Cyber Civics: Digital Literacy for Middle Schoolers

By Dirk Tiede, Cyber Civics Teacher

What is Cyber Civics and how does it fit into a curriculum at a school not usually known for using computers?

The answer is simple. Anyone who has paid attention can see how our world has changed since the introduction of the commercial internet, and even more rapidly since the introduction of the smartphone. It’s confusing enough for us as adults to navigate in this new frontier of constant online notifications, newsfeeds, and social media. But these tools—and they are ultimately just tools—are not going away. The answer is not to hide from them, but rather to learn to use them mindfully, so we are their masters and not the other way around.

As our students enter adolescence, we must prepare them to enter this online world with skills in critical and ethical thinking that are vitally necessary to use these digital tools beneficially. The Cyber Civics program will help guide our students toward having a solid foundation to build on as they begin using networked technology more and more in high school and into college.

In the sixth grade, the focus is on citizenship, ethics and getting some context on the technology we use as well as the history of technology and how inventions like writing and the printing press have affected culture and civilization since ancient times. The students will learn how a computer works—including taking one apart—before moving into the basics of citizenship, both online and off. We will also discuss how to deal with online identities and digital reputations that never really go away, privacy and how to deal with the specter of cyber-bullying. The curriculum primarily utilizes hands-on group activities, discussions and role-playing to challenge students’ critical thinking and ethical problem-solving.

The seventh and eighth grade curriculum focuses on online community, information literacy and media literacy. The focus will be on developing a better relationship with our devices, each other and moving from being a passive consumers of media to active, creative producers who can participate positively in a community. The program kicks off with an honest look at how we use technology in our lives and how much time we spend on media consumption with the goal of building a better idea of our own habits. With that knowledge, we’ll have a better chance at striking a better balance between online and offline life. We’ll cover topics of citizenship, online reputations, dealing with cyberbullying, issues of privacy and information literacy. The students will learn how to use search engines, sorting good information from bad with “C.R.A.P. Detection”—including how to spot fake news—and when Wikipedia is useful and when it isn’t. We’ll touch on copyright, fair use and plagiarism before diving into media literacy. There we’ll explore media stereotypes, how advertising is used to manipulate us, memes, remix culture, sexting and trolls. The course will culminate in a final project where the students will use their digital tools creatively to make something entirely their own, whether it’s writing a story, composing music, starting a blog, or making a video.

The information and tools the students will learn from a program like this will be invaluable as they enter the wider world, which, as educators, is our primary goal. We all know how easy technology is to use, it’s using it wisely that requires some training. Stay tuned for more posts on Cyber Civics here on the Chalkboard!

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