How a new online platform aims to expand digital learning HBCU

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Earlier this year, UNCF announced it was developing an online platform, HBCUv, with the vision that it would have classes taught by the nation’s top black minds.

Also noteworthy is the way UNCF, which advocates for historically black private colleges and universities, is pursuing the project. That works with nine HBCUs: Benedict College, Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Jarvis Christian College, Johnson C. Smith University, Lane College, Shaw University, and Talladega College.

A branch of Deloitte Digital called Ethos is developing HBCUv with these institutions. More than $10 million in funding for the project comes from the Karsh Family Foundation, Lilly Endowment, Citi Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

Higher Ed Dive spoke with two people deeply involved with the project to better understand it and how it’s supposed to be different from the norm in education technology. Next week we will publish an interview with Nathan Young, senior manager of Deloitte Consulting and head of strategy at Ethos.

First, here’s a conversation with Edward Smith-Lewis, vice president of strategic partnerships and institutional programs at UNCF.

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

SUPERIOR DIVING: How would you describe HBCUv to someone who doesn’t know it?

Edward Smith-Lewis

Authorization granted by UNCF

EDWARD SMITH-LEWIS: HBCUv is designed to be an online learning ecosystem that pushes campus boundaries for students who might be interested in attending an HBCU but have barriers, such as financial or geographic barriers. It is also designed to be a flexibility tool for current on-campus students, where they may want to be on campus but take an online course.

What we’re trying to do is deliver on the promise of digital, which we believe levels the playing field and provides access.

How did the project start?

Funnily enough, this was before COVID. We were invited by a large technology organization to come and see some of their digital learning related products and capabilities. They were interested in supporting an HBCU or two.

The UNCF team came back and said, “How do you choose which institution deserves this opportunity? Instead of picking one or two, we went back to this organization and said, “What if we did a shared service where we offered this opportunity to many others?”

So we had conceived HBCUv in November 2019. We wrote a full proposal and submitted it, and everyone saw the opportunity grow – unfortunately, maybe too big, because then they wondered who owns it and how it works and all those things.

So this proposal sat on the shelf for a few months while our CEOs tried to come together and figure out how we could actually partner on such an important initiative. Then we were all told to stay home in mid-March, and for the first time in a long time, 90% of higher education teachers logged on to their [learning management system]. And somebody said, “Wait, don’t we have that proposal, HBCUv?”

How will this differ from a traditional learning management system?

For much of virtual learning, this is when you log in to engage, whether it’s a synchronous or asynchronous course. He’s so focused on that learning moment, absorbing or digesting the content and trying to make the content you’re learning his own.

But that is by no means a black college experience. We’re trying to think about how you keep a student connected whether or not they’re taking that course at the time. We believe keeping them connected is creating a community around the learning experience.

A graduate of HBCU, nine times out of 10, they’ll say it was like family because so much of the experience happens when you’re walking around campus or in the cafeteria. These are things that virtual environments can’t quite replicate, and so we’re talking about reinventing the HBCU experience.

We’re thinking about things like how do you reimagine an HBCU’s courtyard in a virtual space? How do you allow students to manage their own relationships through social clubs which can be virtual? What do you think of these other engagement opportunities, and it could be career boosters or mentoring or simple Q&As and message boards.

Do you intend to expand beyond the nine institutions that are part of the development?

Aspiration is all HBCUs.

We have three of the nine development partners, and those three are in every conversation, so they meet with us four or five times a week while we discuss the ins and outs and make decisions – everything from features and functions of the platform being about the governance structure and how you maintain the organization around it.

The goal would be that by the fall of next year we have nine fully on the platform. After that, we’re looking to scale pretty quickly.

We are also very interested in other institutions that are not HBCUs in terms of participating in the platform, so we are trying to understand that as well.

But the target would be the 102 public and private HBCUs, if they see fit. We’re designing it so it’s not your only virtual learning tool, so we’re not asking institutions to modify their LMS.

Why involve Deloitte?

We see this as a partnership. We have designed the work in such a way that we are fully integrated. We see them as an extension of our team.

UNCF, we are known as a fundraising and scholarship organization with a fairly strong and emerging capacity building unit. But we are not a technology organization. And we’re trying to address a lack of technology capacity in a set of underfunded institutions.

One interesting thing about this project is that it involves branching out into new areas for you. Do you have any recommendations or thoughts on how organizations can do this?

When you think of all the innovation that’s happened in the tech space and some of the challenges that are reproducing from society – solutions being designed for some groups and not others, or lacking the thought or various opportunities in this space – it gets really difficult when you say, “Hey, we want to get in, but we want to get in with an equity focus. We want to make sure that the stakeholders we’re trying to serve have rights in the decision-making process.”

When you think about technology and innovation, it’s usually fast and then you iterate. But when you work on equity, and you work with organizations that have always been in this area, that means you go slower and focus on awareness and understanding.

It is very difficult to find partners who understand this and who are willing to slow down and eat some of the investment associated with the slowdown.

Is this something that might have an effect on institutions that are not HBCUs?

We believe our new operating model will challenge higher education. Instead of chasing Harvard and trying to be #1, how can we collectively be a much more inclusive and shared set of institutions that promote our mission across all institutions — and that’s educating our society. Can we all be much more inclusive institutions?

Michael Crow talked about the new American university, and he’s done a great job of it at Arizona State University. I think you see other institutions trying to follow this mega-institution model. How can you be an institution of 100,000 people? It’s a model.

But there’s something about the diversity of institutions and the small size, especially for low-income first-generation students who have for the first time reached their ultimate goal. Their ultimate goal was to go to college, and now they’re lost.

Institutions need to offer these students as much support as possible, and it becomes very difficult to do so with 150,000 students. It’s much easier to do that when there are 400 students. Unfortunately, 400 students are not working in the current economic model of higher education.

So my question is, what if I connect this 400-person campus to the 1,200-person campus and the 5,000-person campus so that the economics of running the facility can change?

I think that’s a model for rural colleges, community colleges, you name it, small liberal arts colleges. Because they are extremely important and vital to the communities they serve.

How can we reverse the situation and challenge the push of exclusion that is occurring in higher education?

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