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FAMUDRS plans major online learning initiative

_Johnny-TaylorphotoFAMUDRS plans major online learning initiative

Johnny Taylor Jr.

Patricia Hodge, superintendent at the FAMU Developmental Research School, discusses online course plan. (Photos: Byron Dobson)

By Byron Dobson, Democrat

Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School is embarking on a major effort that will train its teachers in online instruction and boost its online course offerings.

The project is the result of a partnership between the University of Phoenix and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Top executives from both entities joined FAMU President Elmira Mangum, FAMU Vice President for Research Timothy Moore and a host of elected officials and graduates at the announcement Wednesday in the school’s gymnasium.

The FAMUDRS research project is the first major effort resulting from the partnership between the University of Phoenix and the Marshall Fund to raise the bar in online course offerings at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The joint initiative is designed to allow students at HBCUs access to required courses online using the University of Phoenix’s established online platform. The University of Phoenix in turn, has agreed to support the fund through scholarships.

FAMU is the first public HBCU to take advantage of the arrangement with a focus on its research school.

The bottom line is to redefine teaching methods and improve test scores and college readiness among students at the FAMUDRS, in this case, Mangum and others, said.

“Giving students the vital tools needed at the high-school level for higher education will ensure their readiness for college and give them opportunities for a bright future,” said Johnny Taylor Jr., Marshall Fund president and CEO.

Mangum said a study on college readiness by the ACT shows 25 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates meet the College Readiness Benchmark in English, math, science, and reading: 56 percent meet the benchmark in reading; 46 percent in math; and only 31 percent in science.

But only 5 percent of African-American students meet all benchmarks compared to 42 percent of Asian-American graduates. None of the benchmarks was met by 50 percent of African Americans high school graduates.

“And while we are all aware that the income of a student’s parent and not test scores is the best indicator of his/her ability to get a degree, the data nevertheless point to a need to improve the K-12 system in black communities,” she said.

One way to address this education gap is to identify teaching methods that engage students in learning, said Moore, who was instrumental in bringing the partners to FAMU.

“By introducing blending learning, we aim to ensure that our K-12 students will reap the benefits from instruction both in the physical and online classroom environments,” he said.

Moore said the project initially will target two classes each in the school’s high-school, middle-school and elementary-school offerings. University of Phoenix will revisit the school in two weeks and begin laying the groundwork. It will begin with ordering technology and other equipment needed for online course offerings and the training of teachers.

Classes could start as early as the spring semester once a curriculum is designed. Then the school will monitor teacher delivery and student progress against state standards. Eventually, the trained teachers will share that expertise with other teachers at FAMUDRS and later with school in Leon and Gadsden counties.

The University of Phoenix’s investment could reach “a half-million dollars,” Moore said, in equipment and in-kind technical training. An additional $350,000 is coming from the Marshall Fund over a three-year-period to train faculty and technical support teams.

“We have the resources to make an impact,” Byron Jones, CFO of the University of Phoenix, said to students and the guests. “You have to be selfish about how you want to conduct yourselves. “It’s not about our purpose; it’s about your purpose.”

But Jones said another reason is to “build credibility for us in the community.” If the DRS project is successful and eventually adapted in other school districts in Florida serving heavily minority populations, those students could be inclined to apply to Florida A&M University for undergraduate studies and apply to the University of Phoenix for graduate school.

But the partnership between the Marshall Fund and the University of Phoenix, which graduates more Black students than any other institution, has not been without critics. Shortly after the broader agreement was announced, HBCU expert Marybeth Gasman was skeptical about the University of Phoenix’s motives, according to an article published in Inside Higher Ed. The article pointed out that while the university graduates the highest number of black students, the for-profit university’s Black graduation rate is about 15 percent.

University of Phoenix officials said that figure is inaccurate, since it only counts students who start their education there, which is about a fifth of their students, according to the article.

FAMUDRS has an enrollment of 495 students, but has the capacity for 750. It received a C grade from the state last year.

FAMUDRS Superintendent Patricia Hodge said her teachers are “over the moon” with the announcement, not only for what it could mean for improving student performances, but also for the training faculty will get in online instruction training for under-served students.

“One of the benefits of us doing it as a research project is that we will be able to develop content that best meets the needs of poor, minority and bilingual students,” Hodge said. “What is the best teaching strategy to meet their needs?”

Hodge said her students now take the required online course through the Florida Virtual School, but 50 percent of the students don’t perform well and are forced to retake the course.

“They have not found a lot of success in Florida Virtual School courses,” she said.

Contact Democrat senior writer Byron Dobson at or on Twitter @byrondobson.




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