Common Sense Media Overhauls Popular Digital Citizenship Curriculum

By Benjamin Herold — June 25, 2018 6 min read
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One of the most widely used K-12 digital-citizenship curriculum in the country is getting an overhaul—further evidence of the growing challenge schools face in dealing with fake news and helping students understand the ethical concerns surrounding big technology and social-media companies.

“We want every K-12 school in this country to teach digital citizenship so that our young people are equipped with the skills they need to thrive in the digital age,” said James Steyer, the founder and CEO of San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media.

“Educators need resources to keep up with today’s fast-changing media and technology landscape, especially because the walls between school and home have come down.”

About 500,000 educators and 72,000 schools are registered users of Common Sense’s existing digital citizenship curriculum, which has been available for eight years.

Significantly updated versions will be released for various grade levels throughout the coming school year, starting with grades 3-5 this August. Common Sense Education, a division of the larger nonprofit, is presenting a “sneak peek” of the new curriculum this week at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, being held in Chicago.

In addition to an expanded focus on media literacy, the new curriculum will be geared more towards helping students navigate thorny digital dilemmas. It will also be more “open,” making it easier for teachers to access and adapt it to their own classrooms, and it will be integrated with Google’s online tools for schools.

Not yet clear, however, is the extent to which the new curriculum will include a critique of the larger social, economic, and political forces at work in the technology industry—a lens that some critics say is sorely needed in the digital citizenship field.

By and large, the changes are big news for a field that is in the midst of a rapid expansion, said Renee Hobbs, the founder and director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island.

“Common Sense Media is the 800-pound gorilla in the media-literacy landscape,” Hobbs said. “We should all be happy that this market is growing. There’s a lot of [room] for innovation.”

Broadening online responsibility

Common Sense’s digital citizenship curriculum has long sought to balance online safety with strategies for empowering students to use digital media in creative, empowering ways.

There’s also long been a focus on helping students reframe how they think about online responsibility.

That orientation derives in large part from the organization’s long-standing partnership with Project Zero, a research center based at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

A study of how young people view the moral and ethical dimensions of their online activities helped inform Common Sense’s curriculum from its earliest days, said Carrie James, a principal investigator with Project Zero.

“We found that when making decisions online, young people tend to think first and foremost about consequences for themselves,” James said. “We wanted to push that sense of responsibility out to a wider public and broader community.”

But as mobile devices have become more ubiquitous and social media has become an increasingly central part of adolescents’ lives, that has become more challenging.

Consider, for example, how fraught a single Instagram post can now be. Not just for the individual teen, who has to think about how that post might appear to parents, friends, school principals, college admissions officers, and prospective employers. But also for any other people included in the picture, for those who might feel excluded by not being in the picture, and for those who might view the post and be influenced in some way by the content it contains.

Through ongoing surveys and interviews with parents, educators, and students, Project Zero has been seeking to identify such key issues and dilemmas in the field.

That work is in turn influencing Common Sense’s curriculum refresh.

Cyberbullying and sexting continue to be top-of-mind issues. But increasingly, so are fake news, hate speech, bogus accounts, digital self-harm, and a general sense of struggle to create “digital well-being.”

That’s led to updated topic areas, as well as a new focus on what James described as “thinking dispositions and habits of mind.”

What does that mean in real life?

One of the educators interviewed for the Project Zero study put it well, said Emily Weinstein, a post-doctoral research fellow on the project.

“She can quiz her students on the definition of ‘sexting’ as many times as she wants, but that doesn’t help a teen alone in their bed at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, trying to make a decision,” Weinstein said. “It’s about being able to recognize that you’re facing a dilemma, thinking about your decision, and being able to act on a different set of considerations.”

New trends in media literacy

Among the “essential questions” guiding the refreshed curriculum now are:

  • How can I use media in healthy ways that give meaning and add value to my life?
  • How can I keep private information safe and secure?
  • How can I connect positively, treat others respectfully, and create a culture of kindness?
  • How can I be a critical media consumer, creator, and share my voice with the world?

Lessons might get at those questions by helping elementary students learn about effective online searching, asking middle school students to explore “digital drama and other forms of online cruelty,” or engaging high school students in scenarios in which they have to de-escalate a bullying situation or consider the impact of online hate speech on other people.

Such strategies reflect trends that have been emerging in the media-literacy field, said Hobbs of the University of Rhode Island.

“Fake news has been really good for media literacy, in that there’s been an explosion of interest,” she said. “People are carving out fresh perspectives and different strategies. It’s a really exciting time.”

One concern that Hobbs has is that Common Sense, because of its size and influence, doesn’t crowd out other voices offering related resources. Teachers and librarians should get a “full range of voices and perspectives,” she said.

Given ongoing privacy concerns surrounding Google’s data-collection practices, in both the education and consumer spaces, there could also be questions over Common Sense’s decision to tie their curriculum to the company’s tools, such as Classroom. (“Google has most of the school market share. We’re just going with what schools are using,” said Kelly Mendoza, who leads Common Sense Education’s teacher professional-development work, in an interview.)

And others in the filed want to make sure that media literacy education includes opportunities for students to take a more critical look at structural forces at work in society at large, and the technology industry in particular.

“‘Justice-oriented citizenship is a citizenship type rarely cultivated in K-12 education,” wrote Kristen Mattson, the library media center director at Illinois’ Indian Prairie School District 204, in the summary of her ISTE session presenting research on the topic. “This type of citizen is passionate about responding to social problems by changing the systems that bring those problems about. Curriculum would include opportunities for students to study, analyze, and critique the interplay of social, economical, and political forces.”

While such a lens could be incorporated to some degree in Common Sense’s middle- and secondary-grades curricula, we won’t know for sure until early 2019, when those grade levels are expected to be rolled out.

Either way, whatever the group does is likely to have a big impact on the field, Hobbs said.

“Common Sense speaks a language that schools understand,” she said. “Its influence is felt all across the K-12 sector.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote about what “thinking dispositions and habits of mind” look like in real life. The remarks were said by research fellow Emily Weinstein.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.