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Finding Room for Improvement

Finding Room for Improvement
Howard University-based team rates HBCU Web sites

The perception that a “digital divide” exists in higher education between historically Black institutions and most predominantly White colleges and universities has enabled advocates for Black schools to raise money, attract computer equipment donations, and build awareness to help bridge the divide.
One effort that started this summer is taking an approach similar to previous ones that have tried to bring attention to the shortfall in information technology (IT) resources and capacities plaguing historically Black schools. The Digital Learning Laboratory (DLL), a team of IT scholars and professionals based at the Howard University Continuing Education division, has taken on the ambitious task of stimulating IT development and online distance education among HBCUs with ongoing analysis and examination of existing resources and services.
The effort, titled “Project Archimedes,” is charged with enabling “interested faculty, staff, and students at HBCUs to learn how to use (Internet/World Wide Web) technologies at state-of-the-art levels.” The Digital Learning Laboratory bills itself as a “change agent” whose primary function “will be to accelerate the diffusion” of Internet-based technologies “throughout the extended family of HBCUs.”
“The most important thing is to get the Black schools to better use what they have,” says Dr. Roy L. Beasley, founder and director of the Digital Learning Lab.
Conceived as a three-year project that formally began in September, Project Archimedes has produced the HBCU Web sites Rating Program as its first major venture. Slated to be published on the Internet three times a year, the Web site rating is intended to push campus webmasters and IT administrators to consistently seek improvements on their college or university Web sites. 
The goal of the Web site rating is not to emphasize competitiveness, but to highlight best practices among HBCUs so that schools can learn from the strongest examples, according to Beasley. Every HBCU Web site is rated in 22 categories, which measures functionality, convenience and other defining characteristics of Web sites. For example, schools are rated on whether their Web sites allow for online applications and course registration.   
Some schools, such as Morehouse College and Tennessee State University, both of which have made the Yahoo! Internet Life “Most Wired Campus” lists, also got high marks in the October 2001 HBCU Web site rating. However, the rating reported their sites were far from ideal. 
“We found there was room for improvement,” Beasley says.
When a school stands out in certain areas, such as Morehouse College incorporating security features on its Web site to enable alumni contributions, those standouts will be profiled. Information will be posted describing the process a school underwent to develop an exemplary Web site feature, according to Beasley. He points out that campus webmasters represent a logical group on which to get an institution interested in changing the IT culture and utilization. He hopes both senior IT administrators and the “techies” will read the rating. 
IT professionals at HBCUs say the Web site rating appears to be a positive idea, and the success of such a survey depends on the extent to which it gains recognition and credibility among campus webmasters and other IT administrators.
“I think it’s a good idea. It has the potential to get schools more focused on improving their Web sites,” says Yamlak Tsega, associate director for academic relations in the information technology center at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.   

For the Distance Learning Lab, Project Archimedes represents a significant change of course for the group, which was founded in 1994 — originally as the Distance Learning Lab. Since 1994, the lab has received $4 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency of the U.S. Defense Department. The funding has paid largely for researchers, software designers and instructors to develop software presentation technologies. Members of the Digital Learning Laboratory gained notable attention in the Washington area for its mentoring and teaching partnership with Benjamin Banneker High School.
The newest focus of Project Archimedes grew out of Beasley’s concern that too much of the discussion over the digital divide in higher education centered on making sure schools are wired and that they have enough computers on the campus.
“Digital divide is thought of as a hardware problem. The know-how gap is the real gap,” Beasley says, contending that HBCU faculty members are way behind their colleagues in community colleges and majority-White four-year institutions when it comes to using IT for teaching and learning.
“Pound for pound, HBCU faculty don’t use IT as proficiently as faculty in (majority-White) institutions,” he says. With regard to establishing distance learning on higher education campuses in general, “It’s the faculty that’s the bottleneck,” he notes.
To move Project Archimedes into arenas such as online distance education, Beasley is attempting to raise funds from new sources of support. “We can make a contribution,” he says.
To view the October 2001 HBCU Web sites Rating, visit <>. 

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