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Can Faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities Replicate Part of the HBCU Experience Through an Online Format?

In an article published in the NEA Higher Education Journal in 2018, Patrice Glenn Jones and Elizabeth K. Davenport argued that the resistance of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to embrace online education will make these institutions less attracted to today’s technologically savvy generation of college students. Specifically, they cited several factors for the reluctance of HBCUs to engage online learning. The first factor was the lack of access to computers for the population that HBCUs predominately serve. Another factor centered on the need for HBCUs to continuously invest in technological upgrades to meet the demands of online education. The authors argued that since HBCUs are underfunded and are heavily depended upon tuition for revenues, they lack the funding infrastructure to attend to these upgrades. These, of course, are valid reasons and we have seen them play out recently during the COVID-19 pandemic as institutions abruptly shifted to virtual and online instruction in the middle of the spring semester.  While postsecondary institutions in general are experiencing budget shortfalls due to loss revenues from prorating student fees and having to make significant investments in online learning platforms at the last minute, HBCUs specifically have been severely impacted by these events.

Dr. Robert T. PalmerDr. Robert T. Palmer

While we agree with the reasons Jones and Davenport discussed as hindrances to HBCUs’ adopting of online education, we would like to introduce another factor into this discourse. That is, some faculty at HBCUs harbor this notion that the “HBCU experience” cannot be captured in an online environment. Naturally, there are part of this premise in which we agree. For example, if a student at an HBCU is pursuing their degree completely online, they will miss the opportunity to engage in the out-of-the classroom activities that helps to bind one to the social fabric of the institution. But this is true for a student working on their degree exclusively online at another institutional type, such as one classified as predominantly White. However, a critical part that help makes the “HBCU experience” so unique, powerful, and uplifting are the relationships students are able to forge with faculty members. HBCU faculty have been credited for nurturing, empowering, and helping students to cultivate critical academic and personal skills that have spurred growth and development in their sense of self-efficacy. Connected to the interaction that students have with HBCU faculty is the curriculum, often imbued by threads of social justice and racial uplift, that are designed by faculty.

It is our contention that these aspects can be incorporated into an online educational environment. Specifically, by continuing to employ a curriculum that embraces culturally relevant content and instructional practices, faculty at HBCUs can still foster inclusive and culturally empowering learning experiences for students in an online capacity. Faculty can also conduct class sessions in synchronous and asynchronous formats and can use classes held in the initial format to check in on students. While these “check-ins” might focus on how well students are understanding the materials, they can also be used as an opportunity for faculty to get to know their students better. Just as faculty would do inside the classroom of a brick and mortar institution, faculty teaching in an online capacity could work to get to know their students from a holistic perspective. Taking time to let students know that they matter and that faculty care about them as a person will manifest in students developing meaningful relationships with faculty. This, coupled with a curriculum that is culturally affirming and enriching, will facilitate a transformative learning experience, which will help to provide students with a high-quality educational experience. These factors will also help to engender a safe, cathartic space where students feel supported and encouraged to openly discuss pressing social issues. It is these aspects, that in part, comprise the “HBCU experience.”

Dr. Morris ThomasDr. Morris Thomas

Indeed, online learning environments possess capacity to provide rich and meaningful learning experiences, allowing students to demonstrate academic voice, infectious curiosity, and expanded worldviews. Online courses utilize various technological tools as a means for providing instruction. Common instructional technology tools include learning management systems, web-conferencing, lecture capture, multimedia, social media and simulation. It is important to note that these tools do not replace the instructor but are used by instructors to supplement and facilitate learning in online environments. The role of the instructor remains paramount and can be highly effective in all instructional modalities, particularly online learning environments. We must also remember that the “HBCU experience” is not only formed by the faculty, but the students who attend these institutions bring a wealth of experiences into these learning environments. Therefore, faculty should incorporate student-centered instructional strategies in online courses. A few suggested student-centered instructional strategies include the following:

  • Jigsaw- Break students into groups, giving each member a different task. Bring groups back together and share. Web conferencing tools have the capabilities of having multiple breakout rooms in a synchronous class session.
  • Create Media-Present an issue, equation or question and have the students create a public service announcement and/or solution-oriented videos. Students can use their devices and create multimedia content and share it with their peers in the learning management system asynchronously or in a synchronous online class session.
  • Discussion Board Activities- Instead of the faculty developing all questions or discussion board prompts, allow the students to create the questions and prompts for the discussion boards. Allow them to answer using text, video and or voice threads.
  • vlogs/blogs- Allow students to create vlogs or blogs that allows for engagement with the content, their peers and the faculty.
  • Social Media- Engage students by using social media to share brief messages as well as the option to give and receive feedback.

Moreover, technological tools are essential to online learning because many students use similar tools in their daily routines as their primary and preferred means for engagement. Therefore, if these technologies are appropriately employed in online learning environments, what prevents online instruction from having the ability to foster dynamic learning environments that nurtures meaningful relationships, ultimately contributing to the unique “HBCU experience?”

It is important for HBCUs to recognize that online learning continues to be one the fastest growing sectors of higher education. Online learning has increasingly become a more widely accepted and viable option. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the need for this option and has pushed institutions to adopt virtual instruction rapidly. It is our aim to encourage those who resist adopting the online modality to consider that the “HBCU experience” does not have to be limited to face-to-face encounters. It is possible to expand this cherished tradition by embracing online learning.

Online learning is not the next big thing; it is the now big thing

-Donna J. Abernathy

Dr. Robert T. Palmer is chair and associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University.

Dr. Morris Thomas is associate professor in the Center for the Advancement of Learning at the University of the District of Columbia.

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