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Curriculum teaches digital literacy and citizenship

commentary Common Sense Media rolls out a curriculum for middle school kids that respects youth while providing adult guidance for ethical, productive, and safe use of technology.

Video from new curriculum teaches students about their digital footprint Common Sense Media

commentary In my more than 15 years in the Internet safety field, I've seen a lot of programs designed to teach children how to use the Internet safely, but many have missed the mark because they too often focus on children as victims or at least passive consumers rather than as participants in our digital culture. But in this Web 2.0 world, kids aren't just consuming media, they're creating it and they have collectively embraced social media as a part of their lives. They don't go online; they are online--whether on a PC, a mobile device, a gaming console, or whatever comes next.

What's more, as the Berkman Center's Internet Safety Technical Task Force confirmed last year, the greatest risk to kids--aside from being denied access to technology and social media--is what they do to themselves and their peers. Whether it's bullying, sexting, or just posting information they might regret later on, kids sometimes venture forth in the digital world without fully understanding possible consequences. Today's kids may be tech savvy, but they still need guidance from adults to understand how to use this media in ways that are responsible and enriching as well as safe.

That's why I'm excited about a new curriculum being developed by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that's best known for its reviews of movies, games, TV, and books designed to help parents select media appropriate for their children.

The goal of Common Sense Media's Digital Literacy and Citizenship Initiative is to provide curriculum to help middle school teachers, parents, and kids themselves "raise a generation of responsible, smart, and safe digital citizens."

Kids, this is not your older sibling's Internet safety class. It's a whole new approach that's based not only on an accurate understanding of risk and youth culture, but on a foundation of respect for young people. From what I've seen of the curriculum, it doesn't lecture and it doesn't try to scare kids. It respects young people as active participants

The curriculum is based on the digital ethics framework developed by the GoodPlay Project, led by Harvard School of Education professor Howard Gardner. Gardner and his colleagues have done pioneering work recognizing that youth are not "passive consumers" of new media but "actively contributing to and defining the new media landscape." Still, according to a report, "Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Dialogue on the Ethics of Digital Life" (PDF), the project issued in October of 2009, "adults need to help youth think about online life in moral and ethical ways--and to act as moral and ethical digital citizens."

To that end, the Common Sense curriculum is built around these five units:

  • Digital life: "How the anytime-anywhere-everywhere nature of digital media requires responsible choices."
  • Privacy and digital footprints: How to manage privacy online.

  • Connected culture: How to build respectful one-on-one, group, and community relationships online and protect against cyberbullying.
  • Self-expression and reputation: Who we are in various online contexts and how to protect your reputation in the process.

  • Respecting creative work: How to get credit for original creations and respect others' creative property.

Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer

The curriculum has been tested in pilot programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, Omaha, and New York and will be rolled out nationwide in the fall.

To learn more about this curriculum, I spoke by phone with Common Sense Media's CEO Jim Steyer. You can hear the entire 13-minute interview by clicking here: