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A UNCF effort to build an online education platform called HBCUv for Historically Black Colleges and Universities has many voices in the room.
It includes nine HBCUs that are expected to be on the platform by fall 2023. And finally, the goal is to open up the platform to all HBCUs.
Also deeply involved is an arm of Deloitte Digital, called Ethos. Edward Smith-Lewis, Vice President for Strategic Partnerships and Institutional Programs at UNCF, called the group and Deloitte “an extension of our team”.
Higher Ed Dive spoke to Smith-Lewis about his perspective on HBCUv for a V&A published last week. Now we are publishing a conversation with a leader at Deloitte, senior manager Nathan Young, who is also head of strategy for Ethos, for a different view of the project.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HIGHER DIVING: How do you see the HBCUv project?
NATHAN YOUNG: The HBCUv platform is an extremely ambitious initiative. It’s kind of a lunar eclipse when it comes to education.
We are not just looking to connect and unite all the HBCU campuses in America in a connected online platform where students from, for example, Howard University can seamlessly take classes from Claflin University, not only are we trying to create a best-in-class learning and [learning management system] experience, but we also try to create a social experience that is the kind of competitive social experience that HBCUs are known for – where you make those lifelong connections, those lifelong bonds with your peers.
What are the challenges?
There is a challenge on a technical level. How do we create 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 re-imagine the things that make attending an HBCU so special to the millions of black students who attended it? How do we capture that special sauce? How do we translate this into an online environment?
What is it like to work with nine different colleges during development?
They were all vocal and active before we even got into the basic level concept of the platform, from when it was like an idea on the back of a napkin to today. We have a pretty clear vision of what we are trying to build.
The nine institutional partners were with us every step of the way, not only providing their own guidance and opinion, but also offering their faculty, their staff and their students so that we could gain their insights.
If you look at the institutional partners, there is quite a diversity there, from larger institutions to smaller institutions, Christian institutions to non-church institutions. It was really deliberate in selecting the nine partners for the early phase.
Can you compare what you build with existing technology?
We want to take what’s great from the current list of LMSs and bring in a bit of that new thinking, bring in some higher production value, bring in the prioritization of student choice and student flexibility. Give students the opportunity to give real-time and just-in-time feedback to their professors so that courses can be improved and developed.
We certainly would not be able to build the platform we are trying to build without the progress made by some of the pioneers in LMSs, but what we are trying to do is push it the next step forward.
Do you expect any technical barriers?
I think the first technical hurdle is going to be integration with the student information systems. This is one thing when building the platform that connects to one institution’s student information system. This is very different if you have to build a system that connects to nine different settings in a pilot connection. But ultimately, the goal is to have every HBCU on this platform – so hundreds of student information systems.
How do we link the data, make sure it links to the correct account? How do we make sure degrees come back? How do we make sure student data is protected?
Most of the platforms do this on a one-to-one basis. We do this on a one-to-one basis. This increases the technical challenge.
Another kind of challenge is how do we handle the cross-registration between different universities? Our goal is that if you are a student at any HBCU, you can take a class from any other HBCU that offers classes on HBCUv. So how do we handle that cross registration in a seamless way? How do we handle invoicing? How do we work out the cost-sharing and distribution of funds fairly?
The last technical challenge we have to sort out is whether social networking features are going to be the core of this platform. The ability to discover students, not just at your school, but from across the network, to connect with them and meet with them, is the core goal.
We do not want to duplicate Facebook. We do not want to build a social network on top of an LMS. What is the right level of connection?
Much of what you are talking about seems to involve reconsidering design choices we consider normal – but this does not necessarily have to be default in the future.
We have heard time and time again, not only from the students, but from the faculty members themselves: We need to find a way so that the software does not stand in the way of creating connections between the faculty and the student, but in reality facilitates those connections.
Many of the LMSs out there have figured out how to submit homework. They figured out how to provide multiple choice queries. They figured out how to make grading easy for professors.
So we do not invent the wheel completely.
Do you have anything to add about the development process?
We actually followed students in their daily lives, getting a feel for how they live their lives.
We spent a considerable amount of time with teachers and faculty members and showed them different concepts by saying, “Will it make your life better?”
Will Deloitte be able to market this product elsewhere?
This platform, I want to be clear, is an asset of the United Negro College Fund. And it is controlled by all the member institutions. Deloitte has no ownership interest whatsoever.
Do you have anything else you want to add?
We are not building a MOOC. We do not build edX. We do not build Coursera. We do not build something like that.
We are building something designed to drive the achievement of degrees.
To attend HBCUv, you must be enrolled at the school, and all the courses we are going to offer will provide real university credit. This is now a big distinction for online platforms.