New Formula for Distance Education

New Formula for Distance Education

This month, Black college officials attending the annual National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education conference learned of an initiative designed to help their schools become more competitive in online distance education.
The founding partners of the Historically Black Cyber College Consortium (HBC3) decided to unveil their nonprofit organization at NAFEO because “Distance learning is sorely needed on our campuses,” says William A. Allen, president of HBC3 and a former senior executive of the United Negro College Fund.
Spurred partially by competition from for-profit organizations, American higher education is in a high stakes race to deliver education programs via the Internet. The push by colleges and universities to create online distance education courses has propelled schools to spend millions of dollars upgrading their computing facilities and networks, and training faculty to use the Internet as a teaching tool. It is estimated that two-thirds of the nation’s 3,200 accredited four-year higher education institutions have faculty who supplement their teaching with full web-based course materials and have online credit programs.
A number of experts say this drive by colleges and universities is leading to yet another “digital divide,” this one shaping up between schools wealthy enough to develop a distance learning infrastructure and the not-so-wealthy schools that are struggling to accommodate and finance distance learning capabilities.
The belief that many of the nation’s 118 historically Black institutions fell in the latter category led James Mitchell, president of the consortium’s technology partner — Baltimore-based AlphaOmega InfoSystems — to approach Allen about assessing these schools’ distance learning infrastructure. The consortium grew out of their discussions and a survey of Black colleges confirmed what they had suspected.
“Less than 5 percent of historically Black institutions have faculty providing full Web-based supplements with their courses,” Mitchell says, citing the findings of the HBC3  survey.
To assist historically Black institutions with becoming proficient in online distance  education, HBC3 is launching an Internet gateway, or a comprehensive Web site, that will initially provide online training materials for faculty and students at schools that join the consortium. For an annual fee  — which is based on a school’s enrollment — students, faculty and administrators at member institutions will have access to the HBC3 Web site, and faculty members can get online technical assistance with developing courses online.
To allow access to the tutorials and training material provided by HBC3, institutions will pay a nominal fee for each registered user at that particular institution. Fees for access to the HBC3 online libraries will be charged in addition to the annual fee, which for the 2000-01 academic year will range from $2,500 to $9,500, Mitchell says.
While addressing faculty needs is the primary feature of the site, HBC3 also will offer tutorials that will attract students such as instruction on using popular software packages, programming languages and other commercially available software-based training tools.
Renowned distance education companies such as Blackboard and WebCT are among those that will contribute to the site’s offerings, Mitchell says, adding that consortium members will benefit from discounts on services from these partnering vendors.
“The key to making distance education over the Internet work is faculty,” Mitchell says. “That’s really the crux of this challenge. How do we get faculty to adopt and embrace [online distance education is the question we want to answer]?”
Over time, the HBC3 partners hope the gateway will become popular with working adults, high school students and community college students across the country. The gateway would also allow a student at any four-year campus to take courses from a historically Black institution. HBC3 officials expect the gateway to have great appeal to African Americans, who have an interest in historically Black institutions and want to take advantage of an online program.
“It’s a smart idea as long as [HBC3  has] clear goals and objectives,” says Mark S. Hall, CEO and co-founder of ED-X.com, an international marketing firm that assists organizations seeking to market their online education programs. Hall notes that distance education consortiums under the California higher education system and the Western Governors’ Association have floundered because each lacked clear goals and failed to resolve key funding and governance questions.
Mitchell says he envisions a time when all 118 HBCUs will be able to offer distance learning courses from their individual campus networks, but adds that lack of support staffing, lack of a sophisticated computing infrastructure, and faculty inexperience and resistance represent key hurdles for many institutions.
“Our schools will be left behind if we don’t get them into online distance education,” Allen says.      



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