Building African American E-Culture
Since his days as a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, computer scientist Dr. Juan E. Gilbert has sought to make his research in instructional technology relevant to the needs of African American students.His dissertation focused on creating a Web-based tutoring program and offered not just one teaching style but a variety of them. “The ideal goal is to develop a repository of instructors to match learning styles with all kinds of students,” Gilbert says. Though the young computer scientist has continued instructional design work as a faculty member in the Auburn University Computer Science and Software Engineering department, his dissertation project has found yet another life under the broad research agenda of the newly formed Institute for African American ECulture (iAAEC). The Boston-based Institute is a multi-disciplinary community of African American computer scientists, social scientists, educators and entrepreneurs who are dedicated to establishing electronic culture in the African American community. Institute activities focus primarily on basic research in information technology and the development of culture-specific technologies and practices. Dr. Roscoe Giles, executive director of iAAEC, says the organization was founded to address Digital Divide issues as well as to have the Black community broadly involved in the design and development of new technologies and practices. The work of scientists, like Gilbert, is critical to iAAEC because it creates culture-specific technology, which is adaptable by African Americans, Giles says.Rather than focus solely on the issues of access to and basic use of information technology, the iAAEC seeks to pull together talented technologists, social scientists and educators to work directly with Black communities, Giles says. Specific activity areas for the iAAEC include: core technologies; human computer interfaces and collaborative environments; social-cultural-educational-workforce issues; and educational technologies and community deployment, according to the iAAEC.Last fall, the National Science Foundation awarded a core group of iAAEC researchers a $3,176,944-five-year grant. Dr. Bryant York, a computer science professor at Northeastern University, is the principal investigator of the grant project, which is titled “New Approaches to Human Capital Development through Information Technology Research.” York, who is credited with having the idea to launch the iAAEC, serves as the research director of the organization.Giles, who is a computer science professor at Boston University, says that while much of the funding will underwrite technology research and development, iAAEC members will also address the social and workforce development questions. Special attention will be paid to helping African Americans develop innovative ways to think about and use of information technology.Alison Clark, a Ph.D. candidate in mass media studies at Michigan State University and an iAAEC member, says the language of information technology often presents cultural barriers for African Americans. “The notion of ‘surfing the Net’ is a metaphor that doesn’t come out of the Black community,” Clark says. “Even the term ‘desktop’ as in ‘desktop computing’ implies that everyone either works in an office or has a desk at home or work. The term excludes some people,” she says. The idea of including social scientists educators and entrepreneurs allows the iAAEC to have a holistic approach to Digital Divide and other information technology issues, says Clark, who is writing her dissertation on hip-hop culture and the Internet.Dr. Renee Smith-Maddox, an assistant professor in the education department at the University of California-Los Angeles and a member of iAAEC, believes the institute’s multi-disciplinary approach will allow the work of the technologists to be expanded to include rigorous teaching methodology and assessment. She and Dr. Stafford Hood of Arizona are teaming up with Auburn’s Gilbert to establish a math teaching program that will be aimed at middle school students.“We’re identifying a cohort of African American math teachers who can be advisors to the project,” Smith-Maddox says.Gilbert says he’s grateful to be a part of a research community that puts him in direct contact with Black computer scientists from across the nation as well as sociologists, social scientists and education school faculty. The real challenge will be building an “Eculture” for the African American community that makes information technology “an integrated part of [our] lives,” Gilbert says. More information on the iAAEC can be viewed at <www.iaaec.com>.
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