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The United Negro College Fund, an organization representing private historically Black 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 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 enable users of the platform “to learn, develop, and build community together from anywhere.”

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

“One of the biggest advantages 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 not just to predict challenges, but to match students with courses that fit their learning style or give faculty 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 includes 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 consultancy, plan to extend the platform to more HBCUs in the future. Eventually, students will be able to not only take courses but complete fully online degree programs at participating HBCUs through the platform.

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

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

“This isn’t just about getting more classes online,” Julian Thompson, director of strategy for UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building, said in the release. “It’s about providing a safe space for Black joy and expression, giving students an opportunity to find their ‘tribe’ of people, and inspiring students of all ages by showing them Black leaders who are part of the same HBCU legacy. HBCUv will do this by embedding the culture, community and commitment to Black 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, the Lilly Endowment, the Citi Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

HBCUs, like higher education institutions across the country, had to quickly switch to remote learning when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency in 2020. But HBCUs on the whole struggled more than other types of institutions to adapt to the sudden shift.

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

“When you are a small institution and you’re just trying to keep your doors open and you don’t really have money to upgrade infrastructure or to invest [in] platforms … or form partnerships with online venues, it’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 in-person experience and fear the “culture shift” that could come with the new modality. That hesitancy among HBCU faculty members and leaders is the subject of an article she co-authored for the National Education Association Higher Education Journal in 2018. She says the resistance has been a setback for the institutions and risks making them less attractive to today’s students.

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

Glenn Jones believes the pandemic is accelerating the growth of online offerings by HBCUs 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 the goals of HBCUv, said Smith-Lewis.

“One of the things we learned while conducting research for HBCUv was that 66 percent of HBCU students have part-time or full-time jobs on top of their responsibilities at school,” he said. “HBCUv is designed specifically to give students more flexibility and more options for how they achieve their educational goals.”

The pandemic has already spurred a number of new efforts to bolster and expand these institutions’ online learning infrastructure. 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 the institution without a degree. Complete College America, an organization focused on raising college completion rates, launched the Digital Learning Infrastructure Initiative last year to help a group of at least six HBCUs build out their online offerings and create online environments that reflect the distinct culture of support provided by HBCUs.

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

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

HBCUv will be designed by Ethos, a division of Deloitte Digital intended to help institutions and companies promote equity, sustainability and social welfare. The engagement team working on the project is intentionally diverse—90 percent people of color, 61 percent Black and 28 percent HBCU alumni.

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

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

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

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

“HBCUs emerged out of a deficit where Black Americans were not being permitted the traditional tracks for education,” and today, online education is a key educational track, she said. “I think it’s extremely important that we continue to recognize that sense of community that created so many of our institutions, that we have to be willing to address and foster that same sense of community and nourish it where we are now. There’s a lot of students who would love a degree, but online would work better for them.”

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