Sunday, September 07, 2014

Academic Innovators as Community Organizers -- Part 3

Last update: Sunday 9/7/14 @ 2:33 am
Note to the reader -- Please read Part 1  and Part 2 before reading these pages.

III. Back to the Future
Recent surveys have repeatedly found that the primary reason why black students drop out of college is their inability to continue paying for tuition and living expenses as these expenses continued to rise during the aftermath of the Great Recession. 

Given Howard University's status as one of the nation's preeminent HBCUs, I sincerely believe that it should become a leader of a major initiative within the HBCU community to develop ways to make higher education more affordable. Therefore I regard online programs for off-campus students not just as a golden opportunity to extend HBCU teaching services far beyond their campus walls; I believe that online programs could also provide a golden opportunity for HBCUs to substantially reduce the cost of providing high quality learning opportunities for off-campus students, thereby making a college education more affordable for substantially larger numbers of black students.
  • Off-campus students don't require classrooms that must be heated in winter, cooled in summer, physically maintained, and guarded 7 by 24 by 365; nor do off-campus students require access to physical libraries; computer labs and science labs, cafeterias and campus housing, ball fields, swimming pools, basketball courts, and other recreation facilities. If part of the tuition charged to on-campus students covers the costs of operating this physical infrastructure, then the tuition charged to off-campus students enrolled in online programs should be lower because their payments need not cover the on-campus overhead. 
  • Online programs also provide HBCUs with opportunities to develop high quality, low-cost competency-based programs. These programs can use online delivery of self-paced learning materials to shift the focus from the number of hours a student has been engaged with a subject, i.e., the traditional credit hour, to demonstrable measures of the student's mastery of the subject.

    This shift presents such a fundamental challenge to traditional notions of higher education that it made good sense for underfunded HBCUs to let better funded non-HBCUs lead the way until the non-HBCUs had persuaded enough accrediting bodies and regulatory agencies that this approach was viable ... which they have done. So now that Southern New Hampshire University and other non-HBCUs have launched regionally accredited, federally approved 10K BA's (as in $10,000 bachelors degrees) and other low cost degree programs, I thought it was time for HBCUs to get off the sidelines and out onto the playing fields!!! 

Virtual HBCU #1
Last May, I shuddered as I started to read "The New For-Profits" (Inside Higher Ed, 5/31/13), an op ed by Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNU). Dr. LeBlanc expressed strong misgivings about non-profit institutions forming partnerships with for-profit service providers. Were non-profit institutions at risk of becoming fronts for their for-profit partners? Would they lose control of their programs to the for-profits who would exploit the non-profits' respected brand names to gain access to large shares of the tuition payments that are funded by federal grants and loans?

I shuddered because of (a) my high regard for what Dr. LeBlanc and his colleagues at SNU had achieved without any partners; and (b) my gut-wrenching fear that he might be right ... not across-the-board right because he was not right about scale-up operations wherein large non-profit institutions that had already deployed many online programs engaged partners, like Pearson, to provide marketing & recruitment savvy and vast technical resources to achieve even larger enrollments. Many of those partnerships are thriving. And the success enjoyed by HBCUs that have worked with EOServe showed that for-profit service providers could offer effective support for small start-up operations that only launched one or two new online programs at a time. Most importantly, neither the large scale-ups nor the small start-ups have shown signs of losing of control of their core academic functions to their for-profit partners.

But my gut was warning me that LeBlanc's reservations might be spot on for more ambitious start-ups ... like Howard-Online ... relatively large operations that needed a strategic partner with deep pockets AND marketing & recruitment savvy AND technical expertise to get them off the ground. Indeed, some discouraging developments that occurred in the weeks that followed the August 2013 announcement of the Howard-Pearson partnership removed any remaining doubts from my mind that LeBlanc was right. I no longer questioned whether the partnership would fail. My only question was "How soon?"

LeBlanc's article ended by proposing that non-profit institutions form "co-ops" wherein they would pool their limited resources to develop online programs and then share the tuition revenue from these programs. I shuddered again, this time with deja-vu because six progressive HBCUs had come up with this same idea way back in 2002 -- Alabama A&M University, Bethune Cookman College (now "University"), Florida A&M University, Grambling State University, Morgan State University, and North Carolina Central University. The six had called their exciting alliance a "virtual HBCU" or "V-HBCU" which they announced in "Going Online with V-HBCU" (Diverse Issues, 4/25/2002).  I liked this idea very much back in 2002, and facing the imminent collapse of the Howard-Pearson partnership, I liked it even more in 2013. It was clearly another one of those "good ideas" whose time had finally come. So starting in October 2013, I posted a series of notes on this blog about "Virtual HBCUs."

HBCUs as National Leaders of Online Innovations For Black Students
OK. Howard University's initial efforts to launch a comprehensive array of online programs failed. So what? Why should anyone outside of the Howard community give a damn? And why shouldn't Howard and other HBCUs continue to pursue small scale, start-up strategies? Why does the HBCU community need to accelerate its entry into the online market by forming virtual HBCUs? Here's my logic:
  • Over 90 percent of the black students in the U.S. do not attend HBCUs; they are enrolled in mainstream colleges and universities. And this percentage is likely to rise even higher in the coming decades.
  • Although great progress in closing the academic achievement gaps between black and white college students occurred in the first few decades after the Civil Rights Revolution, unacceptably large gaps have persisted during the last few decades at all but the most elite non-HBCUs. At all but the most elite non-HBCUs, black students have substantially lower retention rates, lower graduation rates, and lower GPAs than white students.
  • There is reason to believe that creative innovations based on information technology will yield unprecedented improvements in the quality of online programs in the next few decades, just as innovations based on information technology have yielded unprecedented increases in the productivity of just about every other sector of our society. These improvements will provide enhanced learning experiences for most students ... but not necessarily for most black students.
  • In recent decades the nation's mainstream institutions failed to close the black/white academic achievement gaps in their traditional face-to-face programs. So why should anyone expect that their online programs will be more successful? Black students are a small minority at most non-HBCUs; hence their special requirements are unlikely to receive much attention from the developers of online innovations at most non-HBCUs.
  • Question: Where can faculty and staff develop innovations that will make online programs more effective and more affordable for black students without having to justify and/or apologize for their focus on black students?

    Answer (obvious): At HBCUs. That's why I propose that HBCUs play a leadership role in a national effort to develop innovations that will make online programs more effective for black students.
    -- It won't be enough for HBCUs to develop and adopt online innovations that are more effective for their own black students. As national leaders they must also strive mightily to encourage the adoption of their most effective innovations by the predominantly white faculties of the nation's non-HBCUs, where over 90 percent of our black students are enrolled. 
    -- The online innovations that are developed by HBCUs should be effective for black students regardless of the color of the instructors who employ these innovations. As noted above, over 90 percent of black students attend non-HBCUs today; but it must also be noted that over 90 percent of their instructors at the non-HBCUs are not black. So the innovations that we need today must also be effective when used by the white or Asian American instructors who teach 90 percent of the black students. The effective online innovations developed by HBCUs can't be "a black thing."
    -- HBCUs should develop innovations that will be effective in awide array of online courses and programs because the black students at HBCUs and elsewhere are enrolled in a wide array of courses and programs. 

    -- HBCUs should also enroll relatively large numbers of black students in their innovative courses in order to provide credible statistical documentation of the effectiveness of their innovations.
  • HBCUs will have to develop online programs at a much faster pace than they have in recent years because a there is reason to believe that the window of opportunity for HBCUs to exert a leadership role in the development of online innovations is closing.

    -- On the one hand, the large public universities and community colleges that have already developed extensive catalogs of online courses will attempt to increase the scale of their enrollments by using their own resources and/or by forming strategic partnerships with online service providers.

    -- On the other hand, the for-profit colleges and universities that survived the scrutiny of the government agencies and the subsequent bursting of the online bubble can be expected to consolidate their operations, clean up their dubious business practices, then expand as vigorously as possible in an effort to secure the largest possible share of what will soon become a trillion dollar global market for online programs.

  • Therefore I strongly recommend that HBCUs form strategic alliances with one another, i.e., virtual HBCUs, that will enable them to pool their limited resources in order to greatly accelerate their development, marketing, and recruitment of black students into comprehensive arrays of innovative online programs.

Virtual HBCU #2
The bad news is that the first virtual HBCU, noted above, was phased out not too long after its announcement in 2002. The good news is the recent announcement (3/11/14) by Wiley College (TX) of the establishment of a Center for Excellence in Distance Learning. Founding members of this alliance include Wiley College and two other HBCUs -- Oakwood University (AL) and Florida Memorial University (FL).  In the press release, Dr. Glenda F. Carter, Executive Vice President and Provost of Wiley College, declared:
"We all face similar challenges with online education. Through The Center for Excellence in Distance Learning, we can share courses, materials, progress and innovation. With a pooled investment, we can get further and faster toward the outcomes we all want to see.”
Although it's not not called a "virtual HBCU" the provost's description leaves no doubt that the new Center is a virtual rose by another name and smells as sweet ... :-)

I am hopeful that other HBCUs will form similar alliances; that the formation of these virtual HBCUs will be facilitated by the major HBCU organizations (NAFEOTMCF, and UNCF); that different V-HBCUs will focus on different kinds of innovations for different subject areas and for different levels of study; that membership in the V-HBCUs will overlap so that good ideas can spread more easily from one V-HBCU to another; and that the major HBCU organizations will assist the V-HBCUs to disseminate their most productive innovations among the nation's mainstream colleges and universities for the benefit of the 90 percent of black students who do not attend HBCUs.

Related Blog Notes:

Roy L. Beasley, PhD, the author of this note, is the former Coordinator of Faculty Support Services for HU-LEARN. His 41 years of rendering productive service to Howard University, first as a member of its tenured faculty and then as a member of its senior staff, ended abruptly on 1/30/14 when his position was eliminated.