A Plan to Connect All Americans to the Digital World

Nearly 50 years ago John F. Kennedy spoke to students about the enormous challenges and opportunities that lay ahead in the decade after the 1960s, and he urged them to take action and get involved. A year later, President Kennedy signed an Executive Order creating the Peace Corps. Today, nearly 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in more than 139 countries.

Twenty years ago, a new generation of young Americans seeking to make a difference in the world took advantage of President Clinton's AmeriCorps program and went to work for pioneering educational groups like Teach for America and City Year. Through the support of AmeriCorps, Teach for America has grown to include more than 24,000 current and former teaching corps members, who have taught approximately 3 million students in low-income communities across the country. Many alumni of Teach For America have gone on to start their own innovative education organizations, such as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a national network of 82 high performing public charter schools serving almost 20,000 students.

In 2010, it is broadband that could provide the gateway for opportunity for today's young people, impacting every sphere of life, including education, jobs, health care, civic engagement, and e-commerce. Yet, President Obama recently highlighted the troubling reality that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption: "Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online ... because that's how we'll strengthen America's competitiveness in the world."

Last month's Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that millions of Americans ages 8-18 still have limited broadband access -- from a low of 49% for those whose parents have only a high school education to a high of 65% for those whose parents have a college degree. And this is not just about young people. According to the FCC's most recent data, 35% of American adults have not adopted broadband.

President Obama was absolutely correct about the role the Internet and digital media can play in strengthening America's competitiveness. Yet to seize the opportunities promised by the digital revolution, our country must make sure that all of its citizens have the skills to take advantage of being online. That's why we believe that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's new vision for a Digital Literacy Corps is such an important idea. Like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, the Digital Literacy Corps will recruit youth and adults as volunteers to work in underserved communities, helping people get connected -- not only to broadband, but to the educational and economic resources that broadband can bring to the next generation of Americans.

Digital literacy is more than learning merely how to turn on a computer and adjust privacy settings. In our work supporting students at KIPP and educating parents at Common Sense Media, we see that helping someone get comfortable with basic technology is just a starting point. Young people understand how to find and need to know how to compare online sources, use overall critical thinking skills, and review and create content online. Digital literacy also includes preparing today's students to be smart digital citizens, who know how to behave ethically and respectfully in a rapidly evolving digital world. Strong digital literacy skills will enable new generations of Americans to more fully and positively engage in the world of today and tomorrow.

The model proposed by the new FCC National Broadband Plan is a powerful one. Motivated young people graduating college with skills but no job opportunities, and experienced workers struggling to find jobs can represent an army of digital citizens helping fellow citizens in their neighborhoods and in their schools and community centers. Now is the time to put a new generation of young people to work in a way that will help others develop the digital literacy they need to take advantage of 21st century opportunities. The Digital Literacy Corps should be a critical centerpiece of this new effort.

President Kennedy spoke to his "fellow citizens of the world." Today we must make sure that all Americans can be fellow citizens of the digital world. The National Digital Literacy Corps is a great way to start.