now training teachers to master learning management systems and develop culturally appropriate curricula. It does this, in large part, by offering financial incentives to teachers to participate in training.

UNCF asked four organizations to participate as partners: Strategic Education Inc., the parent company of Strayer and Capella universities; Blackboard; Arizona State University; and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. Strategic Education Inc. came back with the best ideas and the most affordable proposition, said Smith-Lewis, who was also impressed with the HBCU graduate Strategic had put in place to manage the partnership.

“They have money, resources, and approaches in the online space that have been proven to work,” Smith-Lewis said of Strategic Education, a for-profit college system. “Particularly on the ‘aligning professors with high quality teaching’ – they built these models.”

The work took place in three stages. First of all, the UNCF team focused on developing ways for teachers to upload hard copy course programs. From there, they designed two, four, and six week training programs and provided $ 400, $ 600, and $ 900 to faculty members who completed them. Then they delivered training designed to ensure student engagement, offering participating faculty $ 200 for a four-week course. As of November 2020, UNCF had trained more than 550 instructors in nearly 40 HBCUs and predominantly black institutions on Blackboard, Canvas, or an independent learning management system platform.

The UNCF is now in the third stage of the program and is selecting a smaller cohort of faculty members to participate in a six-month development process. Selected professors will create their own online courses in collaboration with workforce-focused instructional designers and coaches with technological expertise to create what Smith-Lewis calls “their own culturally rich, ready-made virtual content. for the 21st century ”.

UNCF will pay institutions to give time off to participating faculty, and the fund plans to share the curricula that faculty and coaches design with a larger network of HBCUs. Smith-Lewis said this third step of the work, which is only just beginning, is driven by the fact that existing online resources do not engage the unique cultural experience that HBCUs offer to students attending in person.

“There is a dearth of online content that has been developed by black college professors,” Smith-Lewis said. He added that the existing e-learning efforts at HBCUs are not producing the “lifelong trajectory change outcomes that we want… Students need to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of expectation. high and, most importantly, that there is a community around them as they learn.

The same philosophy is behind a similar effort underway at Complete College America (see below), which is launching a program designed to translate the cultural strengths and uniqueness of HBCUs into a digital environment. By the end of the training, Smith-Lewis said, UNCF will have trained and paid stipends to more than 2,200 faculty members at over 100 black institutions.

He said surveys the UNCF received from 770 participating instructors, an average of 52 years old, underscored why training is so necessary.

“When we went to see where our professors were going for resources, most of them told Google how to do your professional development online,” Smith-Lewis said.

Most faculty members reported feeling comfortable putting their programs in an LMS but much less comfortable facilitating online testing and assessment or even knowing how to teach in a Zoom format, a. said Smith-Lewis.

HBCU Capability Upgrade

UNCF efforts are among many examples of how HBCUs are now struggling to improve online education and student engagement.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded a grant to Complete College America to support work with HBCUs and better understand how they foster culturally rich experiences for students with the goal of translating this approach to online teaching. Complete College America is a national, non-profit organization that works with states to dramatically improve college completion and close the achievement gap for under-represented populations.

Dhanfu Elston, chief of staff and senior vice president of strategy at CCA, said the HBCU Digital Learning Infrastructure Initiative will provide seed money to five or six institutions to work with the national organization to build a digital learning infrastructure. Complete College America is also leading a research project on how to achieve its goal of creating vibrant and culturally rich online education through interviews with stakeholders from over 20 institutions including CIOs, Presidents college, students and others. What the organization learns will be shared with all HBCUs.

Gates is providing $ 2.5 million to fund the project. HBCUs will receive $ 1.5 million of this amount, with the remaining $ 1 million supporting project operations, including national research into HBCU digital learning infrastructure successful practices, in-depth research with HBCU partners selected, invitations from HBCU institutional partners and advisory board members, and a series of free workshops to share what they have learned.

“The HBCU experience is certainly about the classroom experience, but also the unique cultural experience, personal experience, peer learning, mentoring,” Elston said. “We want to know if this is the time, the time for institutions to think about what these offers might look like in the digital space, if that makes sense, and what the challenges are if they decide to go. in that direction ? “

Philanthropic interest in supporting HBCUs as they move programs online reflects a recent surge in HBCU’s efforts to adopt online courses.

At Clark University in Atlanta, leaders recently decided to make the university’s entire general education curriculum available online. Clark Atlanta will also keep general education offerings available in person. Mary Hooper, associate vice president who leads the Clark Atlanta effort, said part of what makes college education special is that students have a “visceral feeling” just by walking around campus. . She noted that Martin Luther King Jr. lay in the state inside Harkness Hall in Clark Atlanta after being assassinated.

Yet, said Hooper, executives at Clark Atlanta have recognized that many students need the flexibility offered by online offerings. By spring 2022, Clark will offer more than 100 online course sections, Hooper said.

Morehouse College recently announced a collaboration with 2U that aims to bring students who have not completed their degrees back into the fold via online courses.

Last year, Zoom Video Communications and South Carolina-based HBCU Claflin University reached a $ 1.2 million deal to develop a paid internship partnership with Zoom; Zoom-led virtual engagement institute focused on technical skills, career path and interview development topics; and provide a member of the Zoom product team to Claflin’s professional IT and math advisory board. Zoom experts will also co-write case studies to be incorporated into the program.


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