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?