Open Menu Close Menu

Podcast Remix

Inside the Development of HBCUv, a New Online Learning Platform for HBCUs

The United Negro College Fund and Deloitte Digital have embarked on an ambitious effort to reimagine online education for historically Black colleges and universities. Here's how they're leveraging technology to put community at the center of the online HBCU experience.


Hear the full interview with Ed Smith-Lewis and Nathan Young in season 3, episode 9 of the Campus Technology Insider podcast: "Putting Community Engagement at the Center of Online Learning."

What would a learning management system centered on culture and community look like? The United Negro College Fund hopes to answer that question with HBCUv, a new learning platform that aims to reshape the future of online education for historically Black colleges and universities. The organization has partnered with consultancy Deloitte Digital on the project, with the goal of providing best-in-class remote learning, community engagement and career pathways to students seeking an HBCU education. We spoke with Ed Smith-Lewis, VP of strategic partnerships and institutional programs at UNCF, and Nathan Young, head of strategy for Ethos at Deloitte Digital, about bringing the HBCU experience to an online environment, the defining characteristics of HBCUv and the equity-centered design process behind their work.

Campus Technology: UNCF and Deloitte Digital are developing a new online platform for community learning, designed for historically Black colleges and universities, called HBCUv. Could you talk a little bit about the ideas behind the project and how it began?

Ed Smith-Lewis: HBCUv was first conceived in 2019 "BC," before COVID, when UNCF was invited by a third-party partner to really understand how we could support HBCUs as they attempted to enter the online space. The short story is that HBCUs, over the course of their history, have been historically under-resourced institutions, and because of their high-touch environment they've stayed away from deep engagement in the online space. When we left that meeting, we were very excited about the capabilities of technology — and we didn't leave excited to support one institution, but a consortium of institutions, understanding that HBCUs individually are strong, but much stronger together. So we came back to our offices and we wrote what amounted to a 25-page proposal that really got everyone excited, but also nervous. After all, UNCF is known as a scholarship organization, not a technology provider. And so we really sat on that proposal for a few months.

Then in mid-March, the world decided that we needed to stay home, and higher education was disrupted like it's never been disrupted before. And that proposal we had written became a hot commodity. Through some engagement and multiple RFP processes, we landed on partnering with Deloitte Digital to help us make HBCUv a reality. The work, ultimately, is to build an online learning ecosystem that really takes what makes HBCUs special — that historic significance, that high-touch environment, that critical lens it places on learning — and to try to provide that to many more students throughout the world.

Campus Technology: How are each of your organizations involved in the project?

Nathan Young: At Deloitte Digital, I head up a unit called Ethos. And what Ethos is purpose-built to do is help brands that are contending with big societal challenges actually create new products and services and campaigns that will make an impact. And so really, our unit was designed to work on moonshots just like this. When we got the proposal from the UNCF, we jumped at the opportunity to put together some innovative thinking behind how we were going to approach this project — not just from a technology standpoint, but from an intentionality standpoint.

At Ethos, we practice this version of human-centered design that we call equity-centered design. The questions that you ask in equity-centered design are all centered around how we can design for the most vulnerable populations among us. In the case of HBCUs, it's not just Black college students but first-generation college students, students who come from a home where English isn't their first language. When you design a platform around the needs of the most vulnerable, what you end up getting is a platform that is going to better serve everyone's needs.

Smith-Lewis: It was that equity-centered design approach that really sold us. UNCF was founded in 1944. We've grown that historic fundraising operation to be one of the largest scholarship providers outside of the federal government. We are not a tech company, and we own that explicitly. But we are an aggregator, an influencer, a champion, and an advocate for historically Black colleges and universities. We take on the role of aggregator of resources and support partners to help execute and build HBCUv, as well as torchbearer for those institutions who have historically been excluded from opportunities like this.

We're working with nine steering committee HBCUs and three development partners: Clark Atlanta University, Claflin University, and Johnson C. Smith University. They are the holders of everything that is teaching and learning and the HBCU culture. When we first laid down the principles for HBCUv, we all agreed — Deloitte Digital, UNCF and our partnering HBCUs — that this project would be for HBCUs by HBCUs. And we really hold true to that. And so those three development partners sit with us in meetings every week, multiple meanings, they're probably tired of Nathan and me, but they are part of the decision-making process. We take them through every piece of the design effort. Their role is to really ensure that the product we create at the end of the day reimagines that HBCU experience for a 21st century.

"The big question we have with HBCUv is, how do we ensure students are logged in for the other 23 hours of the day when they're not in class? Because ultimately, that's what makes HBCUs special. And that's what's going to make HBCUv special."

Campus Technology: You mentioned the pandemic being a disruptive force in higher ed. Could you talk about what the impact was on HBCUs?

Smith-Lewis: We know that there's a potential to lose a generation in these few short years of not having the opportunity to be in-person and to really support learners on their journey. When we think about the types of students we serve, who are 75% low-income, about 60% first-generation — for many of our students, getting to college was a life goal. And then they got to college and were told to go back home. Imagine how demoralizing that might have been for those students and those families — that is something that we are still going to experience the net results of. There's still a big unknown there.

Many of our HBCUs are in the original Black Belt. Think about the Southeastern United States, where economic mobility is low, but also economic development isn't as rich as it might be in some urban areas. And so things like tech infrastructure and stable WiFi became a challenge. Having the hardware necessary to do the work became a challenge. Really understanding how to engage effectively in the learning environment through tech-based tools is still a challenge that we're addressing, both on the student learning side as well as the faculty teaching side.

What we're trying to do with HBCUv is leapfrog those challenges: think about ways to support student engagement at a higher level, give them constant feedback on what it means to do learning well, to achieve milestones effectively, to ensure they're giving their faculty feedback about how they're learning and how their learning experience is going. At the same time, provide faculty with high-quality learning prompts and syllabi, and ensure they have the instructional coaching they need to deliver learning content effectively. And most importantly, we're trying to find a way to get students to connect outside of just the synchronous or asynchronous learning opportunity. The big question we have with HBCUv is, how do we ensure students are logged in for the other 23 hours of the day when they're not in class? Because ultimately, that's what makes HBCUs special. And that's what's going to make HBCUv special.

Young: The connection aspect is by far the most challenging aspect that we're having to contend with. We knew out of the gate that we didn't want to build another social media network out there on top of a learning management system. But we did want to connect people; we wanted to connect students with each other so that they could do everything from finding the friend to hop on Fortnight with, to finding the next potential co-founder for a new startup. We knew that we wanted to connect faculty members with one another, so that they could do everything from sharing the latest and greatest and what's going on in their field, to collaborating on courses together. And we knew that we wanted to connect all the HBCUs together into one kind of unified campus — so that we could have a much more outsized impact through our ability to network these organizations together. And so that's been an area that we've really focused on. That and enabling more student and faculty interaction. That is really the bedrock of what makes the HBCU experience what it is. The faculty members at HBCUs are extremely dedicated. They forge extremely strong relationships with their students. And it's through those relationships that they're able to create breakthroughs.

Online is often referred to as "distance" learning. And what we want to do in our version of online learning is figure out how we can eliminate that distance as much as possible, figure out how we can enable more interactions between students and teachers, figure out how we can use things like big data to know when a student is struggling and know when teachers need to reach out to provide tutoring options or just have a conversation with a student. If you really want to put what we're trying to do with HBCUv in a nutshell, it's bring the humanity back to online education. We want it to feel vibrant when you log on. We want there to be a reason for you to sign on day after day after day. And by the way, not just while you're a student, but after you've graduated. You want to stay connected with your alumni, or stay connected with your faculty. We are really creating a connected online community in a way that we don't feel any university or online learning technology company has achieved yet.

CT: What will be the defining characteristics of the HBCUv platform?

Young: Community is really at the forefront of what we're trying to achieve. We want to connect students, we want to connect faculty members, we want to connect administrators in a new and novel way.

One of the other tenets of HBCUv is providing cutting-edge learning opportunities. We want to make sure that not only are we providing best-in-class synchronous opportunities, but also best-in-class asynchronous opportunities, and really providing the flexibility that we know that our students need. The vast majority of HBCU students are juggling either family responsibilities or work responsibilities on top of their educational responsibilities. And so being flexible and offering those different modalities in a best-in-class fashion is core to what we're trying to accomplish.

Outside of that, we do want to leverage the best in breed in terms of big data and algorithms. As I mentioned earlier, we want there to be predictive analytics, so that we can help teachers know when a student's in trouble. But we also want that data to be a two-way street. We don't just want it to be teachers monitoring their students for opportunities to improve and evolve. We also want students to be able to provide real-time feedback to the faculty members. Could this course be more engaging? Did you lose me somewhere in this lecture? Was this confusing? Was this homework fair? Those are all questions that have never really been asked and data that has never really been collected in the higher education environment, that we're going to attempt to collect in order to make it a more equitable space.

Smith-Lewis: More than the features and functions of the platform, what gets us excited is who's at the table, deciding how we want to implement and use those features and functions. We think technology is the great equalizer. The challenge is that often the technology and its capabilities don't meet the community and its needs, because we don't take the time to work with people directly to solve for their challenges. As opposed to the other way, where we solve for technology and expect others to adopt it. So we're taking a fundamentally different approach, and that's what gets us excited. It's not going to be the features and the functionalities necessarily on their own. It's going to be the integration of those features and functionalities, and how the institutions decide to use them to ensure that we deliver a student-focused, engaging online learning platform.

CT: Technology wise, is this being built from the ground up? Are you looking to integrate existing products?

Smith-Lewis: Yes. Is that a fair answer? Because everything's on the table. We have a limited set of resources. We have a timetable. But beyond that, the world is our oyster in terms of what we want to create. And so we are talking to existing tech platforms and providers about their opportunity to support us and the execution of HBCUv. But at the same time, we're thinking about those opportunities that we have yet to fully see. If there's not a solution, Deloitte and Deloitte Digital are open to the idea of creating that solution. But if there is a critical path that exists already, then we're also open to leveraging that critical path. So the short answer is, HBCUv most likely will be a combination of them all. We will leverage some existing products, potentially create some new ones, but it's really about the integration of those tools.

Young: We're also cognizant of the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of innovators who have been in this game for a very long time. We don't think that all LMSs are bad. We just feel like LMSs were built for a different time. And we feel like this is our opportunity to contribute to the larger ed tech conversation in a real way.

Many LMS platforms have really cracked the code on the best way to turn in your homework or the best way to grade assignments in an efficient way. And because they've done that so well, we are free to singularly focus on, what would an LMS centered around student expression look like? What would an LMS centered around connection look like? When we combine our technology with that existing technology, we're going to get something that's best-in-class, that feels radically different than other LMSs that are existing on the market.

Smith-Lewis: Let's call a spade a spade. Most LMS systems were designed to make faculty teaching easier and to execute the act of delivering learning opportunities to students. We did not design LMS platforms to engage students in their own learning journey, meeting them where they are. Now the capability's there; we know that for sure. But today, to think about students first, and then to leverage technology to meet them where they are, especially the set of students that we're engaged with, we think can be a value add to all of higher education, not just HBCUs.

CT: When are you expecting to complete this platform?

Young: This is going to take decades to fine-tune. We imagine HBCUv being a platform that doesn't just exist for a couple years and go away; this is a long-term investment that is going to serve students at HBCUs for generations.

In terms of when are we going to see the first glimpses of the technology in action, we'll execute the first classes in HBCUv within 2023. We're basically working as rapidly as we can to get a minimum viable product out. From there, we're working with our institutional partners to pilot it, and then we're going to expand beyond those first three development partners into the nine steering committee HBCUs, and beyond those nine into potentially every HBCU out there in the U.S. So that's a quite the journey that we have to go on. It's going to take time, but we've got the resources, the expertise, and the passion to stay committed to that for the long term.

CT: How do you think this platform will change the future of online education for HBCUs?

Smith-Lewis: As we think about the challenges that many of our students face — mostly financial, responsibilities at home, a need to be close to family — HBCUv removes the need to be physically on campus at an HBCU. We fundamentally believe HBCUv will accelerate HBCUs' entry into the online space and diversify their revenue model to really think differently about student enrollment and student engagement. It will lead these institutions to be more inclusive, as we start to think about different ways of increasing flexibility for current students, students that we lost, and adult learners in terms of lifelong learning engagement, upskilling and reskilling. We believe a student at any one of America's 6,000 higher ed institutions would love to take a class from a professor at a historically Black college. And opening up that opportunity for HBCUs will not only spread the learning experience that that they provide, but also that community uplift and enrichment that they instill in every graduate.

Young: It's really about access — it's going to increase the opportunity for more students to attend an HBCU. If you're on the West Coast, it's very difficult for you to imagine attending an HBCU in the South. When you open it up to an online opportunity, it is just going to increase the access exponentially, not just to folks on the West Coast, but to folks globally. I think influence is the next area where we're going to be able to make a huge impact. Not that many people get an opportunity to listen to some of these incredible faculty members speak about subjects that often aren't taught at primarily white institutions. Being able to increase the influence that these faculty members have by opening up to a broader audience is really incredible. And I think the last area that we're going to make a tremendous impact is on opportunity: opportunities for students, both in terms of the ability to connect with folks and enable entrepreneurship, but also to connect with good, well-paying jobs. Every company out there right now is complaining about how they don't have access to enough Black talent in their workplace. By creating a connected online community, we have an opportunity to connect the students who are enrolled in an HBCU to those top employers, teach them skills that are going to give them a leg up in those entry-level positions, and give them a clear path from enrolling in college to realizing a better, more prosperous life. Those three things are really at the core of what HBCUv can promise for the future of education and for Black futures in particular. And that's what makes me excited to go to work every day.

comments powered by Disqus