Jan 13 2022

How One HBCU Is Creating a Sense of Community for Online Learners

It can be difficult for historically Black colleges and universities to translate an intimate, cultural experience into a virtual environment. North Carolina Central University found a way.

After graduating from one of the most prestigious high schools in the United States, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Racheal Brooks received acceptance letters from several competitive colleges in the early 2000s. She ultimately felt North Carolina Central University was where she belonged.

Brooks, who is the director of the office of e-learning at NCCU today, looks back on what drew her to an HBCU like NCCU. “It was something special about North Carolina Central University that pulled so many of us in, and that was the promise of really being seen, having role models who had similar lived experiences as we did,” she says. “Many colleagues understood from a very intimate level what it meant to navigate a society that was not necessarily designed to support the nuances of their own cultural experiences.”

But it can be difficult to translate such an intimate experience into an online environment — especially if chronically underfunded HBCUs are stuck with outdated infrastructure. During the 2020–2021 academic year, many HBCUs experienced more severe enrollment declines than predominantly white institutions.

At NCCU, a successful digital transformation helped the university transition to online learning with minimal negative impacts on the student experience.

NCCU leaders sit down with EdTech to discuss how to build a community for online learners.

A Digital Transformation Strategy for Building HBCU Resilience

In 2017, the university did a complete, end-to-end network refresh. The university also hosted critical systems, such as its learning management system and enterprise resource planning system, in the cloud. When leadership saw how Hurricane Florence had devastated nearby universities in 2018, the decision was made to host even more services in the cloud.

By the time COVID-19 shut down campuses in spring 2020, NCCU was well positioned to pivot to online instruction and remote work. “From a resilience standpoint, we were there,” says Leah Kraus, the university’s CIO.

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Expanding Virtual Student Services to Achieve Digital Inclusion

With modernized infrastructure, NCCU could provide good education experiences and support services for their online students. NCCU Online makes it easy for remote learners to access virtual tutoring services, career services, accessibility services and counseling.

NCCU’s office of e-learning works closely with departments such as the office of student accessibility services to ensure all online students — especially first-generation students and students with disabilities — have access to a strong support network online.

“At NCCU, it has been a privilege and a pleasure to see the creative ways that my colleagues have been reimagining the online space to make sure all students feel they are valued members of this community,” Brooks says.

A virtual career services unit also gives online students a chance to participate in professional development. “Students can work on resume writing. They can practice interview skills via Zoom. And this is a service that many of our on-campus students can take advantage of too, since a lot of work is happening virtually,” she said.

Her office is also working closely with the LGBTA Resource Center, the Women’s Center and the Men’s Achievement Center to avoid excluding or creating obstacles for those online learners.

EXPLORE: How to create a strong financial future for HBCUs.

Online Students Offer an Untapped Market

By offering strong online courses and support services, NCCU experienced an enrollment increase in 2021. For example, NCCU was able to re-enroll many military students who had to drop out for active service.

“We have many students who have previously enrolled in NCCU who find themselves transitioning throughout the country or throughout the world,” Brooks says. “So, knowing that they are still able to engage, still be a part of the Eagle family and be able to take a part in this high-quality education that we offer is so heartwarming.”

Above all, Brooks says, the key to supporting exclusively online students is to ensure their voices are heard. “We bring them to the table and we really encourage them to help us consider what we might be missing, what we might be lacking,” she says. “The work that we do is meant to provide our students with successful learning experiences, giving them pathways to meet the goals that they set for themselves.”

Cameron Prins/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

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