Sunday, December 22, 2013

Some Challenges for HBCUs and Virtual HBCUs Launching Blended & Online Courses and Programs -- Part 1

Last updated: Saturday 12/28/13 @ 9:36 am
The following notes discuss some of the most significant issues that I have encountered since January 2011 as the principal planner for my HBCU's efforts to encourage our faculty to develop more blended and online courses for our on-campus students, and then to repackage our online courses into online degree and certificate programs for our off-campus students. 

  • The notes are generic, i.e., they identify challenges and alternative solution strategies, but they do not identify the specific strategies that my HBCU adopted.
  • The notes focus on IT challenges to traditional academic relationships  because my experience as a life-long techie has confirmed again and again that the biggest challenges to the successful implementation of new technologies are rarely technical.
  • The notes are tentative because the beginning of 2014 will mark the end of my HBCU's three year planning period and our transition to implementation. Given the benefits of 20-20 hindsight, the December 2014 update to these notes may contain contain some radically revised second thoughts ... :-)
  • And the notes are personal, i.e., they present my own personal perspectives; they do not represent the opinions of my HBCU. More specifically my personal opinions may differ substantially from the perspectives of my university's senior administrators, key faculty, student leaders, and Board of Trustees.

A. Why pursue these initiatives???
Why encourage HBCU faculty to develop more blended and online courses for on-campus students and why encourage them to develop online degree and certificate programs for off-campus students? More specifically, why did my HBCU launch its current initiatives?

As was the case for many other HBCUs, the immediate impetus for my HBCU's current activities was the urgent appeals made by Mr. Tom Joyner, a successful black radio personality and philanthropist with a long-standing commitment to HBCUs. 
  • Throughout 2009 and 2010, Mr. Joyner implored HBCUs to launch online initiatives (Diverse Issues, Chronicle) in response to the high black enrollments in online programs offered by for-profit colleges and universities, programs wherein black students paid high tuition, achieved  low graduation rates, and experienced low employability after graduation; nevertheless these programs yielded extraordinarily high returns for their profit-driven investors.
  • Ironically, Mr. Joyner's appeals coincided with the peak of the for-profits' success. Shortly thereafter, their enrollments and profits plummeted in the wake of a perfect storm of adverse developments, i.e., the negative assessments by U.S. Senator Harkin's committee, the GAO, and the U.S. Department of Education -- during the aftermath of the Great Recession
My HBCU initially focused on the development of online programs for off-campus students. However, the plummeting fortunes of the for-profit sector together with the substantial increase in the number of competing non-profit institutions launching online programs soon discounted any expectations that our own investments in online programs would easily yield substantial new revenue streams in the short-run. 
  • On the other hand, our HBCU had compelling non-revenue incentives to offer online degree and certificate programs, e.g., extending the international reach of our faculty beyond our campus, especially to students throughout the African Diaspora.
  • The prior success of the for-profit institutions also reminded us of the thousands of non-traditional students who would benefit from the kinds of learning opportunities that we offered to our traditional students; but these non-traditional students could not enroll in our on-campus programs because of their jobs and/or family obligations.
  • In either case, our biggest challenge would be to develop online programs whose quality would be comparable to the programs that we offered to our traditional, on-campus students.
It was also ironical that the more we contemplated the requirements for launching successful programs for off-campus students, the more we became impelled to expand our focus to include our on-campus courses:
  • Courses that would become the components of online programs for off-campus students would begin as courses for our on-campus students. This reflected an implicit understanding that we would not offer programs for off-campus students unless we already offered corresponding programs for our on-campus students.
  • However, the vast majority of our on-campus courses were still in traditional face-to-face formats. Accordingly, if our own faculty were to become the primary developers of the online courses for off-campus programs, they would have to begin by converting their face-to-face courses for on-campus students to blended formats (at least 30 percent online) and eventually to 100 percent online versions for our on-campus students
These considerations evolved within the broader context of a diversity of opinion among our faculty about online courses and programs. As is the case with most of the nation's other selective colleges and universities, most of our faculty are receptive to the notion that the effectiveness of most courses could be enhanced by additional use of appropriate Internet technology, e.g, via some form of blending. More effective courses would improve student learning that would yield higher passing rates, higher retention rates, and higher graduation rates. Nevertheless, there is considerable variation in interest and support for 100 percent online courses and programs among the different schools and colleges within our university, with the greatest enthusiasm expressed by faculties in our professional programs.

As consequence, an initiative that began as an effort to develop online courses and programs for off-campus students now has two components: 
  • An on-campus initiative will encourage faculty in all programs to use Internet technology more intensively in all of their courses. The level of blending will be determined by faculty teaching the courses -- 30% ... 50% ... 80%. In other words, faculty will only put as much of their courses online as they determine will enhance the learning experiences of their students.  To be more specific, faculty will only be encouraged to develop 100 percent online courses if they determine that 100 percent online courses will provide learning experiences that are comparable to face-to-face or blended versions of their courses.
  • The off-campus initiative will develop an array of online degree and certificate programs that are repackaged versions of the online courses that our faculty have developed for our on-campus students.
Subsequent sections of this note will present my comments about the issues and "gotchas" that I found to be the most challenging over the course of the last three years of planning. They are offered as markers or roadside warning signs for the benefit of other program planners, especially those of you who are lucky enough to have the chance to plan comparable efforts for other HBCUs. We planners are lucky because we have the best jobs ==> we get paid to dream out loud ... :-)

Challenges and Comments -- Part 2
B. "Build or Buy??? -- Allies, Contractors, and/or Strategic Partners 

Challenges and Comments -- Part 3

C. Courses and Programs (forthcoming)
D. Faculty (forthcoming)
E. Students (forthcoming)

Related Notes:

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