New learning tool teaches children to navigate the online world.
In little more than a decade, the Internet has gone from being a curiosity to an inescapable fact of life—and parents and educators are struggling to catch up. Early concerns focused on the “digital divide,” as schools and governments worked to assure Internet access for all students. As the Internet grew, however, the main issue became one of safety, as sensationalist media coverage prompted fears of students being contacted by “online predators.”
Recent research has shown that these fears, while not entirely misplaced, do not accurately reflect the reality of children’s online vulnerabilities. There are more prevalent issues that also need to be addressed: the arrival of Web 2.0—online services that rely on user-contributed content, such as YouTube and Facebook—has underlined the need to teach young people to manage their privacy. At the same time, the Internet has become students’ first—and often last—resource for research. Unfortunately, that research sometimes consists of little more than Google and Wikipedia, and hoax, commercial and hate sites are all too ready to take advantage of students’ lack of skepticism and authentication skills. Finally, in the years since its inception the Web has become overwhelmingly commercial, spawning environments such as advergames which seamlessly blend advertising and entertainment, with young people showing little awareness of the nature of these sites.
Our research report Young Canadians in a Wired World – Phase II (the most comprehensive and wide-ranging study of its kind in Canada) convinced us that there was a need for a comprehensive Internet literacy resource that could be used in Elementary and Intermediate classrooms. The YCWW research showed us that young people are actively interested in learning more about their online environments. The kids we spoke to in our focus groups felt strongly that what they need from adults is more information about the kinds of content they find online, so they can make informed choices about what they choose to see, as well as training in how to protect their online privacy and how to tell good online information from bad. The interest is highest among the children in Grades 4 to 6. This is a particularly important time to learn these skills because kids in these grades are playing on commercial game sites that actively seek to collect their personal information, and, by Grade 6, they are exploring edgier Web sites.
To meet this need, Media Awareness Network (MNet), a leading Canadian media education organization, has created a comprehensive Internet literacy tutorial, Passport to the Internet. Intended for classroom use in Grades 4 – 8, the Passport to the Internet program is designed to teach students key skills relating to online safety and privacy, research and authentication, online ethics and recognizing and decoding advertising. It does so by providing five modules that simulate popular environments used by young people, in which they are free to experiment and safely learn from their mistakes.
Young people told us that they are exposed to material all the time that they must choose to reject. They don’t find this decision process difficult and they explain that it isn’t as if they have to “sneak a peek” at a rare find of pornography or games of violence—rather, they must fend off material that they choose to avoid for their own reasons. The first module, Web Café, shows students how to judge a link, email, banner ad or search result before clicking it, to determine in advance whether it will be useful and appropriate.
Almost all (94%) of the top 50 sites students reported visiting in YCWW include marketing material. Over threequarters of kids who play product-centred games (advergames) think they are “just games,” not “mainly advertisements,” and lack of awareness of the commercial nature of these games is highest amongst younger students—82% of kids in Grades 4 – 6 say these are just games not advertisements. Co-Co’s Choco Match, a simulated advergame, teaches students to distinguish between legitimate information and advertising material on a commercial site while teaching them some of the “tricks of the trade” that online advertisers use to reach young consumers.
When students are asked what Internet-related subjects they would like to learn about in school, the top choice for 68% was “How to tell if information you find on the Net is true or not.” The interest was highest amongst the younger students—75% of Grade 4 – 6 students want skills to authenticate online information. Study Space begins with a mock search engine which teaches students to use effective searching techniques by leading them to three fictional Web sites whose content users must judge as being reliable, unreliable or simple opinion.
In describing what they would like to learn about the Internet, young people told us that efforts should be made to develop opportunities, particularly for young children, to learn how to think about choices, and to gain decision-making skills. Instant Pigeon lets students engage in four Instant Messaging conversations, where they choose how to reply to their online “buddies” in order to learn how to deal with stranger contact, uploading photos and videos, and cyberbullying.
Another major concern reported by students was online privacy: two-thirds of respondents (66%) say they would like to learn “How to protect your privacy on the Net” in school. Again, the interest was highest among younger students: 74% of Grade 4 – 6 students want skills to protect their privacy online. In MyFace, users are challenged to create an engaging social networking profile while maintaining their privacy.
Key to the Passport to the Internet approach is that each of the modules is interactive: students learn by performing the actual tasks they do online—using a search engine, carrying on a conversation, creating a profile. Instead of front-loading educational content before each module, Passport to the Internet lets users access what they need to know when they need to know it through the Help tool, which provides information about anything the student points to on the screen. Each module also ends with detailed feedback to help users improve their performance, and students are encouraged to re-visit each module as many times as they want to earn a perfect score. Throughout, Passport to the Internet takes a positive approach, reaching students through empowerment—teaching them to get the most from the Internet and take control of their online lives—rather than through scare tactics.
Designed for use in schools, Passport to the Internet provides teachers with a variety of tools for integrating it into their classrooms. It is provided in two versions, Junior (Grades 4 to 6) and Senior (Grades 7 to 8), each one customized to reflect students’ developmental level. In Study Space, for instance, older children research the issue of whether fast food should be sold in schools, and must judge the reliability of three sites based on some fairly subtle clues; younger children, meanwhile, investigate the more fanciful question of whether or not cats dream and are given more obvious hints to judge each site’s reliability.
The program provides teachers with tools to track each student’s progress through the tutorial, and notifies them when a module has been completed and whether the student earned a Pass or Best result. Teachers are also provided with a thorough Teacher’s Guide which gives detailed instructions for using the tutorial in class as well as background information on the major issues covered and suggestions for warm-up and extension activities tied to each module. Finally, curricular connections charts are provided to show teachers how Passport to the Internet fits into the curriculum for their province or territory.
MNet has been creating interactive Internet literacy tools since 1998, when it launched Privacy Playground: The First Adventure of the Three Little Cyberpigs (still available on the MNet Web site). With each project MNet has broadened its focus, adding resources that deal with topics such as online advertising to children, hate material and propaganda, and parenting in the Internet age. In addition to classroom Internet literacy resources, MNet also produces a group of professional development tools—the Web Awareness Workshop Series— which educates teachers about such topics as online safety, cyber bullying, privacy, marketing, research and authentication.
Passport to the Internet builds on these past efforts to create a resource that is more comprehensive, more interactive, and more technically sophisticated than anything MNet has done before. The program is available through a licensing arrangement as a stand-alone resource, or as part of the Web Awareness Workshop Series. For more information, or to preview Passport to the Internet, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Passport to the Internet partners are: Inukshuk Wireless Learning Plan Fund, TELUS, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Toronto Catholic District School Board, London Public Library, and Nortel LearnIT.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew Johnson is a Media Education Specialist with the Media Awareness Network.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s January 2009 issue.