The word “vision” comes up a lot when people talk about Jeff Mao. The Learning Technology Policy Director for Maine’s Department of Education, Mao oversees the state’s remarkable 1:1 program. The program gives middle and high school students their own laptop. But Mao has taken the program a step further. He has forged a first-of-its-kind partnership with Common Sense Media to adopt their Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum. The curriculum helps teachers, administrators, and parents guide students to navigate the tricky of waters of life online.
Last week, Common Sense Media presented Mao with its “educator of the year” award for his groundbreaking work in Maine.
“For students to fully benefit from the laptops, they needed to know how to use them in a smart and ethical way,” Rebecca Randall, vice president of education programs at Common Sense Media said. “The state has really provided the support and professional development to teachers, and Jeff Mao has really been leading the vision on this from the very beginning.”
In a car on the way to the ceremony in San Francisco, Mao chuckled over the word “vision.”
“It’s my job to tell people in the state when something is coming and we need to be ready for it,” he said.
When the 1:1 laptop program started in 2002, there was no notion of Web 2.0; no one was talking about YouTube or Facebook or how to teach students to use these tools responsibly — because they didn’t exist yet.
“The vision of digital citizenship in 2002 would have been, don’t type in all caps because that’s shouting,” Mao said. But as we all know, everything has changed since then.
“As social media rose up we realized kids are now living online and that must drive policy changes in how we support schools,” Mao said. “How is technology going to force us to rethink our policies? That’s what we mean when we talk about vision.”
Behind Mao’s award and all the talk of vision is the story of how a state that was already ahead of the curve has continued to move forward in its quest to give students a relevant 21st century education.
A Common Sense Approach
The story really begins in 2000, when Maine’s then-governor Angus King proposed using budget surpluses to give laptops to every seventh and eighth grader in the Maine school system. In 2009, the program expanded into high school as well. While this put Maine in the vanguard of new learning methods, something was missing. Without a curriculum and educational materials in place, parents didn’t know what to fear and what to embrace, teachers struggled to adapt their teaching, and students blundered into the mistakes of novices in a new terrain.
Helping to educate parents and assuage their fears was a first step.
“We had a lot of parents saying, ‘well, I don’t want my kids to have a laptop if they’re going to be on Facebook at night,’ ” Mao said.
Worrying about what went on at home was not something educators spent a lot of time thinking about—it was not their territory. “But we realized that we owe them something, that we had to help,” Mao said.
In 2009, Mao met Rebecca Randall just as Common Sense Media was finishing its first foray into creating educational materials for online content. The material was designed to help schools educate parents not only about traditional media literacy issues like violence and commercialism, but also about emerging issues like Internet safety and digital citizenship. The latter includes issues such as learning about one’s digital footprint, privacy, how to live in a connected culture, self-expression, and respecting copyright on creative work.
“The lessons were so thoughtful and well constructed,” Mao said. “Finally we could say to parents, ‘well, here’s the reality. Here’s what social media really is. This is what people do with it. That’s a hard thing for the state to do on its own, but to work with an organization like Common Sense Media on it – it all just naturally fell into place.”
But parents weren’t the only ones struggling to adjust to a one child-one laptop world. Teachers were struggling as well.
“As you can imagine,” Mao said, “standing in front of a room giving a lecture when every kid in the room has a laptop isn’t going to work so well. It doesn’t leverage the fact that the kids have the laptops.”
Lisa Hogan, a middle- and high-school tech integrator in Maine, said teachers worried they lacked the proper know-how or materials to teach digital literacy skills let alone digital citizenship. “It was never a question of not wanting the technology,” Hogan said. “But teachers would say, ‘I won’t be credible,’ because they didn’t necessarily know the stuff themselves. In teachers’ colleges, still today, you’re not getting information on digital citizenship or literacy. They’re still being taught about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and that’s really not enough.”
Starting in the 2010-2011 school year, Maine schools began using the next iteration of Common Sense Media materials, focused now on teachers. Today, Teri Caouette, the Common Sense Media coordinator in Maine, travels the state offering professional development for teachers using Common Sense Media materials. A recent half-day workshop engaged teachers on why digital literacy education is necessary while helping them to pair the curriculum to grade level.
According to Caouette, teachers understand the importance of digital literacy and citizenship, but they sometimes feel overwhelmed with having something additional to think about and fit into an already crowded day.
“It’s hard. Teachers are stressed out,” Caouette said. “But dealing with kids who have computers, they understand that they need it. They want the kids to have it. So I help show them how it could fit into the curriculum.”
Laura Richter is a technical integrator with Maine’s Skowhegan School District. She’s been working with seventh graders on the Common Sense Media curriculum for nine weeks, while teachers observe. One of the big issues she’s been tackling is cyberbullying. In an early conversation, she said, students thought that an appropriate way to combat cyberbullying was through retaliation. Two weeks later, the group watched one of Common Sense Media’s “video vignettes,” in which a teenage girl talks about being ridiculed and condemned on a website after she’d gotten pregnant. The students then wrote a story with a bully, a target, a bystander, and an “upstander”—someone who stands up to bullying. During a discussion about the video “not one of the students said anything about retaliating,” Richter said. “After they’d processed it and looked at the issue through an empathetic lens, they understood the issues differently. I was so happy.”
Another Common Sense Media video vignette features a teenage girl whose skinny-dipping adventure was posted online. “Kids can relate to these stories,” Lisa Hogan said. “When our eighth graders saw that they were jumping up and saying ‘I know someone that happened to!’ So the whole issue of what do to in these situations comes up really organically. These videos really help teachers engage kids in discourse and discussion.”
In the Classroom, A Curriculum That’s Modular and Flexible
Last year, Bill Hale, a humanities teacher at Mt. Ararat Middle School decided to integrate the Common Sense Media curriculum into his social studies class, rather than teaching it as a stand-alone unit. During discussions with his eighth grade students about how the government works and First Amendment rights, Hale wove in lessons about privacy online and how issues of free speech pertain to web culture.
“We created the curriculum to be something that would help kids develop their critical thinking around these issues,” Randall said. The curriculum, with more than 80 lesson plans and 40 videos, is designed to be “modular and flexible” to allow Hale to use it like he did.
The newest addition to the curriculum is called Digital Passport, a web-based tool for students in Grades 3–5 that includes video, games and classroom activities. It focuses on issues such as cell phone etiquette, privacy, how to be an upstander, how to search effectively, and handling attribution in the age of the mash-up.
Since the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) mandated that school have some sort of Internet safety education plan in place to receive E-rate support this year, even schools that aren’t as far ahead of the curve as those in Maine will have to consider these issues.
It really all comes back to the notion of vision. Jeff Mao helped get Maine rolling as the first 1:1 program in the country. Then he built a partnership with Common Sense Media to harness the power of that access. The question now is what the rest of the country will do.
“It’s really important that we talk about these things,” said Emily Esch, director of education marketing for Common Sense Media. “Maine put a stake in the ground. They said digital citizenship is important to us; it’s part of our vision of what a successful student looks like. As we go out and talk to other educators, whether at the state level or the district level, we say to them, ‘start with what you expect of your students, and what it means to be a successful student graduating from your school. Start with a vision.”
Photo courtesy of the Skowhegan School District.