Bridging the digital and literacy divides: How employee engagement can help

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By Dan Weisberg

DSC_0082Literacy skills have been critical to achieving success and position since the Industrial Revolution.  In today’s world — so dependent upon a grasp of the Internet and global communications –  these skills are more important than ever.

It’s no coincidence that there’s a strong correlation between the long standing “literacy divide” and the more recent “digital divide.”

Corporations and employees can play a great role in closing both those gaps.

President Obama has recently called for strong corporate involvement and a private/public partnership to address the digital divide. Just this past month, he invited corporate leaders to The White House to enlist them in specific tactics in support of the ConnectED program.   It wasn’t the first such meeting.

The ConnectED program, led by the U.S. Department of Education and the FCC, is designed to provide 99 percent of U.S. students with broadband access to the Internet within the next five years.  Many technology focused US corporations, some of whom will be represented at this year’s 2014 Charities At Work Conference, are being enlisted to support these goals as well.

Is there a tie-in for this important initiative with the arena of employee engagement?

By all means, yes. I’d like to explore some avenues by posing two areas for consideration, one broad and one narrow.

1)    Broad:  In general, how can we bring the resources of our employee engagement programs to join the effort in closing the digital divide?

2)    Narrow:  What is the nature of the intersection between the emerging strategic public/private partnership embodied in the ConnectED program, which specifically targets the nation’s K-12 schools, and our own employee engagement goals and programs?

There are many good answers to the first question.  I’ll suggest three.

  • Perhaps one the best known initiatives is the micro volunteering program offered through the Skills for Change program of Sparked, founded by Ben Rigby and Jacob Colker in 2010.   Employees, using a crowdsourcing model, can donate both time (even just 15 minutes in some cases), but also specific tied to their individual abilities and interests.  Rigby says that corporate partners see engagement rates achieve the 50 percent to 80 percent range.  Many of the supported nonprofits are specifically engaged in work around addressing the digital divide.
  • Another great program is the VolunteerMatch Solutions program, which, like Sparked, allows employees to sift through a wide variety of creative volunteer opportunities.  Unlike Sparked these opportunities tend to offer longer term commitments.  Look for folks from VolunteerMatch at this year’s Charities @ Work Conference in NYC in early April, in fact.
  • Many communities offer great volunteer opportunities for corporate employees to address the digital and literacy divides at the local level.  The Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford, for example, runs reading programs and computer labs targeted at building both general literacy and computer literacy skills, specifically for adults in the Hartford area.  Similar programs abound in cities across the US.

Let’s turn to the narrower question we raised above.   Are there effective ways that our employee engagement programs can support schools by leveraging the ConnectED program’s planned improvements in school-based broadband technology?

You bet.  I’ll offer two compelling options here – one a bit selfishly.

The first is focused on high school students.  This is the great eMentoring program icouldbe.   icouldbe’s provides “an online community where adults from hundreds of career paths support students from low-income communities as they make positive decisions about their future”.   Volunteers provide online mentoring support for one hour per week with their paired student.  Mentors report high satisfaction from their work with icouldbe.

Another option is the TutorMate program, in which, in full disclosure, I occupy a management role.  TutorMate focuses on much younger students – specifically on first and second graders, when their fundamental reading skills are ideally taking shape.

The program operates in a dozen major US cities.  Corporate partners recruit “teams” of employees who are paired with the same number of at-risk young readers early grade classrooms.  These students are typically lagging, and stand to benefit from a caring adult supporting their reading efforts for 30 minutes a week, during the school day, and entirely online.  The program was developed by 21-year-old nonprofit Innovations For Learning.

Both of these programs work directly with public school districts in typically underserved communities.  Hence they offer a terrific avenue for aligning “virtual volunteer” employee engagement programs, directly with the strategic vision expressed by President Obama’s high-stakes ConnectED public/private initiative.

In summary, the ubiquity of the internet within today’s office environments offers us a chance to meaningfully work to eliminate both older and newer “divides” within disadvantaged communities.

It does this by leveraging what we already know about mentoring and “communities of practice”, a term coined by well-known cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, in their 1991 book “Situated Learning”.  It means “groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Now we can extend this CoP model into the virtual realm as well, by engaging students in need through online channels.  And in the process we’ll gain a better understanding of ourselves and our community.

The programs noted above are but a few examples of the different approaches which eagerly await your organization’s further exploration and engagement.

Join Dan and other innovative companies April 3-4, 2014 for the Charities@Work 13th Annual Best Practices Summit on Employee Engagement in Corporate Citizenship.  The Annual Charities@Work Summit is one of the country’s leading conferences on employee engagement and corporate social responsibility. 

Attending will be Fortune 500 companies across all sectors of business, each with philanthropic and employee engagement programs of varying sophistication and a desire to collaborate on best practices for practical improvements.

Dan Weisberg is national director of Innovations for Learning’s TutorMate program. This article originally appeared on the website for Charities@Work.org.

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