Mar 16 2022

Emerging Technologies Help HBCUs Retain Students

Investments in virtual reality and other immersive tools help students at historically Black colleges and universities develop tech skills.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) represent some of the most renowned centers of learning in the nation. Even so, they’ve consistently been overlooked when it comes to funding and the support needed to offer emerging technology options to students.

“What I’ve seen over and over again is that they count HBCUs out,” says Muhsinah Morris, assistant professor and director of Morehouse in the Metaverse at Morehouse College.

But HBCUs across the country haven’t stopped fighting to remain relevant to students. They’re expanding opportunities for learning by embracing virtual reality (VR) and other forms of emerging technology, including participating in the metaverse, an entirely virtual world.

“Our Gen Z population, and all students for the most part, are entering campus with a good body of knowledge on technological advancements,” says Samuel Darko, dean of the school of arts and sciences at Florida Memorial University, a private HBCU in Miami. “Some are coming from high schools or other institutions where state-of-the art, technology-infused learning is the norm. It only makes sense that HBCUs continue to make the shift.”

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The Power of the Pandemic for Digital Transformation

The pandemic highlighted existing inequities regarding access to digital tools, also known as the “digital divide,” explains Kendrick Brown, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Morehouse. The past several years have also shown society’s great dependence on technology, Brown says.

“When I think about the role of emerging technology and the need for infrastructure, I think about the need that HBCUs in general have for infrastructure,” he says. “There’s been a general underdevelopment of HBCUs, like Morehouse. But to be able to build that infrastructure, to have that equipment, to have that capability, that levels the field and provides opportunities for learning and for a better society.”

Brown also says the renewed focus on supporting HBCUs is tied to the rise in collective awareness of the “structural inequalities in society” over the past few years.

Without the right infrastructure, there’s no foundation for the capabilities that emerging technology like virtual reality can offer students. More corporations, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and funding bodies are connecting with HBCUs to provide support when they launch a new technology: equipment, high-speed internet access and storage.

“If we can bring Black people and people of color into this space as creators, contributors and learners — not just as consumers — then we have an opportunity for authorship and authenticity in a way that otherwise doesn’t happen,” Brown says.

EXPLORE: How esports increases enrollment and funding for HBCUs.

The Importance of Engagement in Retention

At Fisk University, a private HBCU in Nashville, Tenn., VR in the classroom is still relatively new. The university partners with other institutions so students can fulfill required courses and electives that Fisk might not offer. With the adoption of VR, leaders at Fisk hope students will eventually be able to complete all classes at their university, explains Steve Damo, assistant professor of chemistry at the school.

Fisk has long been using VR in research labs, but it transitioned to offering it as part of in-class experiences in fall 2021 through a partnership with HTC VIVE, T-Mobile and VictoryXR. In Damo’s chemistry classes, students can visualize how atoms in a protein are arranged, he says. This insight helps students with pharmaceutical drug research. The university is also enhancing their pre-med program with VR cadavers.

“VR technology offers the development of visual-spatial skills,” says Damo. “It’s an important part of STEM curriculum that often doesn’t receive a lot of explicit attention.”

When a student is actively participating in lessons, engaging with material in new and exciting ways, and taking advantage of the technology available to them, there’s an opportunity for greater learning, retention and innovation — and a commitment to the program.

Professional headshot of Kendrick Brown
If we can bring Black people and people of color into this space as creators, contributors and learners — not just as consumers — then we have an opportunity for authorship and authenticity in a way that otherwise doesn’t happen."

Kendrick Brown Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs at Morehouse College

“Engagement is key when it comes to technology and retention,” says Brown. “If you don’t have students engaged, you just don’t have an opportunity.”

VR can be applied in a variety of disciplines, and this cross-disciplinary component is also critical to retention, engagement and building the next generation of workers, says Morris.

“The metaverse is not just for STEM students,” she says. “It’s across disciplines and sectors. In order for us to understand how emerging technology and this entirely VR space are going to be used, it has to be used in all sectors by all disciplines.”

Morehouse currently offers VR in a variety of disciplines — English, history, chemistry, biology and sociology — with plans to expand further. Students also have access to 3D printers, augmented reality tools and lessons on the inner workings of NFTs.

“This gives our students the ability to learn about NFTs and the appreciation of digital art and assets,” says Morris. “It gives our students economic mobility, upward mobility, by teaching them about a new economy that they can be a part of as it’s developing.”

DISCOVER: How one HBCU is creating a sense of community for online learners.

Creating the Next Generation of Skilled Workers

Florida Memorial launched its esports program in Spring 2022 with an emphasis on VR and other emerging technology. The decision was based on a combination of market demand research and the school’s commitment to its role as “developers of minority workers into new and emerging needs,” says Darko.

Students can participate as student-athletes, as recreational players in a club or as students within the program. Florida Memorial is also hosting the Black Innovation, Technology, and Entertainment Conference this year to provide students networking opportunities with top tech companies.

RELATED: CDW launches Legacy Excellence Program in partnership with four HBCUs.

“By creating an immersive, project-based, hands-on learning experience through the Innovation, Technology, and Entertainment program, we aim to develop a teaching and learning environment that makes knowledge acquisition easy to access and fun,” says Craig Skilling, director of the ITE program and an assistant professor at Florida Memorial. “Success will translate beyond retention to increased graduation rates and produce competitive, employable graduates."

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