The following is an editorial written by Jarrett L. Carter Sr., Founding Editor of the HBCU Digest and Executive Director of The Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, Inc.
Radio mogul and HBCU advocate Tom Joyner recently discussed his plans to develop online learning at historically black colleges and universities at the National Urban League’s Centennial Convention earlier this week. With an anticipated launch in September 2010 and motivated by the exodus of African-American students to online colleges like the University of Phoenix and Walden University, the plans have created a buzz among higher education circles.
“One thing that we do know from a nurturing environment that you get from an HBCU, is that we want you to graduate and be successful in life,” he said. “So what we’re going to do is we’re going to take our HBCUs and we’re going to market them. We’re going to expand their online capabilities, and those [schools] that don’t, we will help them until we have our students back, until we can take care of our students at HBCUs. So, I think that’s the greatest challenge of 2010 and beyond.” – RollingOut.com
But Joyner’s comments aren’t particularly matched with action- actual or imagined. The vague nature of a major initiative for HBCUs without so much as a banner ad on Joyner’s online media vehicles is one thing. But without details outlining how Joyner’s program will succeed where HBCUs themselves have struggled over the last ten years, much is left to the imagination of the skeptic and supporter alike. There are far too many potential logistical, cultural and administrative nightmares for this kind of idea to be quickly embraced like the opening act of a Sky Show.
Joyner has stated that his online education initiative would develop a “black college experience” for working and non-traditional students. In the most positive of circumstances, this could mean an interactive faculty that embraces student development at each individual pace. It could mean partnerships that invite online students into on-campus programming opportunities.
At worst, it could put on a massive scale many of the challenges HBCUs face in online learning development, and lead to more questions than answers. If certain HBCU campuses that aren’t wired to run a comprehensive online learning system desire to participate with Joyner’s program, will the Tom Joyner Foundation finance the digging, laying of wire and renovation of facilities to meet the demand?
And what about the HBCU’s ability to field adequate faculty to teach certain courses? And who makes the decision on which courses are available online – Joyner or the HBCUs?
Culturally, there are few indications that online learning has the capacity to deliver an “HBCU experience.” Part of the endearing climate of attending an HBCU is attending athletic events, lecture series, yard events and the chance to hear brilliant exposition from instructors. It’s hard to visualize a virtual experience capturing these moments, simply through the posting of a colorful banner with a smiling Joyner in a mortarboard somewhere nearby.
Even if online learners are invited to be a part of residential student life on campus, has market research been done to indicate that students would actively take advantage of the opportunities? If they are too busy with work or other circumstances to take classes in person, is the HBCU cultural allure enough to draw them to the yard for anything other than graduation?
And what about the difficult road to climb in marketing this new initiative? Joyner’s direct competitors in for-profit education – Kaplan, University of Phoenix, Walden and others – have the benefit of established accreditation and years of market presence. While Joyner boasts the media platform and the corporate relationships to make a big splash in the market, there is no indication that the venture has a plan for sustainability beyond the idea that black folks should have more access to online education.
Each of these inquiries, questions that would take many days and many dollars to answer, and we still haven’t mentioned the possibility of political brushback with program availability online. A new era of program duplication and du jure systems of higher education is being ushered in with online accessibility, and while HBCUs in states like Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia are at the front end of battles on this issue, Joyner’s plan seems to be a forged path to place HBCUs in a deeper wilderness of political consternation.
Higher education is not a concert tour or an appeal for scholarship dollars. It is a multi-layered enterprise encompassing financial, cultural and political considerations. No one can question Joyner’s commitment to HBCUs, or his ability to assist them. But his proposal isn’t assistance – it’s the first opportunity to offer a sustainable solution for retention and enrollment maladies at HBCUs.
This isn’t to say that online HBCU offerings couldn’t work, but it is to say that a lot more research and strategy should be made available to those whom will be affected by such a plan. Our historically black colleges and universities can’t afford another ‘great idea’ song and dance with a ‘poorly executed’ record-scratched ending.
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