Friday, October 18, 2013

Virtual HBCUs Should Offer MOOCs for Internet-based Black Entrepreneurs

Last updated: Saturday 10/26/13 @ 1:21 pm
Yes, dear readers, the title of this note contains some of the most ubiquitous jargon found on the Websites of HBCUs, HBCU media, and the Facebook and Twitter pages of just about every person on the planet who has ever had the slightest interest in the future well-being of HBCUs.

But by the time you finish  this note, I hope to convince you that, taken together, these grossly overused buzzwords might provide a framework for groups of HBCUs to enable black entrepreneurs to become major players in the richly rewarding, Internet-based, global economy whose most powerful engine is the raging phenomenon that someone once described as "the progressive digitization of everything."

Straight-A Students > C Students > A-minus and B Students
The other day my aging memory flashed back on a report that M.I.T. published around 1965 that contained the surprising results of an analysis of the success of its graduates. The most successful were the straight-A  superstars: the ones who came to class on the first day, didn't show up for the rest of the semester, skimmed the textbook the night before the last day of class, and aced the final exam. No surprises here.

What was surprising was that the next most successful group of students weren't the hardworking A-minus students or the B students. The second most successful group were the C students. (Note: this was before grade inflation made C students an endangered species.) To be sure, these students received a few A's here and there because their interests and superior talents were focused on a much narrower range of subjects than the superstars. Otherwise, they made just enough effort to get passing grades in the many other subjects for which they had little interest and no special aptitude.

Years later, I became aware that SAT scores were good predictors of success for entering students in their first two years of undergraduate study, not so good predictors of performance in their last two years, and poor predictors of success after graduation -- other than for the superstars who got perfect 800s on each exam. Evidently a sufficient number of lower scoring students also did very well after graduation, thereby confounding the initial correlation.

Finally, as a member of an HBCU community for over 40 years and as a classroom instructor for 20 of those years, I have observed a steady stream of creative, focused black C students moving on to successful careers after graduation, again and again and again.

Two Segments of the Talented Tenth
The above considerations make me think that it might be useful to consider the Talented Tenth as having two segments -- academic superstars and creative, focused C students.
  • Nowadays, the vast majority of the black superstars are snapped up by Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Cal-Tech, and the other elite non-HBCUs; only a tiny sprinkling attend HBCUs.
  • The black superstars perform on par with their white counterparts at the elite non-HBCUs. (See this blog's related notes about black students in high STEM institutions listed at the bottom of this page)
  • Other black students attend HBCUs and non-HBCUs, with roughly 90 percent at the non-elite non-HBCUs.
  •  Question: Where are the creative, focused black C students?

    Answer: Certainly not at the elite non-HBCUs because their SAT scores and overall GPAs in high school weren't high enough; beyond this, I am unaware of any data on which to base a definitive answer. However, IMHO it's reasonable to assume that, like most black students who aren't academic superstars, roughly 90% attend non-elite non-HBCUs. And it's also reasonable to assume that they are earning their occasional A's in the subjects wherein they have strong interests and superior talents, but putting just enough effort into their other courses to graduate in a timely manner.
In summary, there is reason to believe that both segments of the Talented Tenth are performing on a par with their white counterparts while in school with regards to gross measures, e.g., retention rates and graduation rates. Unfortunately, substantial numbers of highly successful Internet-based entrepreneurs have not emerged from either segment ... yet.

Barriers to Black Success
The lack of black participants in the parade of Internet-based entrepreneurs whose success has been continuously celebrated in the national media for almost 20 years has been doubly disappointing ==> first, because racial disparities are always disappointing; and second, because the barriers to outsized success for ambitious black entrepreneurs are at historic lows. Powerful workstations and fast Internet connections are affordable for anyone with a steady job; and the tools for developing the software applications that have yielded the richest rewards, e.g., the software development kits (SDKs), range from cheap to free. So when, if not now, will our Talented Tenth be seated at the high tables?

Some of the most successful Internet-based entrepreneurs have emerged from Harvard, Stanford, and other elite non-HBCUs, e.g., the founders of Google, Facebook, and Instagram. But none have been black, despite the fact that 634, i.e., 6% of Harvard's undergraduates are black and 424, i.e., 6% of Stanford's undergrads are black (Note: Fall 2012 enrollment figures from College Navigator).  So why hasn't enrollment at these elite institutions provided passports for their black superstars into America's high tech elites?

When Dr. Maya A. Beasley (a/k/a my daughter) conducted extensive interviews with black students at Stanford and Berkeley in an effort to answer this question, she found that many were changing majors, i.e., opting out of fields of study that could lead them to become successful Internet entrepreneurs because they perceived unacceptable levels of racism among the professors in these departments and, by extension, in their job environments after graduation if they pursued careers in these fields. (See Maya A. Beasley, Opting Out, Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite, University of Chicago Press, 2011.) Her investigations were exploratory, hence by definition her findings were not definitive. Nevertheless her findings discourage hope that we should expect to see any substantial increase in the capacity of elite non-HBCUs to convert their black achievers into successful high-tech entrepreneurs in the foreseeable future.

As for the other segment of the Talented Tenth, i.e., the creative, focused C-students, the absence of black entrepreneurs in the pantheon of Internet innovators also indicates that none of the non-elite colleges and universities have developed a capacity to convert this segment into successful high-tech entrepreneurs. And again, there is no reason to be optimistic about any  significant improvement in this bleak picture in the foreseeable future.

Virtual HBCUs as Incubators
Virtual HBCUs are strategic alliances of groups of HBCUs, consortiums if you will, that share the costs and revenues for joint initiatives. Their collaboration is facilitated by the Internet. Virtual HBCUs, a/k/a v-HBCUs, were discussed in a recent note on this blog, "Virtual HBCUs as Strategic Alliances."

As per the title of this discussion, I am about to propose that virtual HBCUs become incubators for Internet-based black entrepreneurs. But first, please allow me to consider five of the most important factors that have contributed to the legendary productivity of Stanford University as an incubator for non-black entrepreneurs:
  • Access to Internet resources
  • Access to faculty who understand how to encourage the development of entrepreneurial skills
  • Access to networks of successful entrepreneurs who serve as role models and mentors
  • Access to networks of financial investors
  • Access to substantial numbers of ambitious, creative students who stimulate each other's creativity.
As noted earlier, Internet resources are cheap enough nowadays to be affordable by most HBCUs, so the first factor is not a barrier.

Although I have no data to support any claim that HBCUs enroll a higher-than-expected percentage of the other segment of the Talented Tenth, i.e., the creative, focused C-students, there is tangible evidence that some HBCUs, e.g., the five public HBCUs in North Carolina, provide better learning opportunities for C-students as measured by graduation rates, Pell grants, and other gross measures than the public non-HBCUs in the same state. (See the note "Why North Carolina's Five Public HBCUs Are Still Needed -- Part 1" posted elsewhere on this blog.)

This greater effectiveness with black C-students in general makes it plausible to conjecture that some HBCUs might also become effective incubators that could enable the creative C-segment of the Talented Tenth become successful Internet-based entrepreneurs:
  • IF they could provide access to faculty who understood how to encourage the development of entrepreneurial skills; and
  • IF they could provide access to successful entrepreneurs who could serve as role models and mentors; and
  • IF they could provide access to financial investors; and
  • IF they could attract enough creative, focused black C-students to enable them to stimulate each other's creativity. 
That's a lot of "IFs" ... but each and all would be more attainable if HBCUs leveraged their individual resources as per some combination of the following strategies:
  • HBCUs should band together in strategic alliances to form virtual HBCUs that share the costs and revenues of their training programs. It should be easier to negotiate these alliances as extensions of the member HBCUs' ongoing efforts to offer more online degree and certificate programs and within the context of existing collaborative frameworks, e.g., the HBCU Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship sponsored by UNCF.
  • Additional leverage would be gained if the virtual HBCUs used tested entrepreneurial course materials developed by organizations like the Kaufmann Foundation.
  • Still more leverage would be gained if the virtual HBCUs offered their courses in the form of MOOCs.

    Although most MOOCs are free, the concept of offering courses over the Internet to large classes of widely dispersed students is still viable when tuition is charged. Students on the campuses of the member HBCUs who were degree candidates would pay the usual tuition to receive credit for these courses; but off-campus students who only wanted to enhance their entrepreneurial skills might be permitted
    to enroll for much lower fees.
  • More leverage would be gained if the virtual HBCUs entered into strategic partnerships with companies founded to help colleges and universities develop and manage their MOOCs, e.g., Coursera and Udacity.

    Note: In December 2012,
    Udacity agreed to help Morgan State University produce a MOOC (Diverse Issues, 12/3/12)
  • And even more leverage would be gained if the virtual HBCUs conceptualized their MOOCs as "connectivist MOOCs", a/k/a/ "cMOOCs." These courses not only teach concepts and skills; they also encourage their participants to network with each other in ways that transcend the course boundaries, e.g., engaging in business ventures with each other.  Such networks would become even more productive if off-campus, non-degree  students were permitted to enroll in the MOOCs. (See the note on cMOOCs, "Video Introductions to cMOOCs for HBCUs" posted elsewhere on this blog for links to discussions about this kind of MOOC.)
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