President Barack Obama has said that America faces “few more urgent challenges than preparing our children to compete in a global economy.” Being able to understand and make use of the world’s vast telecommunications infrastructure is certainly part of that preparation. So it was no surprise when the White House issued its Cyberspace Policy Review last May that the document contained a call for the nation to “initiate a K-12 cybersecurity education program for digital safety, ethics, and security; expand university curricula; and set the conditions to create a competent workforce for the digital age.”
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the president’s cyber education pronouncement. Given recent media attention on cyberbullying, inappropriate texting, and teenagers’ hacking into school computers to change grades, it would be reasonable to think that cybersecurity is a topic being widely discussed in schools. But that is not the case.
Today, fewer than 10 states have implemented a comprehensive cybersecurity curriculum in K-12 schools. A recent Zogby International study conducted for the National Cyber Security Alliance, and supported by Microsoft, further found that America’s young people are not receiving adequate instruction to use digital technology, and are ill-prepared to make decisions regarding online safety, security, and ethics.
The NCSA-Microsoft K-12 study, which surveyed more than 1,000 teachers, 400 school administrators, and 200 technology coordinators, found that cyber education and related professional development for teachers fell short across the United States. A third of teachers had not taught any topics related to cyber ethics and more than 40 percent had not taught cybersecurity and cybersafety in the past year.
Perhaps the lack of classroom instruction is not surprising, given how few teachers have received professional development in this area, and how few K-12 curricula mandate lessons related to cyber ethics, cybersafety, and cybersecurity. The study also found that three-quarters of teachers had spent little if any time taking relevant training classes or workshops. Further, more than half of all teachers reported that their districts do not require cyber education to be included in the curriculum.
But there is hope on the horizon for the White House’s vision for cyber education. The vast majority of teachers, administrators, and technology coordinators—on average, more than 97 percent—agreed that cyber ethics, cybersafety, and cybersecurity should be part of the required K-12 curriculum, according to our survey.
Young people today are part of the first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age. As adults, they will live, work, and play in a globally connected world. For some, their digital footprints emerged before birth, when their parents shared a sonogram photo with friends via the Web. Many will create and post a YouTube video before they can ride a bike. For these young people, the idea of instant and far-reaching communication is a natural extension of their everyday lives, not a revolutionary phenomenon.
Already, as a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in January shows, kids are spending 7 ½ hours a day consuming “entertainment media,” with a large part of that spent online or on mobile phones. Perhaps most unsettling, only about three in 10 young people between the ages of 8 and 18 reported that their families had rules on the amount of time they could spend on computers (36 percent), video games (30 percent), and television-viewing (28 percent).
Yes, progress through technology is nothing short of remarkable; for young people, it can enable new, positive levels of social interaction and broaden the way they learn. But we must ensure that they have the foundational skills needed to thrive safely and securely in a digital economy. And those skills, taught through lessons on cyber ethics, cybersafety, and cybersecurity, must be part of K-12 curricula in all 50 states.
One year after President Obama’s Cyberspace Policy Review, it’s time for us to reach consensus on what young people need to learn and then move forward. We must recognize that cyber education is a shared responsibility. Government and the private sector, teachers and parents, school administrators and technology coordinators, and students themselves—we all must work together and make it a national commitment to educate all Americans to be safe and secure online.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Cyber Education: Achieving Obama’s Vision