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Historically Black colleges and universities have confronted an unusual mix of challenges as they enter the digital age. Traditionally underfunded, they often have less money available for building digital infrastructure and ensuring online coursework is engaging than many other institutions.

HBCUs also offer a very special brand of education that may be difficult to translate to an online environment. Their model is based on fostering a sense of belonging for students -- and it has proven to be hugely successful at reaching first-generation, low-income students in particular -- but experts are now trying to figure out how to replicate that community feeling on an online platform.

Now, as the pandemic has made clear just how important it will be for colleges and universities to migrate online with effective curricula, philanthropies and private companies are stepping up to support HBCUs. The United Negro College Fund is spending $1.75 million to train faculty on how to better use learning management systems and design culturally rich curricula. 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 that the pandemic was here to stay, leaders at the UNCF realized there was an urgent need to support faculty at historically Black colleges and universities as they moved to teaching online.

UNCF found a very receptive audience.

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

Smith-Lewis said UNCF officials quickly realized that HBCUs would need support honing faculty members’ online teaching skills. Armed with $1.75 million in funding from the Lilly Endowment, UNCF is now training faculty on how to master learning management systems and build culturally relevant curricula. It is doing so, in large part, by providing financial incentives to faculty for participating in the trainings.

UNCF asked four organizations for bids to come on board as a partner: 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. returned with the best ideas and most affordable proposal, said Smith-Lewis, who also was impressed by the HBCU grad Strategic had in place to run the partnership.

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

The work unfolded in three stages. First, the UNCF team focused on developing ways for faculty to move paper syllabi online. From there they designed two-, four- and six-week training programs and provided $400, $600 and $900 to faculty members who completed them. Next, they offered training designed to ensure student engagement, offering participating faculty $200 for a four-week course. By November of 2020, UNCF had given more than 550 instructors at nearly 40 HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions training on Blackboard, Canvas or a learning management system-agnostic platform.

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. The selected professors will create their own online courses in collaboration with workforce-focused instructional designers and coaches with technological expertise to make what Smith-Lewis calls “their own 21st-century-ready, culturally rich virtual content.”

UNCF will pay the institutions to give participating professors release time, and the fund plans to share the curricula the professors and coaches design with a larger network of HBCUs. Smith-Lewis said this third stage of work, which is just getting started, is driven by the fact that existing online resources don’t engage the unique cultural experience that HBCUs provide to students attending in person.

“There is a dearth of online content that has been developed by faculty from Black colleges,” Smith-Lewis said. He added that existing online learning efforts at HBCUs do not produce the “lifelong, trajectory-shifting outcomes that we want … Students have to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of high expectations and, most importantly, that there’s a community around them as they’re learning.”

The same ethos is driving a similar effort under way at Complete College America (see below), which is launching a program designed to translate HBCUs’ cultural strengths and uniqueness into a digital environment. By the time the training wraps up, Smith-Lewis said, UNCF will have trained and provided stipends to more than 2,200 faculty members at about 100 Black institutions.

He said the surveys UNCF received from 770 participating instructors, who had an average age of 52, underscore why the training is so needed.

“When we went to look at where our faculty went for resources, most of them said Google when it came to how do you do your professional development online,” Smith-Lewis said.

Most faculty members reported feeling comfortable putting their syllabi into an LMS but far less comfortable facilitating tests and evaluations online or even knowing how to teach in a Zoom format, Smith-Lewis said.

Upgrading HBCU Capabilities

UNCF’s efforts are among many examples of how HBCUs are now wrestling with improving online teaching and student engagement.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently provided a grant to Complete College America to support work with HBCUs and better understand how they foster culturally rich experiences for students with a goal of translating that approach to online instruction. Complete College America is a national nonprofit organization that works with states to significantly improve college completion and close attainment gaps for underrepresented populations.

Dhanfu Elston, chief of staff and senior vice president for strategy at CCA, said that the HBCU Digital Learning Infrastructure Initiative will provide seed money to five or six institutions to work with the national organization to build out digital learning infrastructure. Complete College America is also conducting a research project on how to achieve its goal of creating vibrant and culturally rich online instruction through interviews with stakeholders across 20-plus institutions, including CIOs, college presidents, 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 that, with the remaining $1 million supporting project operations, including national research on successful HBCU digital learning infrastructure practices, deep research with selected HBCU partners, convenings of the HBCU institutional partners and advisory committee members, and a series of free workshops to share what they’ve learned.

“The HBCU experience is definitely about the classroom experience, but it’s also about the unique cultural experience, the personal experience, the peer learning, the mentorship,” Elston said. “We want to find out, is this the moment, the time for institutions to think about what those offerings could look like in the digital space, if it makes sense, and what are the challenges if they decide to move in that direction?”

The philanthropic interest in supporting HBCUs as they move curricula online reflects a recent surge in HBCU efforts to embrace online coursework.

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

Still, Hooper said, there was a recognition by Clark Atlanta’s leadership that many students need the flexibility online offerings provide. By the spring of 2022, Clark will offer more than 100 course sections online, Hooper said.

Morehouse College recently announced a collaboration with 2U that aims to bring students who have not finished 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 partnership offering paid internships with Zoom; institute Zoom-led virtual engagements focused on technical skill, career path and interview development topics; and provide a member of Zoom’s product team to the Claflin Computer Science and Mathematics Professional Advisory Board. Zoom experts also will co-author case studies to be embedded into curriculum.

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