Sunday, October 21, 2007

Cyberinfrastructure -- the Digital Divide, Part 2?

Over the course of the last five or six years, the National Science Foundation has synthesized a coherent vision of some the most important emerging developments in science and technology, developments that it is prepared to support as part of its mandate to promote scientific and engineering initiatives that will help the U.S. maintain its position of global leadership. Recalling that the great industrial economies of the past were based on infrastructures that included roads, water, sewer, power grids, telephone systems, etc, NSF views the underpinnings of the emerging knowledge economies as "cyberinfrastructures." NSF's "Cyberinfrastructure Vision for 21st Century Discovery", March 2007, presents its most recent comprehensive description of its vision.

Reading NSF's documents leaves the Editor with a queasy feeling of "deja-vu all over again". Way back in the early 1990's when Vice President Gore was crisscrossing the country waving his arms about the coming "Information Superhighway", the nation's most prominent universities invested heavily in the acquisition of Internet connections, computer labs, LANs, routers, courseware, and most significantly, upgrading the IT skills of their faculties, staffs, and students; unfortunately, HBCUs were slow to get started.

By the end of the 1990's, the so-called "Digital Divide" had become the latest manifestation of economic disadvantage for African Americans and other minorities. HBCUS then made heroic efforts to catch up, creating impressive Websites that proclaimed their acquisition of computer labs, courseware, and Internet savvy. But they failed to realize that technology is primarily about people. Hence they failed to make comparable investments in upgrading the IT skills of their faculty, staff, and students.

So here comes another information revolution. Will HBCUs again be slow to get started? Will they again fail to recognize that new hardware and software and network gear are not enough, that people are the most critical components of the emerging cyberinfrastructure, that HBCUs must also make substantial investments in providing new IT skill sets for their faculty, staff, and students?

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Cognitive Impact of HBCUs

In October of 2006, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) produced an estimate of the "Economic Impact of the Nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities" in 2001. NCES estimated the total direct expenditures of HBCUs within their local communities; then they estimated the secondary expenditures that resulted from the direct expenditures. In other words, when HBCUs buy more goods and services from vendors, the vendors, in turn, buy more goods and services from their suppliers; and when HBCUs buy less, the vendors buy less. The estimate of annual direct expenditures by HBCUs was $6.6 billion; the estimate of secondary expenditures was $3.6 billion. The combined $10.2 billion was comparable to the 232nd largest company on the Fortune 500 list.

The good news is that this study provided a timely reminder that HBCUs are valuable economic assets. However, their economic value notwithstanding, HBCUs are primarily academic institutions whose services are essential for communities within a modern knowledge-based society. Therefore what we really need is a comprehensive estimate of the cognitive impact of HBCUs.

HBCUs being academic institutions of higher learning, a far higher percentage of their faculty and staff hold doctorates and other advanced degrees than the employees of banks, oil companies, and other members of the Fortune 500. Indeed, the expertise embodied in these advanced degrees should cause HBCUs to have far greater impact on the cognitive activities of their local communities than other organizations of comparable size. Their impact should be especially significant on the African American segments of these communities.

It might be useful to divide their impact into two components. The first component would address the collective contributions made by the faculty and staff as they implement the formal teaching and community service programs sponsored by their respective HBCUS. The second component would estimate the individual contributions made by the faculty and staff on evenings and weekends as highly educated participants in their community's activities -- PTAs, school boards, Churches, Red Cross, political campaigns, and other volunteer operations. Student contributions should also be included, especially with regards to HBCU community service programs and with regards to the students' individual contributions as volunteers in other community service organizations.

The formalized collective contributions of HBCUs would probably be the easiest to estimate. For example: How many members of the local communities receive college degrees or workforce training certificates from the local HBCUs? How many K-12 teachers receive in-service training through courses run by HBCUs? How many K-12 students attend Upward Bound and other summer programs run by HBCUs? How many K-12 students receive tutoring and mentoring through programs run by HBCUs?

Estimating individual contributions would be more difficult. As members of modern academic institutions, HBCU faculty, staff, and students are probably more literate and more computer savvy than their counterparts from Fortune 500 companies. Hence their contributions to the organization and management of PTAs, school boards, Church activities, Red Cross, political campaigns, etc, should have correspondingly higher value.

Finally, comparing HBCUs to the 232nd corporation on the Fortune 500 list offers small comfort when one considers what might happen if corporation 232 suddenly went bankrupt -- probably nothing. Its disappearance would be an economic blip that the market would shrug off within 48 hours. Hopefully, the development of a comprehensive estimate of the cognitive impact of HBCUs will provide a more compelling answer to the perennial question: Why are HBCUs still important?