HBCUs Poised To Offer Online Degrees
HAMPTON, Va. — Within the historically Black college and university community, the push to offer online distance learning courses is entering a new phase — the establishment of online degree programs.
This summer, Hampton University will begin two degree programs whose courses will be accessible entirely through the Internet. Many Black schools offer online courses, but Hampton will be the first to offer a full degree program.
A number of other HBCUs, such as Florida A&M and Clark Atlanta Universities, are right behind Hampton, expanding their online course offerings into degree programs within the next couple of years.
“We’ve had a mandate from President [Dr. William] Harvey to make this happen,” says Debra White, assistant provost for technology at Hampton, noting that the school has been preparing for online degree offerings over the past two years.
Hampton will offer an online bachelor’s in religion and philosophy, and an online Ph.D in nursing, according to White. Several faculty members are currently testing their online courses, with more than 250 Hampton undergraduates enrolled in religion and philosophy classes, White says.
The race to develop and package courses into online degree programs is sweeping American higher education. Currently, close to 350 four-year colleges and universities offer at least one online distance learning degree program, which is slightly more than 10 percent of four-year institutions in the country.
The number of schools with online degree programs jumped from 250 in December 1998, to 350 in December 1999, according to “Distance Degrees,” a yearly reference book on online degree programs.
Spurred partially by competition from for-profit educational companies, traditional higher education institutions began offering online courses and degree programs primarily to nontraditional students and working adults.
Mark Wilson, president of the Oregon-based Distance Degrees, Inc., says studies have shown the market for online degree programs and courses is heavily concentrated among working adults in their late 20s to their 50s. The average age of an online degree program student is 31, he says.
“What you’re seeing is that distance education is attracting mature adults,” Wilson says.
At Hampton, officials say the school’s annual ministers’ conference revealed that there is significant interest among working clergy to acquire four-year degrees in the formal study of religion and philosophy. White says market research also indicated to Hampton officials that the production of nursing Ph.Ds is critical for American colleges and universities to have a growing pool of faculty to teach in four-year programs.
“I think [religion, philosophy and nursing] are strong areas to get involved in,” says Mark S. Hall, CEO and co-founder of ED-X.com, an international online education marketing firm.
Hall says it’s common for colleges and universities to package the most popular education programs — such as business administration — as their first foray into online degree offerings. But he says that schools servicing niche markets, such as the clergy community, stand to do quite well.
“If a school has a strong faculty in an unique field, that will set them apart from other institutions offering more common study areas,” Hall says.
To develop the capacity to offer online distance learning courses, historically Black institutions are turning to outside sources for help. Foundations, federal agencies and state governments are helping underwrite equipment purchases and faculty training programs. In some cases, public HBCUs in states like Florida, are under a mandate to develop online programs.
Clark Atlanta and Florida A&M have had government agencies and foundations help them jumpstart forthcoming online degree programs. Grants totaling $2.2 million from the Lilly Foundation and the publicly funded Georgia Research Alliance have enabled the Atlanta-based school to begin building a campus distance learning center that will combine videoconferencing technology with the Internet and other technologies.
Clark Atlanta officials say that integrating videoconferencing with various distribution technologies will yield a wide array of formats for delivering course material to students.
James Mitchell, the CEO of AlphaOmega InfoSystems, Inc. in Baltimore, Md., says HBCUs are watching closely how institutions such as Clark Atlanta and Hampton develop online degree programs.
AlphaOmega Systems, as the technology partner to the HBC3 distance learning consortium, is working with Clark Atlanta on faculty training efforts. HBC3 is a nonprofit organization.
Dr. Dhyana Ziegler, assistant vice president for instructional technology at Florida A&M, says the university is getting $3.5 million from the National Science Foundation to develop a slate of science, math and engineering courses online.
She says that online courses are already under way at the university’s education and engineering schools. For Florida A&M, going online adds to the videoconferencing programs — including a Ph.D program in pharmacy — the school currently offers. The Ph.D pharmacy degree program enables students in satellite classrooms in Tampa and Miami to see live videotaped lectures.
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