HBCUs Must Embrace Online Education: Black College Leaders Recognize the Importance of Distance Learning but Remain Hesitant to Take the Online Leap

By Smith, Reggie,, III | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

HBCUs Must Embrace Online Education: Black College Leaders Recognize the Importance of Distance Learning but Remain Hesitant to Take the Online Leap


Smith, Reggie,, III, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Historically Black colleges and universities have been the cornerstone of education for the African-American community for more than 150 years. These institutions have prepared graduates to compete with the best and brightest minds globally, and I, as a graduate of historically Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, stand as a testament to their transformative power. Now is the time for HBCUs to deliver this power via online learning.

With the backing of President Barack Obama, HBCUs have a real opportunity to flourish and contribute to the president's goal of the United States having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. However, many HBCUs find themselves at a crossroads, not only in terms of dwindling enrollment and diminishing endowments but also in the area of technology, especially when it comes to online learning opportunities.

In 2007, the APLU-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning surveyed 42 National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education-member college presidents and chancellors. Of the respondents, slightly more than 84 percent said online education is critical to their long-term strategy. Almost 71 percent see it as a way to attract students from outside the traditional service area, and almost 64 percent tie it to increasing student access. And yet, just 18 percent of the nation's 105 historically Black colleges are online, according to a study from Howard University's Digital Learning Lab. By comparison, 66 percent of the nation's two- and four-year postsecondary institutions offer college-level distance education courses, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The APLU-Sloan report provides some insight into why so many HBCUs aren't making the leap online: Nearly 78 percent of the respondents believe that students need more discipline to succeed in online courses, 70 percent see higher costs to develop online and almost 60 percent find a lack of acceptance of online instruction by faculty.

None of these assumptions should stand in the way. Despite the reluctance on the part of some HBCU leaders to embrace online education, interestingly, the origins of distance learning within the HBCU community can be traced back to the Black College Satellite Network, founded in 1981 by Dr. Mabel P. Phifer and Dr. Walter C. Barwick. Even though the network is no longer around today, it set the stage for HBCUs to provide distance learning globally while providing K-12 programming to students in urban, suburban and rural school districts. …

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