Monday, September 01, 2014

Academic Innovators as Community Organizers -- Part I

Last updated: Monday 9/1/14 @ 8:36 am
DLL Editor's Note -- An earlier version of this article was posted in March 2014

These notes recommend that HBCUs produce online programs for off-campus students at a much faster pace. The author's recent experience as the planner/community organizer of a comprehensive online initiative launched by Howard University, the wealthiest HBCU, suggests that HBCUs cannot accelerate their production of online programs fast enough by acting alone, even if they receive substantial technical and financial support from a corporate partner. If HBCUS are to assume a leadership role in the development of online programs for the nation's black students, they will have to form strategic alliances with each other wherein they pool their limited resources and share the costs and tuition revenues derived from the online programs that they develop together.

Part 1 provides a context for understanding the partnership between Howard University and Pearson PLC for developing online programs for off-campus students. Announced in August 2013, the partnership was suspended in February 2014. Hopefully, the hands-on insights provided by this series of notes will be of interest to other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that are considering comparable initiatives. Of course, my notes present my personal perspective. Other participants in this venture may hold different views ... :-) 

In the Fall of 2010, I was asked to conduct a planning study to determine the feasibility of developing a comprehensive array of online degree and certificate programs for off-campus students that would generate substantial revenue. This initiative -- called "Howard-Online" -- had been suggested to the president of Howard University by key members of the university's Board of Trustees.

Now fast forward to the last week in January 2014. The planning initiative had become an operational entity -- now called "HU-LEARN" -- that had an on-campus component called "HU-Teach" as well as an off-campus component still called "Howard-Online."
  • HU-Teach would provide stipends to encourage faculty to use information technology more effectively in their on-campus offerings by converting their traditional, face-to-face courses into flipped formats. THe would move their presentations online and use their classroom sessions for Q&A, demonstrations, small group discussions, and other interactive activities. Faculty would also receive stipends for developing courses that were 100 percent online wherever they determined that such courses would provide on-campus students with learning experiences that were comparable to their traditional and/or flipped courses. By providing our students with more effective learning experiences, the new flipped and online courses would enable on-campus students to earn better grades and carry larger course loads. Our overall retention rates would increase, as would our 4-year graduation rates.
  • Howard-Online, the off-campus component, would use stipends to encourage faculty to package the online courses they developed for on-campus students into degree and certificate programs for off-campus students. Howard-Online would thereby enable the university to offer learning opportunities to qualified students who would be otherwise unable to enroll in its on-campus programs, especially to students located in countries throughout the African Diaspora.

    Howard-Online's strategic partner, Pearson PLC, would provide marketing, recruitment, and other services. Pearson would put up the funds required to launch these services in exchange for a negotiated share of the tuition revenue that would be collected from the off-campus students who enrolled in the programs.
Planners play many roles. Most commonly, planners identify their client's goals, objectives, and resources, then they schedule tasks and milestones. That role was inappropriate in this case wherein the ultimate client was an academic community of disparate stakeholders -- faculty, staff, students, alums, senior administrators, and trustees -- whose most cherished concerns were sometimes incompatible, but who must function within a context of shared governance. 

Accordingly, I assumed an alternative role, that of a community organizer. Community organizers not only develop plans; they also engage in continuous, extensive communications with the community's various stakeholders in order to mobilize broad areas of consensus as to which goals and objectives should be pursued. The following paragraphs present my perspective as the community organizer/planner who attempted to evolve HU-LEARN from its initial specification as a revenue generating operation into a broader framework that could engage the creative energies of all segments of the Howard community. 

Substantial Revenue Generation
Striving to generate substantial revenue was a goal that was inspired by the hitherto hugely successful for-profit online programs that recruited large numbers of black students. However this initial goal was soon OBE, overcome by events. In the previous decade many for-profit institutions had garnered multimillion dollar annual net incomes from expensive marketing and recruitment campaigns. They charged high tuition and encouraged their students pay the high tuition by obtaining large loans from federal programs. The for-profits also made intensive use of cost-effective information technology ... and they engaged in dubious business practices. By the Fall 2010, the for-profit sector had run headlong into a perfect storm of powerful critiques of its dubious practices from the subcommittee chaired by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, from the GAO, and from U.S. Education Secretary Duncan's office, criticism that would generate such bad publicity that the for-profits would subsequently encounter sharp declines in enrollments, revenue, and profits.

By contrast, the most successful non-profit online programs may have become self-sustaining but, to my knowledge, none had ever reported multimillion dollar annual profits. Beyond this, some of our faculty raised ethical objections to extracting large profits from students.

Blended vs 100% Online
Community organizing within an academic community is an exciting, if sometimes brutal contact sport because faculty are smart, articulate, highly opinionated, voracious readers who have extensive contacts with colleagues at other universities. As our faculty learned more about e-learning, their opinions rapidly coalesced around the following consensual nodes:
  • Most faculty agreed that Howard University had to adopt e-learning innovations at a much faster pace than in recent years.
  • Most faculty in all programs would consider converting their traditional face-to-face courses for on-campus students into blended formats
  • Most of the faculty in our professional programs were enthusiastic about 100 percent online courses for on-campus students; whereas most of the faculty in other programs were more skeptical about 100 percent online courses
  • Similarly, most of the faculty in our professional programs were enthusiastic about offering some 100 percent online degree and certificate programs for off-campus students; whereas most of the other faculty were more skeptical about the potential quality of such programs.

The On-Campus Doggy Wags the Off-Campus Tail ... Finally
In the Fall 2010, Howard University only had three online degree programs. So how should we develop a wide array of additional programs on an accelerated schedule? Hiring a contractor to develop online courses and programs for off-campus students was briefly considered, but quickly discarded amidst apoplectic growls from the faculty. It was then determined that faculty would develop their online courses in stages ==> First,  they would convert their face-to-face courses for on-campus students into blended formats; then convert blended courses to 100 percent online formats; then package their on-campus courses into online degree and certificate programs for off-campus students ... but only if they determined that the online programs for off-campus students would deliver learning experiences that were comparable to the traditional and/or blended programs for on-campus students.
When I asked our Provost whether the stronger interests of the faculty in the university's professional schools and colleges in developing online programs should give them higher priority for receiving development stipends, his rejection was emphatic. All faculty in all schools and colleges would have equal opportunity to receive stipends. I was pleased, but not surprised by his response because I knew that he had become an enthusiastic supporter of blended and online courses for all on-campus students. Indeed, he subsequently agreed to allocate at least 70 percent of HU-LEARN's funds to its on-campus initiatives.

So what went wrong? And why did the strategic partnership fail to produce the desired results? ... The reader is referred to Part 2 of these notes (forthcoming) for my answers to these questions.

Related notes on this blog: