We are living in a digital society, and while most everyone is a digital citizen, almost no one has ever learned about digital citizenship. The Florida Center for Cyber Security (Cyber Florida), the Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT), and New America — a leading nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank — have combined efforts to change that. They have developed a curriculum called Cyber Citizenship, which is intended to help students in Florida elementary, junior high, and high schools learn about digital citizenship.
Dr. Ron Sanders, Staff Director for Cyber Florida, tells Parentology that the program was started based on a fundamental need.
“In this virtual world, people don’t know how to be good cyber citizens,” he says. “They don’t know how to separate fact from fiction, how to filter out mis- and disinformation, and there are lots of folks operating on the web that are happy to take advantage of that.”
Cyber Citizenship is designed to help students learn to think for themselves, to discern what information is valid and relevant to them and, ultimately, to form their own opinion. “We’re not preaching a particular point of view. Rather, we’re trying to teach some pointers, tips, principles, [and] guidelines that would help them reach their own conclusion and not just mimic somebody else’s.”
Digital Citizenship in Schools
Florida’s program is not the first of its kind in the United States. Diana Graber developed the Cyber Civics curriculum 11 years ago to address this need, and now schools in 48 states teach it as a weekly course for grades 6-8.
“The curriculum starts with digital citizenship, which is the safe and responsible use of digital tools, moves into information literacy — knowing how to find, retrieve, analyze, and use online information — and then finishes with media literacy, which is learning to use critical thinking skills to analyze media messages,” Graber explains. There’s a lot to cover, and it’s tough for parents who didn’t necessarily grow up with the internet. However, Graber notes, “When students learn these skills together in the classroom, they create the social norms they will take into their digital world. That’s very important because parents and teachers usually aren’t online with them to ensure nothing goes wrong.”
These schools often use Graber’s program as an English Language Arts class because the lessons align with the Common Core English Language Arts standards.
Florida’s pilot program will be the first statewide initiative, but the hope is that the curriculum will be replicated elsewhere within the United States. And, Sanders says the program will eventually be made accessible to any educator that would like to use it.
“The idea is to create a community of educators and researchers that can share,” he adds. “The tactical goal is to equip educators in the classroom with lesson plans, syllabi, exercises, games, [and] all of those things that help kids learn and research on the use of these things in the classroom.”
It appears that those tools are needed and welcome. Sanders says that the initial interest by educators and researchers to participate in the test group has far surpassed expectations. The payoff could potentially be huge as well, as evidenced by Graber’s program.
District Administration quoted Shaheer Faltas, a charter school’s outgoing executive director, saying, “In the first two years after implementing Cyber Civics, the school’s Academic Performance Index score grew from 766 to 878 — the highest in the school’s history.” They added that only three incidents of poor digital behavior or online bullying had been reported since 2010 (the article came out in 2015), and none had occurred between 2013 and 2015.
Sanders wants the Florida program to “teach [kids] to think for themselves, which means they should be on the offensive when sourcing information. We want them to be more discerning on what they pick up on social media.” He’s also hoping that exposure to this program encourages more young students to explore the field of cybersecurity as a career. “There are estimates, just in the US alone, of cybersecurity-related vacancies between half a million and two million.”
While individual schools or districts pay for Graber’s Cyber Civics program, the Florida Center for Cyber Security is utilizing part of its budget, which is funded by the state of Florida, to get Cyber Citizenship up and running. How that program expands on a state by state or even national level remains to be seen. The goal is to share the information and to help as many students and teachers as possible, however, Sanders says that may require more funding.
“What we’re hoping is that we will be able to do some fundraising because it will take more for this to go national,” he says.