Katie Donnelly 

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization known for its comprehensive reviews of kid-focused media, has moved into the world of digital and media literacy education with the release of a new curriculum focused on digital citizenship.

Common Sense Media has a three-pronged strategy: to “rate, educate, and advocate.” The organization rates kids’ media for both quality and age appropriateness, examining each piece’s educational value, messages and role models, as well as incidences of violence, sex, inappropriate language, consumerism, and drug and alcohol use. In addition to providing reviews and ratings for more than 12,000 movies, TV shows, video games and other media, Common Sense Media provides national policy leadership on children’s media issues and works with schools and community organizations across the country, offering media literacy curricula, toolkits, and workshops. Common Sense Media’s Parent Media Education Program, a free online program that helps schools teach parents about 21st century media issues, was launched in 2008.

Last year, Common Sense Media branched out further into the world of digital and media literacy education with a new curriculum focusing on digital citizenship. According to the Common Sense Media website, this curriculum aims to “teach students to be responsible, respectful, and safe digital citizens.” Versions of this curriculum tailored for grades K-5 and 6-8 are currently available on the Common Sense Media website; one for high school students will be launched this summer.

This Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum fills a gap within existing digital and media literacy curricula, most of which is focused on helping people understand and create their own media messages. Instead, this curriculum focuses primarily on digital ethics and responsibilities, using engaging classroom activities to tackle issues like privacy, cyberbullying, online identities, and copyright and fair use. The curriculum includes three major strands:1) Safety and Security, which includes units covering privacy and appropriate online communication; 

2) Digital Citizenship, which, for grades 6-8, includes units on Digital Life, Privacy and Digital Footprints, Connected Culture, Self-Expression and Identity and Respecting Creative Work; and

3) Research and Information Literacy, which covers online searching, research and evaluation.

Many lessons in the curriculum combine digital and media literacy skills with reflections on ethical behavior. For example, one lesson in the Digital Life unit for grades 6-8, “With Power Comes Responsibility,” invites students to reflect on their own responsibilities to the online and offline communities in which they participate. An extension activity for this lesson plan has students create short comic strips depicting how digital superheroes can remedy “acts of poor digital citizenship.” This focus on ethics is a welcome addition to digital and media literacy curricula — while it is crucial for people to learn how to evaluate and create media messages, they must also learn to navigate the choppy ethical waters of new media creation and online interaction.

The curriculum is designed to be both flexible and modular, and can be implemented by a range of educators (including media specialists, technology coordinators, English teachers, health teachers and guidance counselors).

According to Rebecca Randall, Common Sense Media’s vice president of education programs, the distribution strategy for the curriculum aimed for “broad distribution as well as deep implementation and evaluation.” To achieve this, Common Sense Media made the entire curriculum available for free online. The organization also worked with national partners to achieve broad distribution, “building relationships at the top and working down.” Common Sense Media now has over 12,000 unique schools registered on its website, nearly 40% of which, says Randall, have registered in this school year.

In order to achieve “deep implementation and evaluation,” Common Sense Media worked closely with schools in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Omaha, New York City, Houston, and across the entire state of Maine. (In total, there were nine school districts, 76 schools, and over 9,000 students in 300 classrooms.) These schools were chosen to be “demonstration sites,” meaning that they were fully committed to implementing and evaluating the curriculum. The evaluation process, facilitated by an external evaluator, included multiple student assessments, teacher interviews and case studies. In return for participating in this extensive evaluation process, schools received on-the-ground support and technical assistance in the form of an onsite Common Sense Media representative. Having individuals provide hands-on support in each location streamlined implementation and evaluation — in addition to helping teachers, these individuals were able to document best practices and case studies to inform the evaluation.

Common Sense Media will receive the final evaluation report at the end of July, and the information will be made available to the public in a yet-to-be-decided format that will combine data with best practices and case studies. Findings from case studies and videos from demonstration school classrooms will also be highlighted on the just launched Common Sense Media blog. Common Sense Media is also in the process of developing a more robust and interactive online training for implementing the curriculum.

While there has been a tremendous amount of interest in this curriculum over the past year, Randall echoes concerns that digital and media literacy is still not as high a national priority as it should be. “Digital citizenship, like media literacy in general, is not mandated, not tested,” she says. And media literacy can end up getting the short shrift, “If a teacher has a choice to teach something that she knows the students are going to be tested on, versus something that’s critically important but not going to be on a standardized test.” Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Curriculum, which is aligned to national standards created by the International Society for Technology in Education, the American Association of School Librarians, and the English Language Arts Common Core, may just serve as a catalyst for the kind of national, school-based digital and media literacy education that is essential for citizens in a public media 2.0 world.

This article is part of our series on digital and media literacy education initiatives. Previous entries in the series include: PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab Program Ready to ExpandFTC’s Admongo Promotes Surface-Level Advertising Literacy, and Holocaust Museum Repackages Multimedia Propaganda Exhibit for Media Literacy Educators.