I remember my first day on the campus of Florida A&M University vividly. Friendly faces offering to help me and my mom move my things to the third floor of my dorm. Watching the Greeks stroll on The Set, one of FAMU’s main meeting places. Getting a home phone number from my first adviser, with the promise that she’d always be there if I needed her.
After that came the study groups, student organizations and professors who made you feel like you weren’t in the hunt for that degree alone.
That was 11 years ago.
In August, all those memories came flooding back when I was faced with the challenge of enrolling in a course through Hampton University’s virtual campus, HamptonU Online. What’s unique about Hampton’s program is its goal of transporting the HBCU experience online. As an HBCU alum, I was eager to see if HamptonU Online could come up with an experience that mirrored what I’d already been through.
With no face-to-face interaction, I knew it would be tough.
The school’s online portal has a virtual student center that puts students like me in touch with others who share my interests. There’s even a section for clubs—Greek-letter, athletic, political and social, among others—to allow me the chance to interact with others and give me more of a campus experience than I would get from an online-only institution.
The humanities course I took had the objective to “acquaint students with the thoughts, creations and actions of man reflected in selected literary, musical, dramatic and other creative productions of past and present in the fine arts and humanities.” Oh, boy.
But it was perfect for my mission: The humanities course I enrolled in mid-semester was something that, ironically, would not come easy to me, and I would need to call on school officials to get acquainted with the system.
Hampton started offering online courses about 10 years ago as an experiment that began in the school of nursing, says Dr. Cristi Ford, the school’s director for distance education. It was only in the last year that things began to take off. Now, there’s an administrative team specifically built to handle the 24 programs students can complete online.
“We have programs at every level, from certificate through Ph.D.,” Ford says. “We have really seen the interest in these programs grow with lots of excitement from professionals in varying walks of life.”
Programs range from a certificate in paralegal studies to a doctoral program in educational leadership.
Hampton is one of the early partners to sign on to radio personality Tom Joyner’s HBCUsOnline, a for-profit initiative designed to help HBCUs tap into the African-American adult-education market that has proved fruitful to online institutions such as the University of Phoenix, the top producer of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans. For Hampton, HBCUsOnline will serve as a marketing vehicle to attract students, although the initiative promises to help institutions develop online courses and provide students with one-on-one support to simulate HBCUs’ nurturing environment.
The course looked just like the others offered elsewhere. There were assignments posted online that included the time and date due, as well as group assignments that made up a good portion of your grade.
I sat down and read through the course at its online Blackboard page. Blackboard was used sparingly during my time at Florida A&M. This time around, it is where most of the interaction takes place. There’s a board for group discussions on topics as they come up on the course outline. There’s a section specifically for addendums to the reading materials and a list of assignments, as well as reminders about style requirements for assignments.
A calendar showed you how your week would go. In my first week, I was supposed to read four chapters of our book, check out a few videos and turn in a homework assignment the following Sunday. The problem was I didn’t have the book.
I’m in Georgia and Hampton is in Virginia, so I couldn’t just walk into the campus bookstore. The closest university to me, I discovered, was using a different printing of the book I needed.
That put me back online, where the book price ranged from $23 to $125. Many of the copies weren’t available for overnight delivery, however. Eventually, the book would come from a textbook rental store for less than one-third of the cost for a new one, but it did not arrive within days as promised.
In the meantime, what was I going to do about the coursework? I e-mailed my professor to let her know my situation.
“You can participate in most areas without a book if you take the extra effort to use library and Internet resources to research discussion topics and other activities,” she wrote. “I will defer the quizzes and exams until you have received your book, as this is a necessary resource to study the appropriate material.”
I didn’t know if she was allowing me to take my exam at my convenience because she knew I was a reporter in her class. Apparently, as I was later told, she treated me like any other student at a disadvantage from taking on a course midway through the semester.
I always thought the downside to these online ventures would be the lack of personal interaction between the student and professor. A FAMU professor pulled me aside just before my last year—I took longer than four years to finish—and ask if I ever planned to get out of school. She told me I was wasting my talent by still attending school. The conversation motivated me to kick it into high gear and graduate.
I entered my online course expecting the professor to be detached and impersonal, so I was surprised that my Hampton professor was willing to help me out.
An aunt, who earned her bachelor’s degree through the University of Phoenix, told me my experience is not typical. She recalled a time when a professor was lenient about an assignment that required she rent and watch a movie.
“But much of our class materials were posted in the school’s web library, so that excuse was not a good one,” she says.
She’s never heard of teachers waiting for a student to get a book.
And when it came to quizzes and exams, she says they didn’t have any. The courses offered through the University of Phoenix are typically loaded with individual and group papers that comprise your grade. I think I like the way my class works better. This feels like a real class.
While waiting for my book to arrive, I decided to give the rest of the school’s online community a trial run.
A typical student attending classes on campus would visit the student center, join student clubs, be assigned an adviser and have the chance to participate in campus events, such as when alumni return to talk about life after college. Hampton officials say they want online students to have that same experience, so they set up an electronic student center with a section for campus clubs. Because of its partnership with HBCUsOnline, the site may soon host career webinars led by alumni. The school is also developing a faculty-mentor structure.
So far, however, there are few active clubs online. One allows students interested in pursuing a career in advertising to join the American Advertising Federation. A group called the National Organization for Minority Architecture Students can be found under the information technology category. There is no description for the other group, Students in Free Enterprise.
On campus, you were recruited by groups at every turn. I mean, I almost ran for student government my freshman year because someone told me to—on several occasions. Before I graduated, I participated in a fashion show. I tried out just for kicks and I made it.
Then there were the Saturday football games, where the stands were usually filled with locals and alumni trying either to see the Rattlers give a good fight or watch the latest formations of the Marching 100 band. I didn’t even see a subsection in the groups area online for Hampton’s band.
The groups section online fails miserably, but I’m keeping an open mind about the fact that this venture was launched only recently. Maybe the clubs haven’t caught on just yet. We’ll see.
Just as my book arrives in the mail, I get an e-mail from my university-assigned adviser saying I’m messing up in class. My professor had informed her I wasn’t participating in the discussions online.
“As you know, your success in this course is directly tied to your participation,” she wrote in her e-mail.
They want you to make it through. I can’t knock that at all. When the adviser and I talked, the discussion was more to make sure any concerns could be ironed out.
Venturing online to get an education that traditionally is received through face-to-face interaction is now considered the wave of the future. More students each year find themselves drawn to for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix and Strayer University, which cater to students who don’t have the time to spend hours on a college campus. Their way, they say, caters to those students raising families and working jobs.
It may work for some, but it doesn’t work for me. Not entirely, anyway.
For me, communicating with everyone—other students, the professor, advisers—either through e-mail or by phone was difficult. There’s no better consequence for missing an assignment than sitting in class and seeing that disappointed look on the professor’s face. It’s what forced me to do better. At FAMU, I hated going to class after having missed an assignment. And after that one time, it typically didn’t happen again.
My Hampton adviser and professor were great as they tried to help me jump into an online course halfway through the semester, even giving me time to catch up on the assignments after I waited nearly two weeks for a book that was supposed to arrive in just a few business days.
In the end, I learned I would have rather been on a real campus setting, complete with students I could interact with and even those low-tech bulletin boards advertising campus events.
And, yes, even those disappointing looks from professors when I wasn’t working up to my potential. They knew me, and it forced me to do the work.