Nov 16 2022

How HBCUs Can Address the Device Access Dilemma

Lenovo and other tech partners are focused on closing a technology gap that puts underrepresented students at a disadvantage.

“Information is the greatest currency,” says Camesha Whittaker, senior vice president of innovation and design at the Propel Center.

In 2022, access to that currency often comes from the devices that connect us to the rest of the world: cellphones, laptops, tablets and computers. Unfortunately, students at many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are feeling the effects of the digital divide. The U.S. Census Bureau found that households relying on only smartphones in 2018 were more likely to be Black or Hispanic. This limits the amount of work that users can accomplish, compared with those with computer access.

Research from the early 2000s warned of a widening technology gap as the internet began to gain popularity. Those predictions have come true, especially concerning device access for students at HBCUs. “HBCUs must do so much with so little,” says Whittaker. “But why should they?”

The device issue can also be part of a larger cycle, explains Whittaker. Students who lack access to computers or laptops to complete schoolwork are at a greater risk of dropping out. A study that examined 47 HBCUs in the U.S. found a graduation rate of 35 percent. That statistic often directly relates to the amount of funding an HBCU (or any other institution) receives. Lacking funding, these colleges and universities can’t afford devices, which impacts graduation rates.

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Despite the effects of the device divide, the United Negro College Fund notes, 25 percent of all STEM graduates come from HBCUs.

“HBCUs provide an environment where students are empowered to understand what it means to be a Black leader in America and globally and where additional resources and opportunities can expose Black students to different worlds of thought and opportunity,” says Fallon Wilson, lead principal investigator and co-founder of #BlackTechFutures Research Institute at Stillman College.

These students are still attending and succeeding at HBCUs. The question is how can these institutions find a way to provide devices for these and every aspiring college graduate?

Solving a Device Divide in Higher Education

The first answer is to find and secure company partnerships. Lenovo and Alabama A&M UniversityMicrosoft and Morehouse CollegeApple and Virginia Union University. These are just a few examples of big tech companies sharing their devices with HBCUs.

“Partnerships are essential,” says Wilson. “GoogleAmazon, Facebook, Salesforce, Microsoft — these corporate partnerships should continue to do the amazing work that they do at our institutions.”

HBCUs also should consider organization-based or community-led partnerships. The Propel Center, for example, has ambitions of being a resource for all HBCUs in the U.S. The organization, which is an initiative of the company Ed Farm, was founded in 2021 and strives to provide digital skills, technology access and training to these institutions.

“The way education is being taught, the way we’re transferring knowledge, technology — all of these things are changing,” says Waymond Jackson, CEO of Ed Farm and interim CEO of the Propel Center. “With the Propel Center, we’re creating the mechanism that allows every single HBCU to partner with us on curriculum, on internships, on projects.”

READ MORE: The Propel Center and HBCUs announce a collaboration with Disney.

Whittaker, who’s in charge of curriculum design at the Propel Center, stresses the importance of proper training when it comes to device access. Though providing students and faculty with laptops and tablets is critical, it’s even more important to teach them how to use these devices for better instruction and learning.

“Access is one thing,” she says. “But improving digital literacy so students can maximize their chances of landing those high-paying jobs, those better-quality jobs in diverse fields, that’s where technology skills are paramount.”

Similarly, faculty must be educated on best practices as they relate to device- and digital-focused learning.

Camesha Whittaker
“The more learners who have the opportunity to get access to and utilize resources helps with persistence and retention. We all have to share the load in terms of digital fluency and access and connectivity.”

Camesha Whittaker Senior Vice President of Innovation and Design, Propel Center

“The pandemic pushed a lot of our professors into the space of thinking about the intersection of how they teach,” says Wilson. “They need to understand how innovation and technology are changing their disciplines, irrespective of whether it’s a minority-serving institution.”

Grants (corporate or otherwise) and federal funding are also a resource for HBCUs to use to improve device access. A recent example of federal funding is the $268 million Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. However, grants usually come with time limits, and sometimes corporate partnerships expire. In those instances, Whittaker recommends, HBCUs should look for partnerships with an industry-specific focus.

“We need to do a better job of providing support for HBCUs to get funding. It’s not simply applying for grants. We need to apply for program-based grants around industry-specific needs,” she explains. “That allows HBCUs to upgrade their computer labs. It’s a continuous refreshing to modernize technology and extend the hours of use for students.”

These long-term partnerships allow for state-of-the-art finance centers or special spaces to practice code or analyze data. Hospitality associations also often contribute to these partnerships, says Whittaker. The Propel Center has helped 19 universities facilitate these partnerships in the advertising, technology, health, and arts and entertainment industries. In each instance, the Propel Center and its technology partner gave devices and training to students.

“The more learners who have the opportunity to get access to and utilize resources helps with persistence and retention,” she explains. “We all have to share the load in terms of digital fluency and access and connectivity.”

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