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Virginia Tech spearheads HBCU computer consortium – Virginia Polytechnic Institute; historically black colleges and universities

Dr. Joyce Williams-Green knows from direct experience that using
computers in the classroom can be daunting for both students and

When she first taught “Introduction to Black Studies” at Virginia
Polytechnic Institute and State University (also known as Virginia
Tech) in 1994, most of her students were – like her – African American.
But the next time she taught the class, she required students to use
the Internet and electronic mail to complete class assignments.
Thirteen of fifteen Black students left the course, and although six of
them eventually returned, Williams-Green found the experience troubling.

Nevertheless, “Introduction to Black Studies” has retained its
computer elements – including a requirement that students design and
publish pages on the World Wide Web.

“Black student enrollment in intro Black studies is increasing, but it hasn’t gotten back to where it was,” Williams-Green says.

That experience helped spur her and like-minded colleagues to
spearhead an initiative to help twelve historically Black colleges and
universities learn how to use computers and the Internet in teaching.
The initiative, entitled VITAE (Virtual Institute for Technology
Advancement in Education), is inspired partly by Virginia Tech’s
intensive adoption of computers in the classroom, and partly by
Williams-Green’s teaching experiences with African American students at
that institution.

Williams-Green, who is director of Black Studies at Virginia Tech,
says the regional consortium is necessary because it helps to bring
more information technology resources and expertise into the African
American community. She attributes diminished Black student enrollment
in her Black Studies class to a discomfort with computers that she has
found among a number of African American students who have not had
prior exposure to the technology.

While discomfort with computers is not unique to African American
students, Williams-Green believes that the lack of computer access in
the Black community, and in urban and poor school districts, can have a
detrimental effect on students’ attitudes toward technology once when
they reach the college environment.

Students with little or no experience with computers and the
Internet often require considerable assistance in getting acclimated to
computer-based instruction, according to Williams-Green.

Over the past five years, she has been working with Dr. Glen Holmes,
associate professor of Instructional Technology at Virginia Tech, on
instructional technology research involving issues of computer access
and instructional software that address issues of diversity. They,
along with Dr. Thomas M. Sherman, professor of education at Virginia
Tech, and consortium school officials, have developed a five-year plan
to bring Virginia Tech faculty together with consortium faculty to
offer online curricula, set up distance learning networks, and train
faculty to incorporate computers in their classes. The multi-million
dollar plan has been submitted for consideration by the Kellogg
Foundation, according to Holmes.

“VITAE is aimed primarily at teaching professionals. Yet surely, its
efforts will impact the student’s and their experiences,” says Holmes.

Participating schools include Delaware State University,
Fayetteville State University, Hampton University, Livingstone College,
Norfolk State University, North Carolina A&T State University,
Saint Paul’s College, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, Virginia
State University, Virginia Union University, West Virginia State
College, and Winston-Salem State University.

“I see it as a great opportunity for our institution to have access
to Virginia Tech’s resources. They are known for their distance
learning programs,” says Dr. Charles Fletcher, director of strategic
planning and institutional research at Delaware State University.

Fletcher says the consortium can help Delaware State build its
capacity to provide distance learning courses for students at its two
satellite campuses. The expertise that Virginia Tech professionals can
provide would cost Delaware State hundreds of thousands of dollars if
the school had to hire outside consultants to assist in the development
of distance learning networks, Fletcher says.

According to Dr. Ron Smith, associate vice chancellor for academic
affairs at North Carolina A&T, his institution’s participation in
the consortium will concentrate largely on faculty training. “The
biggest push is with the faculty” because the pressure to keep up with
information technology often falls hardest on them.

“Faculty sometimes don’t have the time to look around and to assess
whether they could be using computers in their classrooms,” Smith says.

With more than ten computer labs on its campus, North Carolina
A&T is considered to have a well-developed computer infrastructure.
Smith says consortium participation will allow students, faculty, and
administrators to leverage existing technology more effectively.

Williams-Green, like a number of her colleagues in the humanities
and social sciences, regards the infusion of computer technology –
particularly in nonscience subjects – as an inevitable path for higher
education. She believes that students who become comfortable with using
computers in nontechnical subjects will have an easier time adjusting
to the growing use of computers in the workplace. Faculty can utilize
computers to enhance student learning, according to Williams-Green.

“We don’t have a choice in the matter. Computers are everywhere and
we have a responsibility to make them work in the classroom,”
Williams-Green says.

At Virginia Tech, offering courses with heavy doses of
computer-based and Internet-based instruction reflects the
institution’s broad commitment to infusing technology throughout the
curriculum. The school has an extensive computer infrastructure and is
a leading institution in adopting computer technology in curriculum. In
fact, Virginia Tech – which has highly rated science and engineering
programs – has spent more than $10 million over the past four years
training and equipping its 1,480 faculty members in computer-based
instruction methods.

More than 300 courses have some component of computer-based or
web-based instruction, according to Virginia Tech officials. Starting
in fall 1998, all incoming students at Virginia Tech will be required
to own a computer – making the Blacksburg; Virginia-based school one of
the first public American universities to require computer ownership by
its students.

“Technology-based teaching and learning is the future of higher
education. It enables a tremendously information-rich learning
environment. And it eliminates time and space, which can be obstacles
to teaching and learning,” says Dr. Peggy Meszaros, provost and senior
vice president at Virginia Tech. “In order for Tech to continue as a
leader in this area, our students need to immerse themselves in modern
communications technology.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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