Going Online With V-HBCUCoalition seeks to boost presence of HBCUs in distance learning
For many higher education institutions, the establishment of online distance education courses and certificate and degree programs remains a difficult struggle despite the presence of hundreds of schools in the online sector. The task of building and maintaining a top-notch information technology infrastructure combined with the need to have faculty trained to create and teach online courses represents an ambitious and expensive goal for any institution of higher learning.Nevertheless, a group of historically Black colleges and universities have formed a coalition to boost the presence of predominantly Black institutions in the online distance education arena. The Virtual-Historically Black Colleges’ University (V-HBCU) includes six schools, five of which are seeking to join the U.S. Army’s eArmyU online initiative. V-HBCU is the online education arm of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities/Minority Institutions Research Alliance (HMIRA), a nonprofit association based at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla.“I have been saying that if HBCUs don’t get into online distance learning, they’ll become museums one day for having missed out,” warns Hank Valentine, the CEO of V-HBCU and the executive director of HMIRA.This month, V-HBCU executives and officials at the schools have been expecting to learn from PwC Consulting, the corporate coordinator and manager of the eArmyU distance learning portal, whether the V-HBCU coalition qualifies for the program. PwC Consulting is a division of the accounting and consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers.Since its launching in early 2001, more than 12,000 soldiers have enrolled in eArmyU courses and degree programs being offered by 23 U.S. colleges and universities (see Black Issues, Feb. 28). Over the next five years, up to 80,000 soldiers are expected to enroll in the program, which provides its participants a laptop computer and Internet access to take courses free of charge. Of the participating schools that began the program, only one, North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C., was a historically Black institution. Recently, A&T officials withdrew its full participation in eArmyU, declining to enroll new students in order to retool its online programs for full participation potentially at a later date. While the Distance Education and Training Council has estimated that two-thirds of all colleges now offer distance courses, a survey by the Digital Learning Lab at Howard University revealed this past January that among the Web sites at 123 predominantly Black institutions only 40 schools had links to online courses. “The main purpose behind V-HBCU is to provide a mechanism for HBCUs to get into distance learning without having to make an extravagant investment in it,” says Dr. Ben Lowery, a professor and director of distance learning at Grambling State University in Grambling, La. V-HBCU officials believe that by competing as a consortium the group can spread the burden that a single school normally takes on when it offers online courses. Among the five V-HCBU schools competing for eArmyU inclusion, two offer a full bachelor’s program while another one has a master’s program. The schools have an articulation arrangement that allows students to satisfy general education core curriculum requirements, such as English composition or math, at any of the institutions while they pursue a particular degree or certificate from the school that offers it. The V-HBCU schools are Alabama A&M University, Bethune-Cookman College, Florida A&M University, Grambling State University, Morgan State University and North Carolina Central University. The group, which first had eight member schools, originally competed as a team along with other schools aligned with the IBM Corp. when they sought the original eArmyU contract in 2000. The V-HBCU group later connected with PwC Consulting in 2001 and submitted a proposal earlier this year to join the PwC Consulting team. Both Lowery and Valentine say that HBCUs should see participation in an initiative such as eArmyU as a way to gain valuable experience in distance learning so that they can focus on the market of nontraditional students, which represents the bulk of people enrolled in online education programs. “HBCUs have tremendous numbers of people who’ve attended their schools, but for some reason or another failed to complete their degrees. Online learning is a way for Black colleges to reconnect with those people,” Lowery says. Kimberly Phifer-McGee, director of distance education at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., says her school is offering a master’s program in library science as its initial foray in the proposed V-HBCU link with eArmyU. “We’ve developed online distance learning efforts around our strongest traditional academic programs,” says Phifer-McGee, noting that NCCU has garnered praise for quality academics in nursing, teaching and library science education. NCCU’s online library science master’s program has 12 students and could easily accommodate up to 35 if the eArmyU program suddenly delivered new students for the major, according to Phifer-McGee.
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