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UNCF Building Shared Online Education Platform for HBCUs, with Focus on Culture and Community

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) has announced plans to build a new online learning platform for historically Black colleges and universities, dubbed HBCUv. The organization is partnering with consultancy Deloitte Digital on the project, which "will provide best-in-class remote education, community engagement, and career pathways to students seeking an HBCU education," according to a news announcement.  

For many HBCUs, the COVID-19 pandemic and pivot to remote learning revealed the limitations of current learning management systems, UNCF said. The technology was "too cumbersome for instructors and students unfamiliar with online learning," and "provided no way to replicate the culture and community for which HBCUs are famous, leaving the online learning experience feeling hollow," the organization found. In addition, "HBCU instructors were frustrated with the inability to easily track student progress and assess when they needed additional coaching."

"What we learned from the pandemic was that better training isn't enough," said Dr. Shawna Acker-Ball, senior director at UNCF's Teaching and Learning Center. "We need better tools and technology to deliver on the rich instruction and the strong culture of America's HBCUs and extend this transformative experience for students online."

In an effort to reimagine online education and better serve Black learners, key characteristics of HBCUv will include:

  • Fostering young Black talent globally by offering high-quality courses taught by the best Black minds in America;
  • Providing career planning, degree program matching and other tools to help Black students discover and design their career paths;
  • Connecting students and faculty from multiple HBCUs on one social platform for networking, collaboration and tighter community bonds;
  • Supporting both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments to suit individual student needs;
  • Using machine learning and big data to deliver predictive analytics on student performance and provide real-time feedback to instructors; and
  • Serving as an open resource for all HBCUs to share knowledge, resources and best practices.

"This isn't just about getting more classes online, it's about providing a safe space for Black joy and expression, giving students an opportunity to find their ‘tribe' of people, and inspiring students of all ages by showing them Black leaders who are part of the same HBCU legacy," said Julian Thompson, director of strategy for UNCF's Institute for Capacity Building. "HBCUv will do this by embedding the culture, community and commitment to Black excellence embodied by HBCUs into a unique online experience that will form the foundation of the future of Black education."

The development of HBCUv will be guided by feedback from HBCU students, faculty and staff. UNCF is working with Deloitte Digital's Ethos, an advisory service focused on equity, sustainability and social welfare goals, which has already engaged HBCU stakeholders in thousands of hours of early discovery and research to ensure equity is at the heart of the platform design.

"The intention behind our approach to design really matters when it comes to projects like this," said Nathan Young, senior manager at Deloitte Consulting and head of strategy, Ethos at Deloitte Digital. "We opened up our design process and worked alongside dozens of HBCU students, instructors and administrators to ensure HBCUv is truly a solution designed by HBCUs for HBCUs."

"The inclusion of HBCU students, faculty, staff and administrators as co-designers of the platform will be an attribute of its success," said Dr. Valora Richardson, UNCF's director of digital solutions and innovation. "They know what they need, and we heard them."

The HBCUv platform will initially be piloted by nine HBCUs: Benedict College, Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Jarvis Christian College, Johnson C. Smith University, Lane College, Shaw University and Talladega College. Starting in 2023, students at those institutions will be able to cross-register for and take credit-bearing online courses via HBCUv; UNCF plans to expand HBCUv to more institutions as the platform matures.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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