Winter-Spring 2002

The Institute for African American E-Culture
by Phoebe Lenear

The Institute for African American E-Culture was founded in 1999 by a group of academicians and researchers including Bryant York, Professor of Computer Science at Portland State University, and Roscoe Giles, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University.  Their vision was to research, develop, and deploy advanced information technologies to support African-American communities.

iAAEC brings together African-American computer scientists, social scientists, educators and entrepreneurs to accelerate the development of viable digital cultures within the African-American community. One iAAEC goal is to bring its members out of professional isolation into a sustainable professional research community.

Research is essential to creating, developing, and owning information technology.  Many iAAEC members are researchers in various areas, and part of what iAAEC as an organization allows its members to do is come together, discuss research activities, and begin to link these activities to community and culture in a way that is not strongly supported by existing environments.

One of the earliest results of the iAAEC members coming together was a project, proposed to and supported by the National Science Foundation, that encompasses many of the members’ research activities and begins to link them together.  This article introduces that research and its links to the community.

iAAEC Research

iAAEC has projects in four research areas: (1) Human Computer Interfaces and Collaborative Environments, (2) Core Technologies, (3) Social, Economic, Cultural and Workforce, and (4) Educational Technologies and Community Deployment.

  • Human Computer Interfaces and Collaborative Environments (HCICE) research group focuses on middleware for distributed collaboration technologies and culture-specific human computer interfaces.  Research includes cultural preference and modes of expression, e.g., analysis of Hip-Hop culture vis-á-vis societal participation, analysis of career choices by African American teenage males, and alternatives to the desktop metaphor.  HCICE research has resulted in the development of two prototype technologies:  (1) the African-American Distributed Learning Styles System (AADMLSS), developed by Dr. Juan Gilbert of Auburn University, and (2) the Hip-Hop tutorial developed by Dr. Robin Chandler of Northeastern University.

The AADMLSS is advanced instructional technology.  AADMLSS is composed of synchronous and asynchronous components that provide culturally relevant instruction to learners using innovative technologies.  The synchronous component is a real time interactive groupware environment where students interact with each other and teachers using various technologies including animated chat rooms and interactive video.  The asynchronous component is a web based distance learning environment where students receive personalized instruction from a collection of culturally relevant pedagogies.  Within the asynchronous component, each student’s learning experience is adapted to accommodate his or her individual learning style.  This environment makes use of animated pedagogical agents as teachers.

The Hip-Hop Tutorial Project (HHTP)is a two-part cultural, educational, and multimedia technology initiative that includes a teacher’s guide /manual and an online course.  The HHTP is both content- and technology-driven and aims at a practical means for closing the "digital divide.” It is a tool for those educators, artists, and youth interested in teaching and learning Hip-Hop. It uses cultural theory concepts, social science insights, and computer-mediated learning. The objective is to provide an immersive, interactive, multimedia instructional means for educating young people about Hip Hop Culture. It is designed to increase literacy skills by encouraging reading, studying, and informal research among K-12 age students.

  • Core Technologies (CT) research  studies the client and server technologies that are necessary for an efficient distributed implementation of systems like AADMLSS.  From this viewpoint, the AADMLSS system consists of three major parts:  (1) clients that are the people (e.g., students and instructors) interacting and learning concepts, (2) the delivery system, which supports curriculum sequencing, lesson selection, question administration and collaborative learning environments, and (3) the servers that include domain instruction servers and instruction content servers.  The CT is focused on providing the services that facilitate the delivery system for distributed servers.  Hence, the CT services provide the interface between the delivery system and servers.

Currently, CT is focused on two services—security and performance.  Security is needed to maintain the integrity of the content of the AADMLSS system.  Further, AADMLSS maintains the results of each user’s interaction with the system such that a user, via a login, can continue sessions at different points in time.  The performance service is needed to provide feedback such as how fast information is flowing to users and how much time access to content is taking.  This information is useful for identifying ways to make AADMLSS more efficient.  Other services, such as replication methods, are needed but will be leveraged from other projects in which iAAEC members are involved.

  • Social, Economic, Cultural and Workforce (SECW) group focuses on an empirical analysis of fundamental social, economic, and cultural factors affecting and often limiting African American participation in the IT enterprise.  This group designs and administers questionnaires, conducts interviews, and collects supporting data.  The SECW helps to formulate the central questions in conjunction with the other iAAEC research initiatives and assists with the interpretation of the results.  This group plays a key role in determining whether the proposed technologies meet the desired goals of the iAAEC.

One major research area being addressed is the African-American adolescent male tendency to rely upon their immediate peer group to identify acceptable activities in which to invest the necessary commitment and effort. Often times the acceptable choices, identified by the peer group, are based upon a peer group’s definition of what is or is not associated with “being black.”  Individual acceptance of and capitulation to group norms is often motivated by the fear of the loss of affiliation with the peer group and of being labeled as “acting white.”  Consequently, many adolescent black males limit their academic pursuits to areas viewed as acceptable to their peer group. This pattern of group-imposed limitations upon acceptable activities for black males has been implicated in the tendency of black males to under-invest in their academic careers and to avoid the study of the natural sciences. This has critical implications for African-American males as more and more careers, particularly fields such as IT, require a sound understanding of the natural sciences.

  • Educational Technologies and Community Deployment (ETCD) studies the infrastructure  needed to deploy IT in African American communities.   Current initiatives in this area include:  (1) Creating Community Connections (C3) system developed by Randal Pinkett (MIT Media Lab), (2) Decision Support for Student Success (DSSS) developed by Bryant York (Portland State University), and (3) learning technology through building community coordinated by Roscoe Giles and Raquell Holmes (Boston University).

The C3 system is a web-based community building system designed to establish and strengthen relationships between community residents, local businesses, and neighborhood institutions (e.g., libraries, schools, etc.) and organizations.  C3 is a sociocultural constructionist tool, specifically designed to engage low- to moderate-income residents as the active creators and producers of their own information and content, as opposed to passive consumers or recipients.

The DSSS is a web-based decision support system to improve retention of minority and at-risk students at the university level.  The system has been implemented in SQL Server 2000 and Java Server Pages.  It maintains information that is useful to a student’s advisor in assisting the student in making sound decisions.

Learning Technology through Building Community is an undergraduate student-centered project in which students from diverse academic disciplines and backgrounds have come together to design, configure, and implement enhancements to the High Performance Computing Laboratory at Boston University.  The participants have found new ways to engage each other in discussions and creation of technology that serves their needs.

iAAEC Development Zones

iAAEC’s  ultimate goal is to develop Information Technology (IT) Development Zones—social and collaborative environments which support community design, creation, development, and assessment of culturally specific IT. These development zones will be a place where both technical experts (e.g., computer scientists) and user/developers (iAAEC community members) communicate, collaborate, and jointly create IT.  After two years of existence, iAAEC is just a few steps from achieving this goal!  For more information, please visit iAAEC’s website.

Phoebe E. Lenear works on Alliance Relations in the Director’s Office of the National Computational Science Alliance at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications Other contributing authors include Robin Chandler (Northeastern University), Juan Gilbert (Auburn University), Roscoe Giles (Boston University), William McMullen (Cambridge College), Valerie Taylor (Northwestern University), and Bryant York (Portland State University). © 2001, Institute for African American E-Culture.

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