Thursday, October 31, 2013

Virtual Groups at Virtual HBCUs Developing Mobile Applications in Virtual Labs

Last updated: Thursday 10/31/13 @ 7:26 am
By convening the HBCU Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley (at Stanford University, 10/30/13 to 11/1/13), UNCF has proclaimed a game changing challenge for the HBCU community. Of course we won't know how well our community rose to this challenge until a few years have passed, i.e., until we witness the emergence of a wave of black entrepreneurs whose success can be traced back to the ideas and collaborations that emerge from this meeting.  

Response to the UNCF Challenge
Unfortunately I am one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of members of the HBCU community who were excited by UNCF's challenge, but were unable to attend the historic meeting in Silicon Valley.  So I channeled my excitement into the production of a series of posts on this blog that expressed my notions about how HBCUs could use the Internet to create strategic alliances, i.e., virtual HBCUs, that could provide blended and online learning opportunities for their on-campus and off-campus students. Then I posted a note that suggested that virtual HBCUs should offer MOOCs for Internet-based black entrepreneurs. 

The present note suggests that virtual HBCUs should establish virtual computer labs in the cloud to support MOOCS and other training opportunities for black entrepreneurs who want to learn how to develop mobile applications, i.e., software for smartphones, tablets, phablets, and other portable devices. This is admittedly just a narrow slice of the full range of entrepreneurial opportunities being discussed at the HBCU Summit; but for the next few years, IMHO, mobile applications will continue to be one of the fastest growing segments of the global economy, ergo one of the most lucrative opportunities for black entrepreneurs.

Physical Group in a Physical Lab at one HBCU
Late in the Spring 2012 semester, the Howard University Mobile Apps Developers Group was launched as a belated response to Soledad O'Brien's disturbing documentary, "Black in America, the New Promised Land: Silicon Valley" (CNN, October 2011). Shortly thereafter, the need for this group was underscored by Facebook's billion dollar purchase of Instagram
  • Here was yet another example of white students at Stanford "working hard" on a mobile application for a couple years as undergrads, then for a couple of more years after graduation in a start-up operation that was sold for a 10 figure purchase price before it ever turned a profit!!!
  • As far as I was concerned, the biggest difference between those talented Stanford grads and some comparably talented Howard grads was the fact that Stanford provided labs and other education spaces where interested students (overwhelmingly white) could learn how to write the kinds of apps that the rapidly growing mobile applications market was demanding.
The good news was that my request for help to start the HU developers group  received enthusiastic support from a wide range of technically skilled faculty and staff, but especially from some highly talented students from three schools and colleges in the university. We soon had our own blog, the use of an elegant high-tech conference room for our meeting, and a set of dedicated PCs in a computer lab upon which we downloaded software development kits (SDKs) for the major mobile platforms. We also received positive interest from a couple of software development firms in the Washington, DC area. The group's blog can be found here ==>

The bad news was that my regular responsibilities as a member of the university's senior staff suddenly became so demanding that I had to disband the group shortly after our students returned to school in the Fall 2012 semester.

When I heard about the HBCU Innovation Summit last month, I began to rethink the approach that we had used for our group. With 20-20 hindsight, I  realized that we had employed a strategy that was deeply flawed:
  • We had convened a face-to-face group in a physical lab and a physical conference room to develop software that would be downloaded by end-users from the cloud. 
These physical characteristics impeded our capacity to engage interested faculty, staff, and students from all over the university. They also impeded our capacity to engage potential off-campus students who wanted to learn how to develop mobile applications and successful developers who could serve as role models and mentors. Worst of all, they impeded the capacity of our university to collaborate with other HBCUs that had similar objectives.

Virtual Groups in Virtual Labs at a Virtual HBCU
If I were to try to persuade my colleagues to relaunch the Howard Mobile Apps  Group today, my recommended strategy would be 100% virtual from one end to the other:
  • Virtual HBCUs
    Nowadays bright students who want to become high tech entrepreneurs are attracted to Stanford University the way pretty people who want to become actors and actresses are attracted to Hollywood. But whereas actors and actresses might become competitors for the same roles, student entrepreneurs often become partners in start-up ventures. Indeed the impressive number of successful start-ups launched by  Stanford's graduates (and drop-outs) shows how effectively its students stimulate each other's creativity.

    Whereas no single HBCU might be able to attract a critical mass of creative student entrepreneurs, a strategic alliance of HBCUs that shared resources, costs, and benefits via the Internet, i.e., a virtual HBCU, might do so by using the Internet to facilitate the interactions of the students enrolled in the alliance's member institutions.

    And whereas Stanford has sufficient faculty whose expertise guides its student entrepreneurs along the roads to success, a virtual HBCU might assemble such a roster of entrepreneur-trainers by enabling the most knowledgeable faculty in the member institutions to collaborate with each other in courses and other learning activities.
  • Virtual Groups
    Developer groups should be online activities, like online classes, wherein
    students interact with their instructors and with each other via social media, e.g., Google Hangouts, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, LinkedIn, text messages, etc.

    Membership would be open to on-campus and to off-campus students at the virtual HBCU's member institutions. S
    tudents would receive course credit for their participation in a group's activities that would include a wide array of options, e.g., regular online courses, MOOCs, independent study, etc. On-campus students would be enrolled in degree programs at member institutions; whereas off-campus students would be enrolled in focused certificate programs at member institutions that were designed to provide wannabee entrepreneurs with specific skills required for success.  

    Successful developers of mobile apps would be also invited to become members of the groups wherein they would serve as role models and mentors who reviewed apps developed by student members and provided suggestions and encouragement. Mentors/role models would not be limited to persons living near a member campus or even in the same state, region, country, etc. Like the students, mentor/role models would interact with the students via social media.
  • Virtual Labs in the Cloud
    Students would develop their mobile apps by remote logins to clusters of virtual workstations and virtual servers configured in virtual labs in the cloud that were leased from companies like Amazon.Com's Web Services. The providers of these clusters in the cloud would provide appropriate security, guarantee 99.999 percent up-time, perform periodic backups of files, and maintain/upgrade the operating systems whenever required.

    Some virtual servers in the cluster would host files that were accessible to the public, e.g., files containing general information about the group and examples of apps developed by group members

    Access to other servers would be restricted to members of the group -- students, instructors, and mentors. These virtual machines would be guarded by firewalls and other forms of network security.
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