Thursday, March 22, 2012

Closing the Digital Divide at HBCUs

Way back in the mid 1970s, I was an energetic, ambitious young professor at an HBCU. I had a capacity for envisioning sophisticated computer applications and a talent for cutting a lot of computer code real fast. One of the hottest buzzwords in the business press back then was the notion of a "paperless office" -- a super-efficient white collar workplace wherein all documents were digital. No typewriters. No copiers. No inter-office snail mail. No file cabinets. No paper.

So I decided to write an application on my university's mainframe that would be accessed by students via the dumb terminals located all over our campus, an application that would support a "paperless classroom." In today's terms, it was a combination of word processing and email. I would generate assignments from the dumb terminal in my office, post them on the mainframe, and notify my students via the email package. They would read the email, do the research required for the assignment, then compose their answers to the problem assignments on the dumb terminals and zap them back to me via the mainframe. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story about my application in the late 1970s that included a "rock star" photo of yours truly and an assertion that this was the first such all digital classroom application in the country.

But what really added sizzle to my classes was my decision to organize my courses in a behavioral modification framework. At the beginning of each course, I informed my students that they should decide what grade they wanted to receive. As I recall, my system required that they earn at least 120 points to get an A, 100 points for a B, 80 points for a C, and 60 points for a D. Each assignment, test, and exam carried a point value. For example, our fall semester classes started in late August, so if a student wanted a B and earned 100 points by the Thanksgiving holiday, he or she didn't have to come to any more classes nor take the final exam. And being a "good guy" I gave my students extra assignments from time to time if they wanted to increase their point scores. But I was also a "bad guy" who would hit them with a 5 point penalty for each piece of paper they handed to me for whatever reason after the first two weeks of class -- no exceptions. And I was also a "to-the-bone-fair-play-Libra" guy so I awarded each student a 5 point apology for the "insult" for each piece of paper I inflicted on him or her, no matter how small -- no exceptions.

To this day I still get a big chuckle whenever I flash back on how quickly I was able to bring each class under "stimulus control." Even though I warned my students on the first day of class about the power of my behavioral mod point system, and even though each class would invariably scoff at the idea that such a crazy system would make them work harder, it was almost scary how hard they were working on each assignment by the middle of the semester and how they would jump up and down like baby chickens peeping at me to give them bonus point opportunities. And of course my bonuses became smaller with each passing week, while the amount of work required to earn a bonus point got larger and larger and larger. What was even funnier is that they all knew exactly what I was doing ... but boy did they want those bonus points!!! ... :-)

By the third time I offered my paperless course, I knew that my students were also getting another benefit, a benefit that was far greater than the subject matter they were learning. They were seeing how computer applications were really written. Time and again they spotted flaws in my application's design. Perhaps the assignment form didn't leave enough space for their responses or it didn't allow them to submit corrections. And time and again, my students suggested ways to improve my design and would have the pleasure of watching me change my design to suit their re-specifications. Of course part of their motivation for helping me improve my application was the fact that program defects impeded their capacity to earn more bonus points ... :-)

In other words, my students were learning that computer applications weren't divine revelations; that they sprang from human hands; that some of those hands were my black hands; and, on occasion, some of those hands were their own black hands.  The reader won't be surprised to learn that many of my students not only crossed the Digital Divide; they changed their career paths and became IT specialists. In other words, they were far more impressed by what I was doing with information technology than the subject matter they were learning in my IT-based course ... And, oh yes, their involvement with information technology was all the more intense because of my course's "diabolical" behavioral modification framework ... :-)

Of course, one black professor's experience at an HBCU doesn't "prove" anything ... except for the fact that my own experience is far from unique. The United Negro College Fund has long noted that HBCUs are more productive sources of blacks in STEM fields than non-HBCUs. How is this still possible given that the STEM resources at HBCUs usually aren't as good as those at non-HBCUs? What is the secret of the continuing success of HBCUs in this regard? To me the answer is obvious -- but we really should do whatever research is required to confirm this hypothesis:
Some of the black professors who teach STEM courses at HBCUs are still finding ways to engage their black students in intensive, creative collaborations.
_________________________
Related notes: