In October, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco became the first school in California to benefit from a newly launched corporate giving program designed to foster digital literacy and digital citizenship.
The interactive course, which teaches kids the basics of safe and ethical online behavior, is being made available to all schools in California through a grant from Neustar, a relatively low-profile tech powerhouse that provides real-time Internet information and analysis to a variety of business sectors.
So far, Neustar has funded the program, called My Digital Life, at 55 middle and high schools in the state at a cost of $5,000 per school. The company expects more than a thousand schools to eventually participate in the no-cost educational offering. Neustar also sponsors the program for schools in Virginia and Kentucky.
My Digital Life is a Neustar-branded version of a curriculum created by the online educational content provider EverFi, which partners with corporate sponsors to cover the cost of providing its various content modules to schools. My Digital Life is based on EverFi’s digital literacy module known as Ignition – Digital Literacy & Responsibility. The 3.5-hour interactive curriculum, which covers topics such as online privacy, security, cyberbullying, digital relationships and digital addiction, is designed for students in 8th and 9th grade.
"Neustar understands the importance of STEM education and realizes that teaching students how to leverage technology in a safe and responsible way will foster the next generation of talented professionals," said Neustar President and CEO Lisa Hook at the launch event. "By joining with EverFi for the My Digital Life project we ensure that tomorrow’s innovators will be armed with the tools they need to become successful leaders in their fields, while enabling Neustar to have a positive impact on the communities in which our employees live and work."
While also attending the launch, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said, "In the U.S. and especially in California, our students must have the knowledge and tools they need to make responsible online decisions. But their knowledge has to go beyond just being safe; we need to prepare them to succeed in the knowledge economy, to fill countless California jobs in science, technology and engineering."
"We see our role as demystifying digital literacy issues — not watering them down, but making them understandable and usable. We feel the student-facing engagement of our programs is the critical factor in their effectiveness," EverFi Chief Operating Officer Tammy Wincup told Literacy 2.0.
EverFi recently received a financial infusion of $10 million from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, Tomorrow Ventures (the investment arm of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt), Allen and Company, and Blackboard CEO Michael Chasen. The company is using the investment to expand its content offerings, Wincup noted.
Neustar is motivated in part by the growing shortage of qualified applicants for jobs in technical fields. The company sees My Digital Life as one way to interest kids in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Neustar is based in Washington D.C. but has operations throughout California, Northern Virginia and Kentucky. Finding qualified employees to fill technical positions is a growing problem, says Hook. To underscore the need for more technology-related teaching and training, she cites estimates that by 2018 there will be 1.4 million computing job openings in America, but only about 400,000 U.S. computing graduates to fill them.
Hook also calls attention to the abysmal standing of STEM education in the U.S. The country ranks 25th in math and 17th in science when compared to other countries around the world. Only one-quarter of America’s 52 million K-12 students are performing on par with the average student in Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Taiwan or South Korea, while 25% of high school students fail to graduate.
"The disparity between job availability and qualifications is startling," Hook told Literacy 2.0. "We looked at how we could best make an impact and what is relevant to our community. Since we are a tech company and have a shortage of qualified applicants, we decided our charitable giving was best spent in STEM initiatives."
Hook insists that rather than look abroad for technically qualified employees, companies should do whatever they can to improve STEM education in the U.S.
Neustar’s philosophy is enlightened and refreshing. Unfortunately, it is shared by only a handful of U.S. corporations, most of which are technology companies.
It is completely logical that tech companies support STEM education and digital literacy — companies are by nature self-sustaining and self-serving. But the issue of digital illiteracy is not only a problem for technology companies. The need for employees with digital skills is a challenge faced by every business.
Digital literacy is becoming increasingly intertwined into every job and every aspect of commerce. The overarching challenge is for companies to become literacy 2.0-capable organizations staffed by employees who are accomplished digital citizens.
It doesn’t matter what businesses do to promote digital literacy, only that they do.
Corporate giving and corporate sponsorship are powerful economic and social drivers. Supporting the spread of digital fluency is the most self-serving action any company can take. And, in that sense, it’s part of every company’s charter.