Education experts are concerned that current curriculum is failing to prepare educators and K-12 students for the flood of digital information Americans are exposed to daily.
Fake news stories distributed online, children’s access to television shows without parental supervision and communication across the globe with people who might not be who they say they are – they all contribute to the concerns.
“The whole internet access, the whole connection to the world wide web without monitoring is definitely hugely alarming,” said Dan Snowberger, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R.
This connectivity can damage students who might not have the know-how to differentiate between what is real on the internet; what is a digitally spawned urban legend or how to question material that is difficult for them to rationalize; and challenge cyberbulling.
District 9-R’s effort to build digital literacy includes a trio of elementary teachers whose task is to identify skills needed to properly use technology, Snowberger said.
Over the next academic year, these teachers will create a systemic approach for the district, hopefully providing “clear direction to our kids about what is digital citizenship, what is safe use of internet resources, what is ensuring that the resource you’re looking at is credible and not one that obviously has ill intentions,” Snowberger said.
The need was reinforced earlier this year when District 9-R emailed parents with details about two potentially harmful influences – the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and the “Blue Whale Challenge” – that are troubling because of their association with suicide.
“13 Reasons Why” is based on a novel about a teenage girl who kills herself and leaves behind a series of recordings chronicling why she did it. Critics have said the series presents children with material that is hard for them to understand and have suggested that parents engage with kids who are viewing the show.
The “Blue Whale Challenge” is a rumored game that gives players self-destructive challenges and culminates with messages that encourage players to kill themselves.
Julie Popp, spokeswoman for 9-R, said reaction to the district’s email was supportive.
“There was a really wonderful response from many different families just thanking (Snowberger) for the information, for the talking points (and) for the resources,” Popp said.
Dangerous materialsMia Williams, coordinator of the Technology, Innovation and Pedagogy program at the University of Northern Colorado, said “13 Reasons Why” and the “Blue Whale Challenge” are two critical examples of the dangerous content available to K-12 students.
There are also messages, memes and stories that morph as they are spread around the globe, Williams said.
“(These) can get passed along, and who knows where it started and what the intent of that initial posting was ... It’s like a really big, intense game of telephone,” she said.
Something that was intended as a joke takes on a life of its own and ends up carrying real-world consequences.
Patrick Ferrucci, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, teaches media literacy, including how the internet can blow something out of proportion and negatively affect society.
An example Ferrucci uses is jenkem, a hallucinogenic gas created by fermenting human waste that was supposedly being used by teenagers in the U.S. to get high.
Despite a lack of evidence that it was true, new outlets such as The Washington Post and Fox News published stories about jenkem, and they spread rapidly because of the potential danger to children, Ferrucci said.
“People are protective of their kids, and one little word of it and then all the sudden these things start to snowball because people get concerned,” he said.
Ferrucci underscored the need to differentiate “unvetted, unverified” content with what’s real.
“There is a lot of non-reality on the internet and there’s a lot of good stuff on the internet, and I think this is where things like media literacy become really important,” he said.
Teaching digital literacyPrograms like Williams’, which focuses on implementing technology in K-12 classrooms and teaches children how to critically analyze the digital world they live in, helps.
Williams said teaching about the digital world uses the same techniques as teaching other subjects, but it requires a level of comfort with technology that not all teachers have.
“When we write, when we just do print material, words on a page, we look at examples and we mimic and we kind of start to get comfortable with what that style is like, and then we own it and we are able to create something completely of our own. It’s that same process, just using digital media,” she said.
Persuasive writing – used in advertisements – is an example teachers use. By interacting with advertisements, assessing the elements used to persuade – such as colors, fonts and images – and creating their own ads, children can have a better understanding about media that is trying to influence them, Williams said.
But not all educators have the level of exposure to digital media literacy that graduate students at the UNC program do, because technology implementation is generally limited to a single class, she said. It can lead to an ad hoc use of technology in classrooms with some teachers embracing it and taking a more measured in their approach, which doesn’t do justice to the digital world children live in.
“If we don’t change the way we teach and embrace the digital media and help our students become savvy with that information, then we’re doing a disservice to them,” Williams said. “I think I see that as the biggest danger, because the stuff isn’t going to stop coming and the new challenge is going to show up in the future. But if our students are prepared to understand what they’re really looking at, then they’re safer than if we just have them put their phone in a bucket.”