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Publication: Diverse Issues in Higher Education
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 14090
ISSN: 15575411
Journal code: BIHE

I remember my first day on the campus of Florida A&M University vividly. Friendly faces offering to help me and my mom move my things to the third floor of my dorm. Watching the Greeks stroll on The Set. one of FAMU's main meeting places. Getting a home phone number from mv first adviser, with the promise that she'd always be there if I needed her.

After that came the study groups, student organizations and professors who made you feel like you weren't in the hunt for that degree alone.

That was 11 years ago.

In August, all those memories came flooding back when I was faced with the challenge of enrolling in a course through Hampton University's virtual campus, HamptonU Online. What's unique about Hampton's program is its goal of transporting rhe HBCU experience online. As an HBCU alum. 1 was eager to see if HamptonU Online could come up with an experience that mirrored what I'd already been through.

With no face-to-face interaction. I knew it would be tough.

The school's online portal has a virtual student center that puts students like me in touch with others who share my interests. There's even a section for clubs - Greek-letter, athletic, political and social, among others - to allow me the chance to interact with others and give me more of a campus experience than I would get from an online-only institution.

The humanities course I took had the objective to "acquaint students with the thoughts, creations and actions of man reflected in selected literary, musical, dramatic and other creative productions of past and present in the fine arts and humanities." Oh, boy.

But it was perfect for my mission: The humanities course I enrolled in mid-semester was something that, ironically, would not come easy to me. and I would need to call on school officials to get acquainted with the system.

Hampton started offering online courses about 10 years ago as an experiment that began in the school of nursing, savs Dr. Cristi Ford, the schools director for distance education. It was only in the last year that things began to take off. Now, there's an administrative team specifically built to handle the 24 programs students can complete online.

"We have programs at ever)' level, from certificate through Ph.D.," Ford says. "We have really seen the interest in these programs grow with lots of excitement from professionals in varying walks of life."

Programs range from a certificate in paralegal studies to a doctoral program in educational leadership.

Hampton is one of the early partners to sign on to radio personality Tom Joyner's HBCUsOnline, a for-profit initiative designed to help HBCUs tap into the African-American adulteducation market that has proved fruitful to online institutions such as the University of Phoenix, the top producer of bachelor's degrees awarded to African-Americans. For Hampton, HBCUsOnline will serve as a marketing vehicle to attract students, although the initiative promises to help institutions develop online courses and provide students with oneon-one support to simulate HBCUs' nurturing environment.

Personal Touch

The course looked just like the others offered elsewhere. There were assignments posted online that included the time and date due, as well as group assignments that made up a good portion of your grade.

I sat down and read through the course at its online Blackboard page. Blackboard was used sparingly during my time at Florida AOcM. This rime around, it is where most of the interaction takes place. There's a board for group discussions on topics as they come up on the course outline. There's a section specifically for addendums to the reading materials and a list of assignments, as well as reminders about style requirements for assignments.

A calendar showed you how your week would go. In my first week, I was supposed to read four chapters of our book, check out a few videos and turn in a homework assignment the following Sunday.

The problem was I didn't have the book.

I'm in Georgia and Hampton is in Virginia, so I couldn't just walk into the campus bookstore. The closest university to me, I discovered, was using a different printing of the book I needed.


That put me back online, where the book price ranged from 523 to 5125. Many nithc copies weren't available for overnight delivery. however, Eventually, the book would coiiie from a textbook rental stoic for less than oiiethird ~f the cost for a new one, but it dci lot arrive wi thin days as promised.

In the mean time. what was I going to do about the cou rsework?

I e-mailed my prt fessor to let icr k non' my situation.

"You can part ici pate in ni Os t a It'd with out a book if no ii take t lie extra foit to use Ii bran' and Internet resorl rces to research di scussi on topics and other activities, she wrote. "I will defer the qtiizzes and exams until you have received your book, as this is a necessarv to study the appi-opriate material."

San what?

I didn't know ifshie was allowing nie to take my exani at my coiiveil Ience because she knew I was a reporter in her classApparch thy, as I was a icr told, she treai cci me like any other sttiden t at a disadvai 1rage from taking on a course niidssav through the semester.

I always thought the downside to these online ventures would he the lack of personal interaction between the stu den and professor. A FAMU professor pull me aside just before my last s-ear I took longer than four years to finish - and ask if! ever plan ned o get on t of school. She told me I was wasting my talent by still attending school. The conversation motivated mc to kick it into high gear and graduate.

I entered my online course expecting the professor to he detached and impersonal, so I was surprised that my Hampton professor was willing to help me out.

An aunt. who earned her bachelors tieglee through the University of Phoenix, told me my experience is not typical. She recalled a time when a professor was n ien t about an assignment rlia t required she rent and watch a movie.

"But much of our class materials were posted in the school's web library, so that excuse was not a good one, she says.

She's never heard of teachers waiting for a student to get a book.

And when it came to quizzes and exams, she says they didn't have any. The courses offered through the University of Phoenix are typically loaded with individual and group papers that comprise your grade. I think I like che way my class works better. This feels like a real class.

Group Discount

While waiting for my book to arrive I decided to give the rese of the school's online community a trial run.

A typical student attending classes on campus would visit ehe student center, join student clubs, be assigned an adviser and have ehe chance to participate in campus events, such as when alumni return to calk about life after college Hampton officials say they want online students to have that same experience, so they see up an electronic student center with a section for campus clubs. Because of its partnership with HBCUsOnline ehe sice may soon hose career webinars led by alumni. The school is also developing a faculty-mentor structure.

So far, however, there are few active clubs online. One allows students interested in pursuing a career in advertising to join che American Advertising Federation. A group called the National Organization for Minority Architecture Students can be found under the information technology category. There is no description for the other group. Students in Free Enterprise.

On campus, you were recruited by groups at every turn. I mean, I almost ran for student government my freshman year because someone told me to - on several occasions. Before I graduated. I participated in a fashion show. I tried out just for kicks and I made it.

Then there were che Saturday football games, where the stands were usually filled wich locals and alumni trying either ro see che Rattlers give a good fight or watch che lácese formations of the Marching 100 band. I didn't even see a subsection in the groups area online for Hampton's band.

The groups section online fails miserably. bur I'm keeping an open mind about the fact that this venture was launched only recently. Maybe che clubs haven't caught on just yet. We'll see.

Irreconcilable Differences

Just as my book arrives in the mail I gee an e-mail from my university assigned adviser saying I'm messing up in class. My professor had informed her I wasn't participating in the discussions online.

"As you know, your success in this course is directly tried to your parcicipacion," she wrote in her e-mail.

They wane you ro make it through. I can'c knock ehae at all. When the adviser and I talked, che discussion was more to make sure any concerns could be ironed out.

Venturing online to get an education that traditionally is received through face-co-face interaction is now considered the wave of the future. More students each year find themselves drawn eo for-profit institutions such as the Universicyot Phoenix and Strayer University, which cater co students who don't have ehe cime co spend hours on a college campus. Their way, they say, caters to those students raising families and workingjobs.

It may work for some, bur it doesn't work for me. Not entirely, anyway.

For me, communicacing wich everyone - other students, the professor, advisers - either through e-mail or by phone was difficult. There's no better consequence for missing an assignment than sitting in class and seeing that disappointed look on che professor's face. It's what forced me to do better. At FAMU, I haced going ro class after having missed an assignment. And after that one time, it typically didn't happen again.

My Hampton adviser and professor were great as they tried ro help me jump into an online course halfway through ehe semester, even giving me cime co catch up on ehe assignments after I waited nearly two weeks for a book that was supposed to arrive in just a few business days.

In the end. I learned I would have rather been on a real campus setting, complete wich students I could interact with and even those low-tech bulletin boards advertising campus events.

And, yes, even chose disappointing looks from professors when I wasn't working up to my potential. They knew nw and it forced me to do the work.

Author affiliation:

- Marlon Walker is a Georgia-based newspaper reporter and longtime contributor to Diverse,

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