A Quality Framework for Digital Learning


June 8, 2017

The Case for Digital Learning at HBCUs

Digital tools are increasingly a permanent fixture in the world, especially in the workplace. To stay competitive with other institutions and effectively prepare students for their careers, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are looking for ways to bring digital approaches to campus. Tyton Partners met with Kim Long, the Associate Provost for Administration and Extended Education at Wiley College and Director of its Center for Excellence in Distance Learning, and a passionate advocate for online education at HBCUs, to talk about the benefits and challenges of introducing digital learning at HBCUs.

Tyton Partners: We know that you’re a champion of online education, why should HBCUs prioritize this approach to learning? What are the goals for online education or challenges that the institutions can overcome with digital learning?

Kim Long: I have a very personal connection to HBCUs. I’m a third-generation product of them and have worked with a great deal of these institutions. I am passionate about seeing these institutions continue to be not only relevant, but competitive in the 21st century.

Building digital literacy is a critical goal for HBCU students, as this is what will prepare them to be competitive in the workforce.  The best way to make students confident in their use of technology is to bring technology into the classroom with digital teaching and learning tools.  The absence of digital learning at many HBCUs today is an inequity for their students that may hinder their job-seeking efforts after graduation.

One example of how the lack of digital tools on campus is hurting students is with job applications. Some of our students still prepare paper resumes. I say to them, ‘you’re preparing that for the garbage can, because everyone else is using e-portfolios.’ Students at other schools build portfolios from the moment they enter college, but, many HBCU students don’t have access to e-portfolio platforms or support to build e-portfolios, and that barrier could stifle students who haven’t had exposure.

TP: From your experience, are there dynamics unique to HBCUs that make implementing digital learning particularly challenging or rewarding?

KL: Yes. There’s a lot of history and legacy at HBCUs.  There is a narrative that says “we’ve been doing it this way the whole time, we’ve been successful. We’ve graduated successful people, and we’re still graduating and helping students that otherwise would not have access to higher education, so why change?” That narrative is powerful and important for many HBCUs, but it can also slow down innovation.

I also think no matter the institution, a major barrier is IT infrastructure. For smaller or lower-resourced schools, being able to find and employ the expertise needed to deploy an online program is major a challenge. In these environments, where everyone is wearing multiple hats, it’s harder to get the attention and the interest in taking on something like a digital learning implementation.  In fact, some HBCUs and other institutions aren’t yet using digital administrative systems. There are some schools that do not even have an online application for enrollment. If you don’t have an online application, how do you recruit for online programs?

TP: Can students help push for a change? Do students have a voice?

KL: Students have a voice. For example, when we started using open educational resources (OER) at Wiley College, the students appreciated that they had their tools to learn on the first day of class. Since a lot of them are under-resourced, purchasing books is a barrier to success in a course. They recognized that with OER, their materials were embedded in the online class for a much lower cost. Once they realized the savings, they pushed for OER in their face-to-face classes as well, and so the students at Wiley College drove the move to using open educational resources.

TP: What have you found to be key to the successful expansion of online learning at HBCUs?

KL: Standardization is very critical because then students who are not familiar with learning online or who are struggling don’t have to spend time on learning the layout of the course. Since standardizing our online courses, I’ve seen student success improve because students are not bogged down with trying to figure out a course layout or where X or Y is. You want students to have access to the content the first day but you also want them to have no barriers in starting to comprehend the content, which they can’t do if they can’t find what they need.

Standardization is also good for faculty members because then when they are designing and implementing their courses, they have a template to follow and don’t have to become familiar with a new system or format for each course. That keeps that process organized. Finding and implementing a product that meets your institutional needs and supports standardization is crucial.  This is where something like the Courseware in Context (CWiC) framework can be useful. There’s so much in the market that it really is overwhelming. When you’re starting a program, it typically means you haven’t had a lot of exposure to courseware or digital learning more broadly, so you need a reference. CWiC is a great asset that orients you to courseware and points you to the product features that you should look for to meet your course or program needs.

Having leadership that’s willing to take on digital learning is also one important. Leadership isn’t everything, though, you also need to have willing followers. The institutions that have taken on online learning successfully have been able to meet in the middle where all stakeholders see the value of digital learning.

TP: What advice do you have for other HBCUs or schools considering the development or expansion of their online learning programs, or struggling to implement?

KL: I tell people the key to getting it started is great project management, because developing an online program is a project. You have to use project management techniques and strategies to ensure that you have a timely delivery of the program and that you don’t get bogged down in one area. It’s one-sided if you only focus on the IT part. It’s also one sided if you only focus on the curriculum and instruction part. The person who oversees deploying distance learning on a campus should have a great background in project management and work with a cross-disciplinary team.

Another suggestion is to run new online programs in parallel with the same program in a face-to-face environment.  This allows faculty to volunteer to transition to online or not, and may help to build buy-in over time at institutions looking to move to digital.

Is your institution looking for courseware to improve student success? Check out the new Interactive CWiC Framework.