UNCF’s effort to create an online education platform called HBCUv for historically black colleges and universities received many votes in the room.
They include nine HBCUs to be on the platform by fall 2023. And ultimately, the goal is to open the platform to all HBCUs.
A Deloitte Digital division called Ethos is also heavily involved. Edward Smith-Lewis, UNCF’s vice president for strategic partnerships and institutional programs, called the group and Deloitte “an extension of our team.”
Senior Ed Dive spoke with Smith-Lewis about his perspective on HBCUv for questions and answers published last week. Now we’re publishing a conversation with Deloitte’s senior manager Nathan Young, who is also head of strategy at Ethos, for a different perspective on the project.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HIGHER ED DIVE: How do you feel about the HBCUv project?
NATHAN YOUNG: The HBCUv Platform is an extremely ambitious initiative. From the point of view of education, it is a kind of shooter.
Not only do we want to connect and unify all HBCU campuses in America into a connected online platform where students from, say, Howard University can seamlessly attend classes at Claflin University, we’re not only trying to provide best-in-class education and [learning management system] experience, but we’re also trying to create a social experience that rivals the social experience that HBCUs are known for – where you make these lifelong connections, these lifelong bonds with your peers.
What problems does this create?
There is a problem at the technical level. How do we build cutting-edge, industry-leading software and deliver it in a cost-effective way? But it is also social or social. How can we capture or reimagine the things that make attending an HBCU so special for the millions of black students who have attended? How do we get that special sauce? How do you translate this into an online environment?
What is it like working with nine different colleges during development?
They’ve all been vocal and active since before we entered the concept of a base-level platform, from the time it was an idea on the back of a napkin to today. We have a pretty clear vision of what we’re trying to build.
The nine institutional partners were there for us every step of the way, not only providing their own guidance and insights, but also offering their faculty, staff, and students for our insights.
If you look at the institutional partners, there is a wide variety, from larger institutions to smaller institutions, Christian institutions to nondenominational institutions. This was really deliberate in choosing the nine partners for the early phase.
Can you compare what you are building to existing technology?
We want to take what’s great about the current LMS roster and bring some new thinking to it, bring some higher production value to it, prioritize student choice and student flexibility. Empower students to provide real-time and timely feedback to their instructors so courses can improve and develop.
We certainly couldn’t have built the platform we’re trying to build without the advances made by some of the pioneers in LMS, but what we’re trying to do is take that next step forward.
Do you anticipate any technical hurdles?
I think the first technical hurdle will be integration with student information systems. It’s one thing if you’re building a platform that connects to an institution’s student information system. It’s quite another when you need to build a system that connects to nine different institutions on a pilot basis. But the ultimate goal is for every HBCU to be on this platform – so hundreds of student information systems.
How do I connect the data, make sure it’s connected to the right account? How do I get grades back? How can I ensure that student data is protected?
Most platforms do this individually. We do this on a one-to-many basis. This increases the technical problem.
Another challenge is how do we handle cross-registration between different universities? Our goal is that if you are a student at any HBCU, you can take a class at any other HBCU that offers HBCUv classes. So how do you handle cross-registration seamlessly? How do we bill? How to fairly work out the distribution of costs and funds?
The final technical issue we need to address is whether or not social media features will be mainstream for this platform. Being able to find, connect with and meet students not only at your school but across the network is the main goal.
We don’t want to duplicate Facebook. We don’t want to build a social network based on an LMS. What is the correct level of communication?
A lot of what you’re talking about seems to involve rethinking design choices that we think are normal, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the standard going forward.
We’ve heard time and time again, not just from students, but from teachers themselves: We need to find a way for software to not hinder teacher-student connections, but actually facilitate those connections.
Many LMS people have figured out how to submit homework. They figured out how to give multiple choice tests. They figured out how to make grading easier for teachers.
So we are not reinventing the wheel completely.
Have something to add about the development process?
We really followed the students in their everyday life, understood how they live.
We spent a lot of time with teachers and professors, showing them different concepts, saying, “Would this make your life better?”
Will Deloitte be able to sell this product elsewhere?
This platform, I want to be clear, is an asset of the United Negro College Fund. And it is managed by all member organizations. Deloitte has no ownership interest.
Do you have anything else you would like to add?
We do not create MOOCs. We don’t build edX. We don’t build Coursera. We are not building anything like that.
We create what is designed to achieve academic degrees.
In order to attend an HBCUv, you must be enrolled in school, and all of the courses we are going to offer will provide valid college credit. Now this is a significant difference for online platforms.