Supporting a blended learning environment via technology persists as a fundamental requirement for most institutions in 2023. As a result, the absence of mainstream technology is often overshadowed by news focused on investments in tech brought on by the pandemic. Unfortunately this absence continues to be reality for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the country.
The mission HBCUs support remains critical, graduating thousands of Black doctors, lawyers and STEM professionals despite often facing more significant resource constraints than institutions with predominantly white enrollment. What if the majority of students attending HBCUs could unlock their full potential through equitable access to the best technology? This reflection inspired the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to create HBCUv — a new online environment reimagining the HBCU experience in a virtual enviroment.
UNCF conducted extensive research, spending over 3,300 hours with HBCUs defining the key tenets and features of the proposed platform with their stakeholders. This effort recognizes the digital divide, but mitigates it with a solution intentionally and uniquely addressing the desires of HBCU institutions. Working to solve this issue, Ed Smith-Lewis, Vice President, Strategic Partnerships & Institutional Programs at UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building and Julian Thompson, Director of Strategy, discovered existing solutions did not cater to the specific needs of the HBCU community.
Dr. Valora Richardson, Director of Digital Solutions and Innovation at UNCF, believes this problem in part stems from a lack of HBCU participation in the product research process at the grassroots level.
“We have never asked our community, ‘What do you want in an online space?'” said Richardson. “How can we capture the incredible results our HBCUs provide for our students in a virtual environment?”
UNCF identified nine development partners essential in shaping the HBCUv platform, determining the vision, mission and features of the platform.
The team knew the platform needed revolutionary educational technology to foster a high level of social engagement. UNCF tasked itself with understanding how existing tools capture what they refer to as “the secret sauce” — a unique learning and social experience prevalent at HBCU campuses. First, they wanted to create a virtual campus — a space fostering community and connection among partner institutions. Second, they needed a unified platform to bring together the various technology partners dedicated to UNCF’s mission.
UNCF’s foundation centers around the belief, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” For over 70 years, this principle remained at the heart of UNCF, enabling the organization to raise more than $5 billion and help more than 500,000 students and counting thrive, graduate and become leaders through their higher ed experience. By awarding more than 10,000 students scholarships, worth more than $100 million each year, and providing financial support to 37 HBCUs, the foundation serves as the nation’s leading advocate for the importance of minority education and community engagement.
The Drawing Board
During the research phase of the HBCUv project, Thompson recognized the importance of digital community in the success of HBCU students. On physical campuses, students build camaraderie through events, clubs and friendships — often translating into greater academic success.
In a purely virtual environment, students may lack the social fabric necessary to reach their full potential. While tools like the LMS meet the functional requirements for learning, they often fall short in fostering meaningful community engagement.
“Many of the LMSs on the market today are used by students for attending courses and accessing course materials,” Thompson explained. “But when it comes to the social and civic aspects of a higher education experience, students often turn to other platforms.”
Thompson envisioned a community-focused technology solution primarily focused on student engagement to fill this gap, while ultimately connecting the larger HBCU community together in a way never before possible. This concept was eventually named The Yard.
When it came time for the HBCUv Development partners to draw up requirements for The Yard, they realized the importance of cross-campus collaboration and drawing inspiration from students across the HBCU community.
“My daughter, who is in college, loves watching videos and following social media accounts of sororities on different campuses,” Richardson shared. “If we had a consolidated space to livestream events from various campuses, it would help build a sense of community and belonging by showcasing how students thrive in these environments.”
Finding an existing out-of-the-box solution aligning with the team’s vision proved challenging. The first option they considered was only available as a mobile app and lacked integration capabilities. Another option seemed too generic to meaningfully enhance the student experience. Richardson noted one product primarily served coders, making it unsuitable for their needs.
“Some companies are not intentional about building technology for education. They may try to retrofit existing solutions, but we have found those kinds of things don’t work for us,” Richardson explained. “We need companies that are dedicated to providing robust technology for education.”
The UNCF team eventually landed on working with a strategic integration partner — Deloitte — to build The Yard from the ground up.
A Shift in Course
In 2022, the entire trajectory of the project took an unexpected turn, thanks to a chance meeting at SXSW EDU.
While cruising the massive vendor hall filled with hundreds of vendors, Richardson thought the Pathify booth looked interesting and decided to listen for a few minutes. Learning about Pathify’s extensive integration capabilities and community focus, she wondered if she’d discovered the missing piece to tie The Yard together.
In subsequent conversations with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (funding the HBCUv project) and Deloitte, the team determined Pathify (and its middleware Flow) could serve as the foundation for The Yard — effectively the foundation on which the custom UI would operate.
“When we spoke with Deloitte, we realized Pathify was already doing a lot of what we wanted for The Yard,” Richardson explained. “We didn’t have to start from scratch because some of the framework was already in place.”
Besides finding the necessary technology to pivot from UNCF’s initial plans, Richardson also appreciated Pathify’s flexibility and enthusiasm for the project. Unlike other vendors she encountered, Pathify committed to pushing boundaries and adapting the platform to UNCF’s specific needs.
“Their willingness to change the business model and adapt it to work with us is amazing,” said Richardson. “What we are doing is unprecedented, and having a vendor that is willing to adapt to our needs is incredible, and we are grateful for that.”
Currently in the development phase, Deloitte will build a custom front-end based on UNCF specs designed to provide a best-in-class experience for HBCUs. Pathify will supply the backend foundation and integration layer that powers the app. The Yard will then prominently display essential information and consolidate updates from various technologies into a single, centralized user experience.
Thompson looks forward to offering students a unified view of their courses, assignments and class announcements while fostering connections among students from the group of pilot institutions.
“Having a place where students can find the information they need to succeed and receive support is beneficial,” Richardson emphasized. “Over time, we want The Yard to encompass various elements of campus life, and by developing these elements we hope to increase engagement on the platform.”
Throughout the entire process, from initial conversations to gathering requirements, Richardson sensed genuine curiosity and enthusiasm in every interaction with Pathify. She found a true partner willing to bring their long-lasting vision to life.
“Despite not having all the answers, their willingness to engage, listen and work with us to make the Engagement Hub look and feel the way we want it to is exciting,” Richardson concluded.
Richardson’s plans for HBCUv are extremely ambitious. By Fall 2025, UNCF aims to involve all 37 member institutions before expanding nationwide to include every HBCU by 2028.
The stakes for the project are enormous. In the past, geographic barriers often prevented Black students from accessing higher education. However, UNCF’s mission is to increase access to HBCUs for students worldwide.
“I’m thrilled about the opportunity for the regions where HBCUs are located, the country at large and the world to finally gain exposure and access to historically Black colleges that may have been out of reach in the past,” Thompson expressed.
So far, institutions have eagerly embraced the HBCUv project. When Richardson discusses it at events across the country, HBCUs recognize its value and respond positively. The time for such an undertaking is long overdue and represents a much-needed contribution to higher education.
“As we consider the opportunity to provide this high level of innovation for our institutions and start sharing it with people, they get really excited,” Richardson said.
In a country where institutions broadly grapple with declining enrollment, the concept of HBCUv fosters a more collaborative environment where students may opt to learn from a variety of institutions. While this idea may seem unorthodox compared with traditional survival strategies, Thompson believes other types of institutions will soon create similar consortiums and projects.
“Institutions will increasingly have to think about how they collaborate with each other to achieve the economics and scale needed for sustainability,” said Thompson. “Collaborative endeavors, technologies and shared services — elements embodied in the HBCUv concept — will be part of the future of higher education.”
To learn more about the HBCUv project, visit hbcuv.org.