Monday, March 12, 2012

Closing the Digital Divide -- Another Opportunity

The Persistence of the Digital Divide
The Digital Divide appears to morph, to shift its shape from time to time; but deep down it remains the same. Unfortunately, its changing skins-of-the-day have distracted attention from its underlying structure, i.e., the stronger communal networks that sustain increasing affluence on the "white" and "yellow" sides of the Divide vs. weaker networks associated with the shrinking shares of the nation's income and wealth on its "black" and "brown" sides. 

For example, fifteen years ago most people focused on visible gaps between the hardware and software found at HBCUs and non-HBCUs, on the HBCUs' lack of connectivity to the Internet, lack of computer labs, etc. Those particular gaps have largely vanished, but the Divide persists and in some ways is wider than ever. One of my younger colleagues succinctly summarized this paradox by saying, 
"The most powerful computer in the world is the one you already have access to, but aren't using to its full capacity."
In other words, the Divide between the haves and have-nots is amplified by the differences between the creative uses they make of whatever have.

Silcon Valley
An important recent manifestation of the Digital Divide is the lack of black hi-tech entrepreneurs, a gap that was examined in Soledad O'Brien's brilliant TV documentary "Black in America, the New Promised Land: Silicon Valley" -- the latest in her series on CNN that was broadcast last fall. Those of you who saw this documentary were probably inspired, like I was, by the grit and determination that the eight black entrepreneurs who were featured in its reality-TV format showed in confronting prejudice and other obstacles. They were not cowered by "stereotype threat"; they faced bigotry head-on.  Unfortunately, the one hour limitation of Ms. O'Brien's show prevented it from addressing the immediate causes of the problem ==> Why were there so few black hi-tech entepreneurs in Silicon Valley?

Some answers to this question have been provided by my younger daughter's book, Opting Out, Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite (Maya A. Beasley, University of Chicago Press, November 2011). Ironically, her book was published at about the same time as the first airing of Ms. Obrien's TV show last fall.
  • Many hi-tech entrepreneurs have degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and two of the most important pipelines between academia and Silicon Valley originate at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. 
  • My daughter's book is an exploration of why so few of the highly talented black students at these academic powerhouses obtained degrees in STEM fields. More specifically, she explored the impact of perceived prejudice within those fields that motivated so many members of this Talented Tenth to op out of STEM and switch into careers that were more "racialized" -- her term for fields that already contained substantial numbers of black professionals.
My daughter's book concludes with a number of cogent recommendations to Stanford, Berkeley, and all of the other non-HBCUs as to what they can do to reduce their black students' perceptions of prejudice where prejudice doesn't exist, to fortify their black students' resolve to confront prejudice where it does exist, and to increase the exposure of their black students to crucial information networks about career opportunities. However, readers of previous posts on this blog will not be surprised by my pessimism as to the prospects that her recommendations will be widely implemented. Left to their own devices, why should non-HBCUs be more successful in closing the gaps in STEM enrollments between their black and non-black students than they have been in closing the broader gaps in retention rates and six year graduation rates?

Killer Apps for Smart Phones and Tablets
A few weeks ago, one of my university's senior vice presidents sent me an email requesting that I provide technical support for one our student's IT initiatives. As it turns out, this second year law student had some interesting ideas about killer apps for smart phones and tablets, but had minimal STEM skills -- a deficiency that has not deterred lots of successful white entrepreneurs in the last ten years or so. That's when I had my "Eureka!" moment. And like most Eureka moments, this one involved a blinding perception of the obvious. 

MY HBCU educates students in STEM and students in non-STEM; but successful hi-tech entrepreneurs need access to technical skills plus marketing skills and legal skills and management skills, etc, etc, etc. So whereas my law student saw the "big picture" of a killer app that "only" needed technical skills to bring it to life, I now saw the "bigger, big picture" of a developer community within our university that would be composed of faculty, staff, students, and senior administrators who would pour their diverse skills into a creative cauldron wherein killer apps could be cooked to perfection ... :-)

Of course, this insight already has a name because it's been invented and reinvented many, many times before, and probably at my own university. It's usually called an "incubator" or an "accelerator." But this particular incubator has the good fortune to be conceived at a most fortuitous time when the creative, white hot center of the developer community is focused on the explosive demand for apps for smart phones, tablets, and other non-workstation devices:
  • Apps whose developer tools can be obtained for cheap or for free from the Web;
  • Apps whose prerequisite developer skills can be learned for cheap or free from the Web;
  • Apps that can be developed on garden-variety workstations; and
  • Apps that can be distributed for cheap or for free via an Internet cloud
So the only things that are missing are the main ingredients ==> the will to make the most creative use of whatever IT resources we have, and the will to organize ourselves into a community whose members cooperate so as to maximize each other's creative output.

It didn't take long to identify 10 charter members of our ad hoc developer group that will have its first face-to-face meeting next week; and yes, the charter members include faculty, staff, students, and senior administrators who share this vision of the "bigger, big picture" and high expectations about what we can achieve.

What Every Young (and not so young) Developer of Killer Apps for Smart Phones and Tablets Should Know
One of the first items on our agenda will be the identification of a "core curriculum" whose fundamentals must be mastered as quickly as possible by our community's techies. As of today (3/12/12), the very rough initial draft of this core has four levels. Because of the bifurcation of the markets between Apple and Google, we anticipate the need for two distinct components at each level:
  • Introduction to the major operating systems ==> iOS and Android
  • Languages ==> Fundamentals of Java (Android) and fundamentals ObjectiveC (iOS) ... plus JavaScript, HTML 5, and CSS for both platforms
  • Minimal coding developer environments ==> for iOS and for Android
  • Major Websites that provide useful prefabricated widgets ==>  for iOS apps and Android apps
HBCUs as Keepers of the Dream
Although I remain hopeful that non-HBCUs will make more progress in the next twenty years than in the last twenty in closing the Digital Divide between their black and non-black students, I am also, for reasons spelled out in my previous notes on this blog, more hopeful that far greater progress will be made if the efforts of non-HBCUs are guided, if not led by HBCUs. I am especially hopeful with regards to the capacity of HBCUs to move more black entrepreneurs to the producer side of the Divide by incubator initiatives, such as the one described in this note that I am helping to launch at my own long-time employer, Howard University.

We are not conceiving Howard's initiative as something bounded by its  brick and mortar walls because we know that our success will be greatly amplified to the extent to which we throw open opportunities for participation in our efforts via the Internet to wannabee black entrepreneurs among our own alumni and among the current members of other HBCU communities and among their alumni. We also intend to participate in the incubator efforts sponsored by  other organizations devoted to assisting minority entrepreneurs, e.g., other HBCUs, the NewMe Community, etc.

Your Comments and Suggestions
Howard's plans are still on the drawing boards, so we will probably gain more benefit from constructive comments and suggestions at this stage than at any time in the future. Therefore on behalf of my colleagues, I sincerely request your help in getting our initiative off to a good start.

Please use the "Comments" form at the bottom of this note to share any ideas or suggestions that you think might be useful to what we are trying to achieve, especially with regards to our "core curriculum". And I promise that as we get going, we will return these favors by offering our help to other HBCUs and to other organizations that launch similar programs for black hi-tech entrepreneurs.

P.S. Speaking of killer apps for smart phones, please click the following HBCU headline, "SPELMAN COLLEGE JUNIOR INVENTS A TOP-RANKED DOWNLOADABLE APPLICATION OFFERED BY APPLE'S APP STORE" (September 1, 2009)

Yes! We can!!!

Related notes:

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