Cyber safety and ethics curriculum is teaching Catholic schools students to be responsible “digital citizens”
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
It seems like the children of this digital age are born knowing how to use the latest gadgets, from iPads to smartphones to laptops. They’re able to navigate blazing-fast networks with ease, connecting wirelessly to all the information and resources the Internet has to offer, with just the click of a mouse or the tap of a touchscreen. Modern technology has revolutionized the way these children study and learn, and how they’re taught.
These “digital natives” have received computer instruction in the diocese’s Catholic schools for some time now, and this year, an expanded and enhanced standard technology curriculum will be implemented in all the schools. In addition to building students’ skills, the curriculum will address other important aspects of technology use.
“Our students are digital natives who use technology regularly, and they are encountering new types of issues,” said Dominick Lisi, Director of Educational Technologies for Catholic schools. “Because of that, we saw an opportunity and a need to teach them about online safety and ethics as a part of their ongoing technology instruction.”
Last September, using a curriculum from the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, schools began teaching cyber safety and cyber ethics to students in kindergarten through 8th grade. Based on the positive feedback on last year’s initiative, the same curriculum will return this year.
The curriculum’s grade-specific lessons focus on three areas of technology use: safety and security, digital citizenship, and research and information literacy. The safety and security lessons discuss the importance of creating and keeping strong passwords, finding age-appropriate sites to visit and recognizing and avoiding online predators. The digital citizenship unit covers topics such as managing “digital footprints,” dealing with cyberbullying and understanding plagiarism and copyrights. Information literacy lessons teach students to perform efficient Web searches and to identify trustworthy information online.
One of the teachers who put the curriculum into practice last year is Laureen Howard, technology teacher at Notre Dame Elementary School in Utica. She said she and her students had a positive experience with the curriculum last year.
“The topics are relevant and the lessons are age-appropriate,” she said. “For example, I taught the young students about passwords and why it’s important to keep them secret. With the older students, we talked about [the implications of] sharing passwords, like opening yourself up to having your information altered or stolen.”
Howard said her students also found the lessons easy to relate to.
“The scenarios in the lessons are realistic and easy for the students to identify with,” she said. “The materials also talk to the students in their language, with the Internet slang and terms they use, which makes them feel more ‘real-world.’”
A number of the lessons “sparked some really insightful discussions” in Howard’s classes, specifically those on cyberbullying. In one scenario, a young girl was the target of an unkind webpage set up by her peers. Students expressed strong opinions about why they would never be a part such hurtful activities.
“Because of our focus on Catholic identity, we always talk about Christian behavior and treating everyone with respect. We discussed the importance of following those values in person and online. We also talked about how to stand up for someone else who is being bullied, how to be that ‘upstander,’” Howard said.
Students have taken the lessons to heart and are putting them into practice. Howard said that last year some of her students came to her about instances of bullying or suspicious behavior they encountered. “They’re questioning what is happening, not ignoring things or not saying something to someone. The lessons are helping them to think and be prepared,” she said.
Howard will continue to “hit home the important themes” in the curriculum this year. “The goal is that by the time they graduate sixth grade, they’ll be experienced, responsible digital citizens,” she said.
Part of ensuring students’ success is reinforcing the lessons at home. To that end, last year Lisi led about 10 workshops for parents at schools around the diocese. The sessions served to raise awareness about issues like cyber safety and cyberbullying, and to introduce the new curriculum.
“The workshop was wonderful and eye-opening,” said Judy Hauck, principal of Notre Dame. “He showed parents that predators are savvy and that it does not take much information for them to know who or even where a child is.” Hauck said the parents were happy and thankful to have the opportunity to learn more about cyber issues facing their children. Lisi received similar feedback and is hoping to present the sessions again this school year.
Hauck is glad to see these issues being discussed with children, both in and out of school.
“Our kids are raised with technology now. It’s ingrained in them,” she said, citing three-year-olds who can deftly navigate their parents’ iPhones. “We have to teach topics that are relevant to them in ways that are exciting.”
In the coming year, Lisi will be working to make sure educators can do just that. His goals for 2012-13, he said, include ensuring each school has the infrastructure in place to support technology initiatives, ensuring teachers have adequate technology to teach their 21st century learners, and continuing to put vital technologies into the hands of those students as well.
“Technology is what students today are using to learn,” Lisi said. “We are committed to making sure our students get a 21st century education that prepares them for the future — and one that has safety and Christian Catholic values at its core.”