Jasper Smith did not spend her freshman year at Howard University studying in the red-brick buildings on its campus in Washington, D.C. Instead, due to the pandemic, she logged into virtual classes from her home, in Arizona.
Now that emergency health measures have been lifted, Smith, who is currently a junior, does participate on campus in the life of the historically Black university. And the contrast between her remote and in-person experiences has given her insight about which components of college work in each modality.
That includes experiences she considers distinctive to Howard. For example, its annual Homecoming celebrations were hard to pull off virtually, she says. But when it comes to the classes she took remotely early in the pandemic, Smith has a different outlook.
“Even though it was a virtual environment, I still feel like my education was very unique to the HBCU experience,” she says. “It comes down to the curriculum — being able to talk about the Black experience in class, even if it is online, in almost every field, from economics to political science.”
Digital tools may not fully convey the experience of going to HBCU football games and step shows, then. But college courses?
“I think it is very possible to replicate that in an online platform,” Smith says.
That’s the goal of a new effort that aims to create a shared digital platform for historically Black colleges and universities, one they can use to deliver online learning and social experiences that reflect the communities they serve. It’s an undertaking from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), a philanthropy that supports HBCUs through scholarships to students, grants to higher ed institutions and advocacy for educating African Americans.
Called HBCUv, the project aims to roll out a pilot product this fall. Eventually, leaders intend for the platform to include a catalog of high-quality online courses, virtual spaces where students can interact and digital tools that allow faculty to collaborate — all shared among HBCUs.
The ultimate goal is to help these institutions grow their revenue and extend their reach, building off the momentum they’ve lately experienced from increased student interest even as college enrollment more broadly has fallen.
“We fundamentally believe that HBCUs have a unique perspective and a unique learning model that could be scaled to the world if the right vehicle was developed to facilitate that,” says Ed Smith-Lewis, vice president of strategic partnerships and institutional programs at UNCF. “We think HBCUv has the chance to disrupt their business model, expand their reach and really get them to work as a network of institutions with a shared mission of serving predominantly Black communities, but increasingly the world.”
Of course, there are plenty of tools already out there that support online higher education. So the big question driving this effort, Smith-Lewis says, is: “What does it mean to deliver a Black college education in a virtual environment?”
To find the answer, UNCF is drawing on the expertise and experiences of professors, administrators and students at HBCUs.
It’s that last group whose perspectives are most critical to building a viable platform, argues Keisha Tassie, an associate professor of communication at Morehouse College who is not affiliated with HBCUv. She advises the effort to seek student input “every step of the way.”
“What we have a habit of doing,” she says, is “we create something first and we just sort of expect the students will enjoy it, get the benefit we would get from it. And that’s not how it turns out.”
One day, the president of Claflin University, Dwaun J. Warmack, reached out to Muhammad Hossain, the director of instructional technology for the historically Black university in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The president explained the idea for HBCUv and asked Hossain for his impressions.
Hossain thought back to his own time in college. Years before, he had enrolled in Claflin as an international student. And he had received a scholarship from UNCF, one he credits with helping him to earn his bachelor’s degree.
He grew excited about contributing to the mission of UNCF, which he believes changes students’ lives.
“I told the president, ‘Hey, let’s absolutely do this,’” Hossain says. “And I kind of told him, ‘If I’m doing this, I have to be a dev partner” — that is, a technology development partner. “I want to be able to help build this thing from scratch.”
Claflin is one of three colleges serving as development partners to UNCF to create HBCUv. Six additional HBCUs are currently participating as well. Based on their input, a consulting firm is at work building the platform prototype.
As part of the early stages of the effort, Hossain and his collaborators embarked on a “discovery” phase, interviewing students and faculty from different institutions about priorities for what to include in the platform. The conversations also explored what the Black college experience means to students and professors, and how it differs from attending or teaching at a predominately white higher ed institution.
One priority that surfaced was creating high-quality online courses that offer students at participating institutions more flexibility and choice regarding when, how and what they study. The kind of shared course library that HBCUv aims to compile could give a student at Claflin the chance to enroll in a remote course taught by a professor at Clark Atlanta University, for example. It could also add variety to the course catalog of each college. And it could help students progress even if, say, a degree requirement isn’t offered at their home institution during the semester they need to take it.
“Staying on track to graduation, not prolonging your debt — those are real-life issues,” Hossain says.
To help develop these courses, UNCF recruited faculty fellows from HBCUs through its new teaching and learning center, offering professors training in effective, engaging and inclusive online instruction, according to Shawna Acker-Ball, the center’s senior director. Fellows have focused on creating business, education and general education courses.
Rather than offering “mass-produced courses” online, Acker-Ball says, the effort aims to tap into the teaching expertise of the kind of HBCU professor “who has students just begging to get in his classroom.”
Another priority for the platform is the creation of online social spaces, where students can mingle with peers from their own institutions as well as from other colleges across the country. This might look like a “virtual yard,” Hossain says, complete with augmented reality and virtual reality features.
He adds that the platform could also serve as a network for employers to tap for hiring HBCU grads and as a forum for faculty at different institutions to collaborate on research.
Now in the design phase, there are plenty of details that remain to be figured out about HBCUv, regarding data sharing, technology integration, approval for course-sharing, and even implications for financial aid for students at participating colleges. The platform will use a learning management system that’s already on the market, Hossain says.
All of these ideas require investment. But HBCUs generally don’t have a lot of spare dollars sitting around. So pooling their resources to support a shared digital effort could help to defray the costs for each institution, UNCF leaders say. The approach could also allow colleges to learn from each other about best practices in online education, rather than have each college try to invent a system on its own.
“We call this whole thing ‘collective genius’ — bringing together all these brilliant minds,” Hossain says. “I think we can do a lot more doing it together.”
Leaders at UNCF hope that the platform they’re building will not only help institutions lower costs but also create new value and eventually bring in revenue for the participating colleges. UNCF has raised initial funds to support the project from several large philanthropies. But if the platform is successful, Smith-Lewis thinks it will be a “long-term revenue-generation source” for HBCUs.
“We fundamentally believe this is a profit-generating opportunity,” he says. “We want this to be an asset of the institutions participating in the platform.”
From Academics to Aesthetics
Acker-Ball describes the HBCU experience — the one that HBCUv is trying to replicate online — as a “special sauce.”
But it’s not one that can be easily explained in a recipe, she says. Instead, you just know it when you taste it.
“It’s a feeling,” Acker-Ball says. “It’s a nurturing, it’s a cultivation most do not receive in areas or environments not similar to HBCUs. It’s the first time you may learn about contributions made by your ancestors. It’s a feeling and a connectedness and a pride that is espoused in everything you do.”
For Smith, the student at Howard, the flavor of this special sauce derives in part from who is present in an HBCU classroom, whether physical or virtual. It’s a contrast to her high school in Phoenix, where she didn’t have many Black classmates in her International Baccalaureate classes.
“Coming from an environment where you don’t see a lot of Black excellence, or Black people in spaces you’re in pursuing higher education, and then coming to HBCUs, which literally embody Black excellence, it’s a stark difference,” Smith says. “At HBCUs, there are Black people from so many different parts of the world, the country, socioeconomic backgrounds and upbringings. The variety of the Black experience in one place, it contributes to the type of education you get.”
To make the most of this class composition, Smith says it’s important that online courses at HBCUs be designed to facilitate active discussion among Black students.
“It’s really hard to stare at a computer screen and listen to a professor for an hour and a half if you never have a chance to vocalize your own opinion,” she says. “Classroom engagement and participation is probably the only key to making online courses more engaging.”
For Tassie, the professor at Morehouse, part of the significance of the HBCU experience comes from the topics that are discussed in courses as well as the teaching methods instructors can employ.
“I love being able to be blunt, honest, and know that the students who I’m teaching understand, intimately, the experiences I’m sharing,” she says. “And that they understand the professor who is teaching them understands, intimately, the challenges and experiences and successes they’ve experienced as well.”
Having taught through Morehouse Online, a degree program that Morehouse started two years ago, Tassie acknowledges that in-person and remote classrooms offer different experiences. But the quality of instruction and discussion should remain high, she says: “Direct, open, honest, authentic conversions — no reason for that to change in the virtual classroom.”
Additionally, Tassie appreciates that HBCU campuses have specific visual markers, like statues and posters that reflect Black achievements and artistic movements. She believes that HBCU virtual spaces should also be designed with “aesthetics and visuals that relate to Afrocentricity.”
As an example, she mentions Blackboard, a course management system used at many colleges.
“They give you lots of different designs you can chose from. None of them speak ‘Black space.’ Could they do it? They could. They haven’t yet,” Tassie says. “I would not want this initiative to become a classroom that could have been any classroom on any campus. It needs to resonate, ‘This is a Black space.’”
Both Smith and Tassie see the value in a proposed online platform intended to invite more people into the HBCU experience. Smith notes that such a system could help expose more students in the West, where she grew up, to these institutions, most of which are located in Southern and mid-Atlantic states. And Tassie appreciates the way that online learning can make higher education more affordable for more people.
“I am a huge proponent of virtual classrooms,” she says. “It opens doors. It provides greater accessibility to education, which has a huge impact on life chances.”
Creating a platform like HBCUv will take a lot of work and ingenuity, Tassie acknowledges. But she thinks there could be “a huge payoff,” as long as it’s designed carefully and in collaboration with students.
Perhaps, she adds, such a project could even grow to help historically Black colleges reach students worldwide.
“If they were even to expand to the continent of Africa,” she says, “that would be even more thrilling and exciting to me.”