Digital Passport™ Helps Educators Grapple With Hard to Teach Concepts of Digital Literacy and Citizenship

September 11, 2012
Sarah Jackson
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom

As the school year begins, you may be wrestling with how to better prepare your students to live in an increasingly digital world. With technology more prevalent than ever in classrooms, educators know they should be teaching issues like online privacy, cyberbullying, and copyright. But if you don’t feel prepared, you’re not alone. Luckily, there’s a new tool--Digital Passport-- to help you sort it out.

We’ve talked with teachers around the country who are trying out Digital Passport, Common Sense Media’s newest interactive curricular tool. Turns out, with the right support, arming students with these crucial digital literacy skills is easier than it appears.


Like students across the country, kids at Thomas J. Waters Elementary School in Chicago love their technology.

“They are exposed to everything,” technology coordinator Susan Termini says of her kindergarten through eighth-grade students. “They go home and they’re online and if they don’t have it at home, they are accessing it somewhere else.”

Termini says that even very young children at her school are using social networking sites like Facebook, and definitely by middle school, and it’s not uncommon for kids as young as age 9 to have their own Facebook pages.

“I even had a second grader once tell me he had a Facebook Page,” Termini said. “If they have an older sibling who’s using a social network, a lot of them come on that way too. ”

At Waters, Termini and her colleagues have designed a technology program that provides students with ways to use media to share what they are learning and express themselves creatively. Students learn word-processing, spreadsheets, as well as basic programming and presentation skills and, of course, how to use the Internet to find information.

For the past several years, the school has received special funding from the State of Illinois for iPads to support instruction in third and fourth grades. Students used apps like StoryKit to write and illustrate their own work. They’ve even been conducting video interviews of teachers and community members.

But like many educators, Termini is concerned about the unfettered access her students have to technology in the off-school hours. In addition to teaching students how to use technology to find their own creative voice or to prepare them for the working world, she feels it’s her responsibility to also teach them how to be safe and responsible online and when using new technologies --that is, how to be good digital citizens.

“They [students] need to understand that there’s a responsibility that’s attached to using technology,” she said. “They need to know that there are ways to protect themselves when they’re online. They need to know what their options are and what their responsibilities are. We don’t want them to feel scared, but we want them to know how to be safe too.”


An Student-Led Interactive Curriculum: Digital Passport

For help in this arena, last year Termini turned to Common Sense Media. This spring she piloted a new interactive curriculum with their fourth- and fifth-grade students called Digital Passport.™

A student-led, online curriculum currently available for grades 3–5, Digital Passport™ combines videos and games with direct instruction and discussion that helps educators guide students through difficult concepts such as online safety and security, privacy, cyberbullying, copyright and creation, and finding information online.

Students can complete the activities at their own pace and in the order they choose, earning badges as they complete the coursework in each topic area.

Termini and her students were one of 26 teachers and 1,500 kids in classrooms around the country who tried the new curriculum last year. And the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

"The curriculum was beautifully designed to really provoke discussion," said Lisa Taylor, a school librarian at P.S. 199 in New York City.

Taylor, who is also an assistant visiting professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Pratt Institute, says that despite the fact that her students are on social networking sites at very young ages, they do not have a very deep understanding about how to develop a safe personal online identity. Taylor says she valued the opportunity to talk with students about what is safe to share online and when.

Digital Passport’s blended learning model (combining teacher-led classroom instruction with self-guided, technology-rich learning) helped reinforce these concepts in multiple ways, taking advantage of different student learning styles.

"This generation, more than ever in the years I’ve been teaching, are being introduced to devices and gadgets and all these different tools that the older generations aren’t all that familiar with,” she said. “It’s definitely a changing world and the program balances the real teaching involved in delivering instruction, getting kids to think critically and deeply, with the tools needed to augment and support learning. It covers many bases."


Teaching Students to Search

Back in Chicago, Susan Termini says she has watched many of her students struggle with online searching. Termini found “Search Shark” particularly useful, one of the games in Digital Passport™ that helps students practice selecting keywords most relevant to a search prompt.

“I really liked the ‘Search Shark’ because it’s so important for them to know the best ways to get information,” she said. “So often I watch them search, and they are still typing whole sentences in when they search. So it’s nice to have another way for them to see that you have to focus in on the key concepts.”

In the game, students are given hints for narrowing their search results and finding the information they are looking for. Players are asked, for example: “Where do Koala bears live and what do they eat?” They then have to identify what key words they would use to find the answer. Hint: “hungry” and “furry” are not the best key word choices.  Students can also watch a video about 12-year-old Solmon, a die-hard baseball fan, on a quest to find out which pitcher has the best record for no hitters. 


Mix-n-Mash With The 'Me Generation'

Similarly, Michael Lamoureux, a technology specialist in Portland, Oregon, says it’s very common for his students to struggle with giving proper attribution to music, video, pictures, or other creative work they find online.

In another game in Digital Passport™, “Mix-n-Mash,” players have to remix media content to create a new creative piece of their own. Along the way students must give proper credit to the artists whose images and sound clips they use.

There is also this video of 14-year-old Henry who is struggling with how to give attribution for the footage he used in the mashup video he posted on YouTube.

“I think its really cool that anyone just sitting in their bedroom can take music and make it something different and send it out to the world,” he said. But YouTube pulled the audio out of the video Henry posted, leaving him with some common questions: “Three, four, five seconds of footage which is what I did. I’m fairly certain that that’s protected under fair use,” he says. “… It might not be.”

Lamoureux used Digital Passport™ with his sixth-grade students at Ocean Avenue School in Portland last year. He said some of the more rich discussions in his classroom took place around copyright issues.

“A lot of bloggers will term this the ‘me generation’ because kids think they are entitled to a lot of things digitally,” Lamoureux said. “This module helps kids understand digital property – music, writing, art, things that are easy to download straight from Google – to help them understand this could be damaging in a way they never thought about before.”


Rich Classroom Discussion

In his classrooms, Lamorueax says that for many students the “grab point” was really the games, but the class discussions were very rich as well, often going on for twice the time allotted. The material and ensuing discussions often help the educators in the room gain a better understanding of how technology is affecting all parts of their students’ lives.

Teachers, he says, came away with a deeper understanding of how kids use technology at home and the realization that even “digital natives” still very much need digital literacy education.

“The level of technology proficiency really depends on your lens,” Lamoureux said. “A student could, for example, be really good at the Internet, and not know how to do anything else. Being really good at one thing does not make them proficient.”

An added bonus of Digital Passport™ is it allows teachers to assess their students varying abilities.  As students play the games, Digital Passport™ quantifiably tracks student progress in skills that can be tough to assess, giving educators and parents an easy way to measure kids’ readiness to be responsible in using online applications and mobile devices.

The tool also allows administrators to compile individual teacher reports into a school-wide report that they can then use to demonstrate student learning around key digital citizenship concepts. This appeals to many districts looking to verify digital citizenship education for E-rate and other programs.


Mobile 101

Eileen Heller, a technology specialist at Kellom Elementary in Omaha, who also piloted Digital Passport™, surveyed her students and found that almost all the sixth graders owned their own cell phone. Her students, she says, are not at all affluent, and often the phones are passed down when parents get new ones. Heller says her students use their phones mostly for texting their friends, but have trouble understanding how to set boundaries. A lot of them, for example, talk about sleeping with their phones next to their pillow at night.

“My mom likes me having a cell phone because I can stay connected with her,” 11-year-old Amaya says in one of the video vignettes. “I like to have a cell phone because I get to play games on the Internet, share photos with people, text my friends.”

Heller said many of her students could really relate to Amaya’ story, especially when she discusses how being up late texting made her tired the next day at school, and her discussion of a friend’s hurt feelings when another girl was texting and calling someone else often in her presence.

Educators say that although often hard to teach, these skills can be very important skills for students to gain as they become more technologically fluent at younger ages.

In the accompanying game, “Twalkers,” students learn why it’s important to avoid multitasking with a cell phone and consider the benefits of focusing on one task at a time. Students discover how hard it is to do two things at once like answering the phone while getting the “Twalkers” to go where they need to be.

“My kids found it very challenging,” Lamoureux said, noting it was one of his favorites. “They were frustrated. And that worked very well.”

Lamoureux said his colleagues are often hesitant to tackle digital literacy in their classrooms because their time is so limited.

“This is something new and they are already being bombarded with so many new initiatives,” he said. But he found the tools to be really easy to use and set up.

“They kept it free, which is outstanding. But they’ve also they made it easy.”

Eileen Heller in Omaha agrees. “This is part of our standards for technology. It’s embedded in our language arts curriculum,” she said.  “It gives teachers a platform to teach these issues, instead of having to create all of it ourselves.  … And I could tweak it in whatever way to make it useful for my classroom.”

Both are planning on using the tools again this fall. You can sign up to use Digital Passport™ in your classroom here.