07/10/2012 02:18 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Digital Literacy Beyond Social Networking

At its core, digital literacy refers to the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using new information and communications technology. Possessing digital literacy skills entails a working knowledge of current advanced technologies and, more importantly, a substantive understanding of how broadband-enabled tools can be used to enhance one's life.

For the last two decades, very few jobs required such specialized technological skills. However, in 2012, nearly every occupation requires some level of technological proficiency. Though indicative of the times in which we live, this dynamic prevents tens of millions of minorities from participating in the ongoing digital revolution. Children raised in unconnected homes lack easy access to a computer and high-speed Internet connection during their formative years, thus perpetuating the existence of a digital divide that has left more than half of all black and Hispanic households unconnected to broadband. The result of this cycle is a minority workforce lacking in the digital literacy skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century.

Why does this matter? Despite an otherwise stagnant job market, high tech employment is on the rise, with sectors like the market for smartphone app development set to explode as more and more consumers adopt advanced mobile devices. Minorities who lack technological skills and experience will not be able to compete for these types of jobs. Moreover, as discussed on BBSJ and analyzed at length in MMTC's jobs report, the current composition of America's high tech workforce leaves much to be desired with regard to diversity. With minority representation lacking at many prominent companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the high tech sector, it is clear that something has to change in order to reverse these troubling trends.

MMTC has proposed concrete steps to improve digital literacy. In our 2008 Road Map for Telecommunications Policy, we suggested that media, telecom, and Internet operations and policy should be taught as the equivalent of earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics in high school. This would be accomplished by moving earth science down to the eighth grade, biology to the ninth, and creating room for a digital literacy course in the tenth grade. As stated in MMTC's Digital Beloved Community published last year, "By institutionalizing programs designed to expose, educate, and develop a culture of Internet use within the school system, we can better prepare the next generation as they progress within our digital society."

Although a mandatory class hasn't been created to teach digital literacy, the Obama Administration has made digital literacy a national priority. In his State of the Union address in January 2011, for example, President Obama emphasized the need for an increased focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in American schools. The president has since launched many initiatives to that end, including the Educate to Innovate campaign to increase STEM education overall and also expand STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Commerce launched a ground-breaking federal digital literacy initiative last year that aims to provide all citizens with an equal ability to develop critical 21st century skills. The initiative's website,, is a portal used to collect and share resources related to computer education and training. It also offers examples of successful public-private broadband adoption initiatives and best practice guidelines for bolstering digital literacy at the local level.

These and other recent efforts, combined with the rising popularity of many broadband-enabled applications, have had some success in closing America's digital divide. Indeed, several studies reveal that a growing number of minorities are using the Internet for multiple reasons, foremost among which is social networking. For instance, a Pew Internet & American Life Project report noted that 25 percent of black Internet users and 19 percent of Hispanic Internet users have active Twitter accounts, more than double the amount of white users. Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact Communication also reported that blacks and Hispanics are much more likely to engage with and learn about social issues through online social networks than most other user groups.

These promising trends indicate an innate willingness among minorities to adopt cutting-edge technologies. However, the dynamics underlying this phenomenon needed to be identified and applied to the millions of minorities who remain without a broadband Internet connection. Building digital literacy training into K-12 education is certainly an important first step since it provides new users with a tangible value proposition for going online. But we need to do more to ensure that these gains - in schools and on social networks - are sustained in the near term and maximized over the long term. Doing so will level the playing field for minorities and usher them into a new world of equal economic opportunity.