Thursday, August 31, 2006

HBCUs, Nontraditional Students, and Distance Learning

The Virtual HBCU
The April 25, 2002 issue of the magazine "Black Issues in Higher Education" (a/k/a "Diverse") reported that six HBCUs -- Alabama A&M, Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M, Grambling, Morgan, and North Carolina Central -- had formed a coalition to "boost the presence of predominantly Black institutions in the online distance education arena." The coalition was to be called the "Virtual-Historically Black Colleges' University" or "V-HBCU" and its members proposed to participate collectively and individually in the Defense Department's new eArmyU initiative. Coalition members would also share the burden of course development. The article quoted two definitive comments from Dr. Ben Lowery (Grambling State University):
  • "The main purpose behind V-HBCU is to provide a mechanism for HBCUs to get into distance learning without having to make an extravagant investment in it."
     
  • "HBCUs should see participation in an initiative such as eArmyU as a way to gain valuable experience in distance learning so that they can focus on the market of nontraditional students, which represents the bulk of people enrolled in online education programs."
In other words, the founders viewed this coalition as a cost-effective mechanism for developing the distance learning courses that would enable them to capture a larger share of the critical market for nontraditional students. When this article first appeared, the staff of the Digital Learning Lab (DLL) thought that the proposed V-HBCU strategy was brilliant.

However, the DLL's own contacts with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the manager of the eArmyU project, raised serious misgivings. PWC informed the DLL that its eArmyU contract did not contain any funds for training or development. So where would HBCUs get the money to enable their faculty to learn how to develop online courses and/or to give their faculty the release time required to develop complete arrays of online degree programs? More significantly, eArmyU did not become the powerhouse global driver of distance learning that many of us had anticipated. Not surprisingly, the V-HBCU initiative subsequently faded into the distinguished pantheon of good ideas that were slightly ahead of their time.

II. Distance Learning Is Not Enough 
Nontraditional students represent the largest segment of the entire postsecondary degree market. Whereas traditional students are usually 18 to 24 and attend daytime classes on a full-time basis while holding part-time jobs, nontraditional students are usually older and have full-time jobs and/or family obligations that make it necessary for them to take courses in the evenings/weekends and/or via distance learning.

The most successful for-profit and non-profit institutions in the postsecondary degree market not only offer distance learning courses, they still enroll most of their students in face-to-face courses at multiple locations on evenings and weekends. These market leaders include the University of Phoenix, DeVry, Strayer, and Kaplan; and the University of Maryland University College, Troy, and Webster -- to name just a few. To be sure, the portion of students enrolled in their distance learning courses is increasing, but with a few exceptions, e.g., Capella (which is 100 percent online), distance learning is only a portion of their total enrollments.

It is worth noting that a recent DLL report ("Strategic Partnerships") showed that these aggressive institutions are also educating an increasing share of the African American segment of the postsecondary degree market. On the other hand, the DLL's September 2006 survey of nontraditional HBCU programs found that only 20 out of the 104 officially designated HBCUs offered degree programs for non-traditional students that could be fully completed by taking courses offered in the evenings/weekends and/or via distance learning.

If the reader examines the DLL's August table for nontraditional HBCU programs, he or she will find that 13 HBCUs currently offer evening/weekend programs; 12 offer distance learning programs; and five HBCUs offer both -- Hampton, Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central, and Winston-Salem State. Interestingly, the 5 HBCUs that offer both kinds of courses also offer more degree options via evenings and weekends (combined total) than the 8 HBCUs who only offer evening/weekend courses (combined total); and collectively they offer more degree options via distance learning (combined total) than the 7 HBCUs that only offer distance learning courses (combined total). This suggests that, like the overall market leaders, these leading HBCUs are determined to maximize their share of the nontraditional student market. They know that distance learning is not enough ... but neither is night school.

Distance Learning -- Build or Buy?
Back in 2002 the V-HBCU proponents hoped that the members of their coalition would share the costs of developing online courses. By the end of 2005 the DLL had become concerned that HBCUs were impeding their progress in distance learning by trying develop too many course components themselves. The DLL stated its concerns in a report entitled "Distance Learning -- Build or Buy?" (Dec, 2005).

As regular readers of the Gateway are aware, the DLL reviews all HBCU Websites every year to identify changes in their distance learning programs. The survey also attempts to identify links to other organizations that might provide HBCUs with access to distance learning courses, training, and technical support. The DLL's September 2006 survey suggests that most HBCUs are still "building" too much and "buying" too little.

Of the 12 HBCUs that offer online degree programs, the DLL only found clear indications that three of them had obtained any of their degree courses via membership in consortia or other associations -- Fort Valley State (University of Georgia System), North Carolina A&T (Technology Management Consortium), and Tennessee State (Regents Online Continuing Education Program). The other nine HBCUs appear to have borne the full burden of their course development themselves -- a stark contrast to the cost-effective shared development strategy envisioned by the founding members of the Virtual HBCU coalition back in 2002.

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