The HBCU Tech Revolution

Black colleges are racing against time to increase access and affordability through technology.

Courtesy: North Carolina Central University Campus Echo

Last fall, Nish Sonwalker (Sc.D.- MIT) was drawing laughs and gasps from a crowd assembled to discuss the future of technology in higher education. He had just proposed that education would soon be defined by teachers’ ability to measure student interest in real time, by measuring their brain activity through use of a headband.

Yesterday, he led a webinar with several HBCU presidents and academic officers to introduce IntellADAPT, an educational technology company blending massive open online courses (MOOCs) with adaptive learning in an effort to maximize learning and teaching efficiency.

The conversation is one of millions happening at colleges and universities around the country everyday, with a backdrop of the U.S. Department of Education requiring more colleges to clearly define metrics of access and affordability through the use of technology, building alternative revenue sources, establishing professional credential programs and using predictive and real-time analytics to better position students for success.

When added to the department’s targeting of ‘financially risky’ institutions to potentially lose access to federal student loan disbursements and opening the door to lawsuits from students are unable to find post-graduate employment, black colleges are facing a new mandate of accountability and performance.

With funding provided by the National Science Foundation to revamp chemistry, biology, environmental and technology education with online learning models, IntellADAPT is one of several major corporate partners reaching out to historically black colleges facing changing technological times.

And many institutions are responding to the call.

Building Capacity

Two weeks ago, activist Rev. Jesse Jackson commended Apple Inc. for ‘setting the pace’ to increase diversity and inclusion among the notoriously white Silicon Valley workforce. Part of that diversity building effort is centered around the company’s partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which launched last March with a $50 million investment in scholarships, internships and professional development for computer science students from HBCUs.

On the heels of Jackson’s comments, TMCF President and CEO Johnny Taylor offered continuing support for the initiative which has supported 33 Apple Scholars in the last year, and continues to identify resource provision opportunities for black colleges nationwide.

“As we wrap up year one, we now know that tech talent exists on HBCU campuses. We are grateful to our partner, Apple, for believing in our schools and trusting TMCF as a resource to assist with finding and developing the talent. We also have a long way to go, but we are committed to working with Apple and committed to finding and supporting the untapped talent at HBCUs,” he said.

TMCF has a history of tech influence on HBCUs. Morehouse College and Tuskegee University have received more than $1.5 million in upgraded software to improve performance in student computer labs, executive suite applications, and instructional technologies.

In a release, Tuskegee President Brian Johnson emphasized the importance of technology in advancing institutional outcomes.

“We are very pleased that the Thurgood Marshall Fund administered Microsoft award to Tuskegee University is the first of what we hope to be many more as we translate Tuskegee’s historic tradition into a 21st century trajectory,” Johnson said. “This software grant is key to the implementation of one of my five strategic priorities — Fully Inaugurating 21st Century Higher Education at Tuskegee University: (Through) Innovative Online and Expanded Academic Programming and Instruction, Infrastructure and Technology.”

Space for Innovation

In the last year, historically black colleges have launched projects to grow tech start-up and innovation space among black students and black communities. In March, Howard University broke ground on the campus’ Innovation Incubator, a mixed-use facility which will encourage entrepreneurship and creation through mentoring, networking, and skills development.

Howard University continues to be the catalyst for diverse and innovative thought-leaders and an opportunity for the underserved and underrepresented,” said Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, President of Howard University. “The Howard University Innovation Tech Hub provides tech entrepreneurs and startups access to affordable workspace, training, and other resources to help bring smart ideas to the marketplace.”

In Raleigh, Shaw University officials recently announced the relocation of one of its distance learning programs to America Undergound facilities in the city’s downtown area. The Google-backed maker space has spurred more than 250 new start-ups since 2010 launch, and positions continuing education community for direct access to business executives and mentoring opportunities.

“This partnership with American Underground is an exciting one,” said Dr. Shaw President Tashni Dubroy. “It’s the perfect example of the kind of innovative, integrated strategic partnership that will position Shaw University among top ranked higher education providers today and in the future.”

These initiatives are on the heels of several HBCUs hosting student-centered ‘Hack-a-thons’ contests which pair undergraduate students with coders and and tech mentors to create applications to improve consumer or lifestyle experiences.

Spurred by the creation of HBCU Hacks, the annual tour has worked to generate interest cultivate talent in computer science among students who may not realize its ties to liberal arts or business curriculum.

Industrial Imperative

Last summer, North Carolina Central University cut the ribbon on its ‘Fab Lab’ the first historically black college-based maker laboratory in the nation. Designed to provide students with work experience with manufacturing equipment, and tools to support entrepreneurship with raw materials production, the lab connects students to innovative technology and creation communities beyond campus borders.

Industrial value isn’t limited to the marketplace outside of the HBCU campus, some institutions are working to improve the industry of higher education itself. Southern University System officials held an inaugural ‘Big Data’ conference in June, to share best practices and strategies for constituents to use analytics and academic performance monitoring systems to help students graduate faster, and with less student debt.

“As the nation’s only historically black system of higher education, we have a responsibility to evince best practices,” said Southern University System Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs M. Christopher Brown II. “The recent and planned growth in enrollment requires all administrators, campus professionals and faculty to employ new strategies and approaches to guarantee timely matriculation, degree completion and career success.”