11/22/2010 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dessert Before Spinach?! Yes. When Serving Digital Literacy, Start with Dessert

When it comes to literacy, it may be time to force our children to eat their dessert with, or even before, their spinach.

No one can doubt America has a literacy problem. Too many of us cannot read well. Fourteen percent of the United States' adult population, or 30 million people, read at a "below basic" literacy level while 63 million Americans are just at basic.

For many children, the hard work of learning to read and write was like eating spinach -- evil-tasting drudgery one suffered through before being allowed to bite into the tasty dessert. In a way that may seem to make matters worse on the literacy front, some now argue that that with the pervasive use of digital media throughout our economy and culture, we also have to confront a digital literacy problem. If our people lack the skills for using digital tools, this complaint says, our economy and society will suffer.

The response by some in the education community is that we shouldn't spend resources on digital literacy until we solve the literacy problem; the ABCs and the 123s must come first. Learn to read a book and do basic math before going on Google, joining Facebook, or playing a multi-player video game. Above all, they say, kids must know how to write to express ideas, and that means mastering the structure and grammar and spelling of their language.

This, in our view, ignores the opportunity created by how children are now growing up. With today's social media, using literacy skills is like a dessert that can motivate kids to go on to the spinach. Why? Children today learn to read and write through games and social media before anything else. Their digital engagement is a reality we should leverage.

Digital literacy is today's engaging portal to all other kinds of literacy.

We can use the way they learn today -- consuming and composing in varieties of digital media -- to empower the learning of anything and everything. For example, we know kids who may not naturally grab the newspaper to read news about climate change or obesity, read it like crazy when they play games about climate or obesity. The reason is simple: they want to figure out how to play at a higher level, or represent the information in games they design.

Leveraging this natural inclination for digital literacy into a cognitive tool for all kinds of literacies has many benefits. It's critical for economic growth; being productive in our knowledge economy will not be possible without knowing how to use digital tools. It also won't be possible to be an engaged citizen without knowing how to use the primary means of obtaining and responding to news and information. If digital literacy is the essential portal to all other forms of literacy, it is increasingly a necessity for every individual who seeks to realize his or her full potential.

Some acknowledge the new reality but then argue there is no need for digital literacy programs as all kids develop digital literacy on their own. Well, we wish that was true. But it isn't. As we learned while developing the National Broadband Plan, millions of kids don't have access to broadband in their homes and are falling behind their peers in developing digital literacy.

While the digital divide -- the gap between those who have and know how to use and program digital tools and those who do not -- is thankfully lessening, the cost of digital exclusion is rising. As more people gain access to broadband, digital fluency is spreading. At the same time, however, more and more services are now online -- many exclusively online -- which means that those without digital access and knowledge are falling farther and farther behind, and the cost to them grows greater.

This is a critical issue for the economy; the share of Americans using high-speed Internet at work grew by 50 percent between 2003 and 2007. Without digital skills, individuals will not be able to find, train for, or perform the jobs our economy requires. It also is critical for having a healthy society, as increasingly the information one needs for education, for health care, for participating in community affairs requires the skills to navigate in a digital world.

In the knowledge society of the 21st century, the difference between literacy and digital literacy will be meaningless. The literacy challenge is not solved in debating which to do first; both are necessary. Rather, the solution rests in taking advantage of todays kids' craving for digital literacy to finally transform our diets into a society with universal literacy.

(Photos taken by Idit Harel Caperton in Globaloria Classrooms in WV and Texas)

Blog Authors: Blair Levin is currently a Fellow in the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. He lead the team that wrote the National Broadband Plan. Blair served as chief of staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt from 1993 to 1997, where he oversaw the implementation of the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act. Idit Harel Caperton has been a participating memeber of the Aspen Institute's Communications and Society Program in the past decade, contributing to the Institute's mission "to promote integrated, thoughtful, values-based decision making in the fields of communications, media, and information policy." Idit is the President and Founder of the World Wide Workshop, a NYC-based nonprofit known for their innovative Globaloria Platform, a live example of integrating basic literacy with digital literacy by using broadband learning networks to serve public schools in low-income communities in West Virginia, Texas, and NYC (and growing). The authors collaborated on this blog post in the context of three seminal initiatives and reports lead by Charlie Firestone, funded by the Knight Foundation, and published by the Aspen Institute: 1. "Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age;" 2. "Universal Broadband: Targeting Investments to Deliver Broadband Services to All Americans:" and 3. "Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action."