Don't Follow the Crowd
Sometime in the next few months the Digital Learning Lab that I manage at Howard University will survey the websites of the 105 officially designated historically black colleges and universities, just as it has done in previous years, in order to determine which HBCUs are offering online degrees that are based on credit courses that deliver at least 80 percent of their content via the Web.
The higher education media have interpreted our previous reports as showing that HBCUs "lag" non-HBCUs in their production of online programs -- which is true.
The media have then explicitly stated or strongly implied that this "slow" pace was "bad" and that HBCUs should produce more online degrees at a faster pace -- which, IMHO, is a highly counterproductive value judgment.
Contrary to the torrents of hype about how online programs will save higher education that have filled the media in the last year or so, especially in the wake of the MOOC tsunami, online courses -- i.e., courses that deliver more than 80 percent of their content over the Web -- and online degree programs aren't good enough for everyone... yet.
Please note the qualifiers "good enough" and "yet." Even the best-designed online courses still require students to have higher motivation, a greater capacity to study alone, better time management skills, stronger fundamental math and language skills, and stronger study skills -- e.g., organizing notes during reviews for homework and tests, extracting correct interpretations from reading texts, listening to audio, viewing video presentations, etc. -- than do face-to-face or blended courses.
These prerequisites for online success will surely fade in the coming years as adaptive e-learning technologies enable online courses to be tailored to the prior knowledge, aptitudes, and learning styles of individual students, and as social media and other support tools become as effective as office hours and face-to-face tutorials. But at the present time colleges and universities should actively discourage students who lack these prerequisites from taking online courses and actively encourage them to take blended or face-to-face courses.
Given their historic commitment to providing opportunities for higher education to black students who have been academically handicapped by circumstances beyond their control, HBCUs should deliberately "lag" non-HBCUs that have not made such commitments with regard to the percentage of HBCU courses and degrees that are offered in online formats. This is not to say that HBCUs should not produce online courses and degree programs, just that they should not be as quick to do so as non-HBCUs because they have deliberately enrolled a higher percentage of students for whom online formats are not good enough ... yet
HBCUs should invest a higher percentage of their limited resources to provide training and financial incentives for their faculty members to upgrade traditional face-to-face courses to blended/hybrid formats. Recent research confirms expectations from common sense that blended courses are more effective for a higher percentage of students than either traditional face-to-face courses or courses offered in online formats.
Online courses and programs are the most advanced segments of a broad array of rapidly evolving e-learning technologies that are generally characterized as "disruptive." The descriptor is apt, but misleading. Too often the term is used to describe profound innovations that organizations fail to adopt, rather than strategic opportunities that were seized. Existential threats are nothing new to HBCUs. Each generation of HBCU leaders has taken office with a clear understanding that their success or failure would determine whether their institutions would survive into the next generation.
So the current leaders understand that they have no choice but to act on the certain knowledge that their HBCUs must disrupt or die. More specifically, they must embrace the mix of new e-learning technologies that will work best for their HBCUs as fast as possible, but no faster -- regardless of what Harvard or Stanford or MIT is doing.
Roy L Beasley is a member of the senior staff of Howard University, but the views expressed here are his own.
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