By Charles Couch
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Virginia students will learn the benefits and dangers of the Internet and other technology, and may be drawn to math and science careers, thanks to an online program being offered free to the state’s schools.
“Students today have access to the tools necessary to succeed – computers, the Internet, smartphones. But do they know how to leverage technology in a responsible and safe way?” said Virginia Secretary of Education Laura Fornash. “We owe it to our children and students to teach them how to use technology responsibly.”
Fornash and other officials introduced the program, called My Digital Life, at a press conference at the state Capitol on Thursday.
The computer program teaches students the inner workings of the Internet and how to use technology safely, Gov. Bob McDonnell said. It was created by Neustar Inc., which analyzes the Internet, telecommunications, entertainment, advertising and marketing industries, and EverFi Inc., an education technology company.
The program also aims to spark student interest in jobs that incorporate science, technology, engineering and math. Neustar is providing the program to public schools at no cost to the state, said Lisa Hook, the company’s president and chief executive officer.
Since its development, the Internet has dramatically changed the economy, education and other aspects of society.
“I can’t think in my short 57 years of anything that revolutionized American life more than the Internet,” McDonnell said. “People are just communicating in vastly different ways, and they’re also learning in very different ways.”
The changes haven’t all been positive. Schools, parents and students are concerned about Internet issues of privacy, security, cyberbullying and the irresponsible use of social networks, Fornash said.
The My Digital Life program is a course of about three and a half hours for eighth- and ninth-grade students. Through modules and simulations, it demonstrates how things like emailing, downloading, streaming and websites work, EverFi CEO Tom Davidson said.
As part of the course, students will learn “how to evaluate the risks of posting their personal information online, how to respond to cyberbullying and the obvious dangers of texting and driving,” U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said.
“Our kids are living their lives online, and this is a great new partnership to try to make sure that young people learn how to use the Internet and social media tools in a safer, more positive and responsible way.”
My Digital Life will not be a mandatory part of the state curriculum but rather a voluntary course option at the discretion of superintendents and principals, McDonnell said. “One of the best things we can do is to give young people sort of the no-nonsense pros and cons about Internet and cyberliteracy, and that’s what My Digital Life is all about.”
The initiative ties in with the governor’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, known as the STEM disciplines.
Hook said she hopes My Digital Life leads students to consider careers in STEM fields, such as those as Neustar. The company, which has about 700 employees in Virginia, analyzes and processes phone calls and text messages in North America as well 15 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, all on a daily basis, Hook said.
“It takes incredibly talented people with a science, technology, engineering and math background,” Hook said.
There is a growing demand for people with such skills. About 3 million STEM-based jobs are unfilled. By 2017, only 30 percent of all STEM positions will be filled by employees with an American education, Hook said.
“This is not just about digital literacy, and it’s not just about making children feel safe on the Internet,” Hook said. “But it’s teaching them how to conduct business on the Internet, how to set up a business, how to feel comfortable in a digital world and most importantly encourage them to go into STEM.”