To say a strong international flavor permeated Rita Cole’s classroom of third-grade English language learners at Nimitz Elementary School this year would be something of an understatement.
Nimitz, you see, is squarely situated in Silicone Valley and part of the Cupertino Union School District. The school attracts a diverse subset of immigrant students who’ve come to America only after one of their parents hired on at a high-tech company like Apple or Google.
“Because I work in Cupertino, we’re not talking about English language learners from America,” Cole said. “We’re talking about English language learners from all over the world. So I’m always differentiating for the class.”
Yet for all their linguistic and cultural differences, Cole’s third-graders shared one attribute in common: a native fluency for navigating technology. Thus, when Cole utilized Common Sense Media’s online game Digital Passport this year as a tool to help teach her students about Internet literacy and digital citizenship, the kids consumed the curriculum with aplomb.
“Whenever you bring in some sort of gaming or app like Digital Passport to reinforce the lesson, it’s always great. It lets the kids totally grasp all the concepts, and they really enjoy it,” Cole said.
In an increasingly hostile online environment, children need to be taught the basics about maintaining civility and protecting privacy on the Internet. Just this week the federal government beefed up the protections afforded by the Children’s Online Protection Privacy Act that had been in place since 1998.
As Cole’s experience with third-graders in Silicone Valley illustrates, the use of cutting-edge technology can be an effective way to impart and reinforce essential principles of online conduct. Accessed by 185,755 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders during the 2012-13 school year, Digital Passport will now seek to lengthen its stride after Common Sense Media’s recent announcement that this curriculum, once limited to educators, is now immediately available to parents as a touch-screen app for tablets and smartphones.
The Bay Area-based Common Sense Media launched its Digital Passport educational outreach efforts last August as a free resource to aid educators in imbuing digital literacy to elementary-age students. Although for the past several years Common Sense Media has been a national leader in creating digital literacy curriculum for school-aged children, Digital Passport represented an escalated effort to speak to kids on their own terms.
“As Common Sense Media has gotten into (Digital Passport), the whole notion of digital literacy and citizenship really was driven out of a need that schools told us they had to make sure they could teach the subject matter,” said Mike Lorion, vice president and general manager of education for Common Sense Media.
Digital Passport’s mix of games and instructional videos are tailored for grades three through five and cover topics such as passwords, cyber bullying and privacy. Digital Passport seeks to protect children by imparting the baseline knowledge and online social skills they’ll need to safely navigate an ever-evolving online landscape.
“There definitely needs to be a way that these issues are addressed,” Lorion said. “But it can’t just be about protecting the children — it also needs to be a way that really puts the onus on them to understand appropriate behavior.”
By the close of the 2012-13 school year, 14,819 educators were signed up to use Digital Passport in their classrooms, and 37,104 students had earned a “digital passport” certificate signifying completion of the entire program.
Overwhelmingly positive reactions from teachers and children alike catalyzed Lorion and his company to explore expanding the reach of Digital Passport beyond just the classroom. But converting Digital Passport into an app for smartphones and tablets running Apple or Android operating systems wasn’t predicated solely on that popularity: Common Sense Media says children need to practice digital literacy on the devices they use at home even more than the school computers that are gilded with protective firewalls and aggressive filtering software.
“We can’t just rely on, say, the school’s network filter,” Lorion said. “That kind of filtering may keep kids safe from different types of online content, but (1) it doesn’t teach them the social skills they need. And (2) once they’re off the school’s network our research shows they spend more time on general networks than they do on protected school networks — how are they going to behave then?”
Common Sense Media may be a nonprofit organization, but there are huge overhead costs associated with creating something as sophisticated as the Digital Passport app. In fact, Lorion estimates the Digital Passport app’s cost would end up in the neighborhood of $1.99 per copy.
Yet due to a strategic sponsorship with Time Warner Cable, the new Digital Passport app costs nothing through the end of August.
“The way that we see it — and why we say it’s important for companies (to sponsor) things like Digital Passport — is digital safety is not an intuitive thing that you learn,” said Common Sense Media vice president of marketing and communications Colby Zintl. “Our kids are all digital natives, but at the same time there is a set of rules and behavior for even just keeping yourself safe and being respectful online that needs to be taught.
“These are not skills that you just are born with, and yet this is also not taught in a lot of schools. Big companies, especially when they’re putting these powerful tools into young people’s hands, have a responsibility to teach them a set of skills so they can maximize the opportunity and minimize the risk.”