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Making Sense of Digital Literacy Education

When the folks at Common Sense Media visited New York's Harlem Children's Zone to gain feedback about a digital literacy curriculum they were developing, they wondered if the concept would even register among the challenges of inner-city students and teachers.

They don't any longer.

"What we learned was that it was incredibly important," said Linda Burch, chief education and strategy officer of the nonprofit, San Francisco-based online education advocacy group, during a meeting at this week's ISTE 2010 ed-tech conference in Denver. "The issues of a cyberbullying or a bullying situation ... can get amplified on Twitter. It moves on to MySpace, people organize, and then it ultimately, in one case, led to youth violence. So [those teachers] see a very direct link between needing to educate their kids early about the basics of digital citizenship and how the technology amplifies all of that behavior."

Burch's observation reinforces the stance of the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Education, which have both indicated teaching digital literacy and citizenship—especially in underserved areas—must be a priority. And if Burch's goal of writing digital literacy and citizenship policy into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is realized, there's a good chance the curriculum CSM unveiled before the conference could serve as an unofficial national standard of sorts; FCC chairman Julius Genachowski was a founding member of CSM, and the group has already been a fixture in policy discussions.

"Our role has really been to say these issues of children's behavior [online] really belong in the center of education as opposed to justice and law enforcement," Burch said. "Because this is about empowering young people to navigate this world responsibly and ethically. And it's about doing that in the context of school and home."

Based on the research of Harvard University education professor Howard Gardner, the Digital Citizenship in a Connected Culture curriculum is framed around the principle that students must understand the impact of their digital conduct on themselves, their friends and family, and their greater community. But it also acknowledges the vast learning opportunities the online world provides, a balance Burch said is important to gain credibility.

Shira Lee Katz, a digital media project manager for CSM who helped develop the curriculum and sat in on many student focus groups, agreed.

Students said, "'Our parents can be scared of media and fearful about its impact,'" Katz said. "'We want to hear stories about kids who are doing great things with media. We don't want to be told this is bad.' They really cautioned against giving them warnings."

The curriculum, which is geared toward grades 6-8 , blends print, online, and video lessons, and has five units: Digital Life, Privacy and Digital Footprints, Self-Expression and Identity, Connected Culture, and Respecting Creative Work. Three units are already available for free online; Self Expression and Identity, and Respecting Creative Work will be available in August.

The curriculum conforms to content standards set by the International Society of Technology in Education, and will also be aligned to state standards and national Common Core standards if needed, Burch said.

CSM also just acquired the CyberSmart K-12! curriculum in an attempt to expand its own efforts beyond the middle school level. And there are other similar curricula in the marketplace, including one developed by ISTE and Microsoft, which focuses more on the use of the Internet as a research tool rather than a social forum.

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