From Passport to MyWorld: MediaSmarts extends digital literacy skills to secondary students

Someone encountering the Internet for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it was created specifically for teenagers. Indeed, the Internet could reasonably be said to have been aging backwards since its birth – the domain first of scientists and the military, then of university students in the 1990s and now children and teenagers. The same is true of many popular online environments: Facebook, once restricted to university students, is now just as popular with teenagers (indeed, recent research has shown that one in five 8 to 12 year-olds in the UK has a Facebook account, though the Terms of Service theoretically require you to be 13 or older). Whether it’s social networking, Wikipedia or iTunes, the Internet is tailor-made for teens: an intensely social environment that nevertheless feels intimate, providing constant stimulation and instant results. Unfortunately, for the most part teens receive little instruction in using the Internet, and most of what is taught is specific technical skills rather than how to critically engage with online media and use the Internet wisely and ethically. One obstacle to teaching digital literacy skills is the assumption that teenagers already know them, and there is no question that they are tremendously fluent in their use of online tools and environments – but fluency is not literacy, any more than a tenth-grader fluent in English knows how to write a competent paragraph without being taught.

In 2008, MediaSmarts launched Passport to the Internet, a comprehensive Internet literacy tutorial for Grades 4 to 8. This program, which has been adopted by schools across Canada, teaches students Internet literacy skills in five discrete environments that explore online safety, ethics, online advertising, evaluating Web content authenticity and privacy management.

When we began to design MyWorld, though, it was clear that a resource aimed at secondary students would require a very different approach. For teens, who are much more confident – sometimes overconfident – in their online activities, the Internet is not a collection of discrete environments. Instead they move seamlessly from window to window, multitasking and using tools such as Google, Wikipedia, Facebook and Flickr in tandem. For that reason we knew that MyWorld would have to simulate not just individual online environments but teens’ Internet experiences: a typical MyWorld task, for instance, might be delivered by Instant Mail and require a video chat with one of the student’s mentors on Live Speak before calling upon the student to use Googolplex to research a topic and then inform her peers on the topic through a post on SpaceFace.

Because teachers often have a limited amount of time to devote to teaching Internet literacy, the tutorial is divided into four chapters, each of which requires that the student navigate between all of the simulated environments. In each one the student participates in a story related to that chapter’s topic, and teachers are free to use only some of the chapters and have students complete them in any order. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of digital literacy: authentication of online information, privacy management, online relationships and behaving ethically online.

The first chapter deals with research and authenticating online information and addresses a number of issues which research has shown to be of concern to both students and teachers. Online scams, something teenagers repeatedly told us they were worried about, are addressed through a phishing e-mail that claims to be from MyMusicMart, an online music vendor; students need to know not to click on links within e-mails but instead use a search engine to find the legitimate Web site. Students also encounter online hoaxes in the form of the “Snowmageddon shelter,” a product being sold to protect against the threat of snow-based weapons. A warning about “keyboard crud,” meanwhile, sends the student to research its author to see if his professional credentials check out. Finally, students are asked to evaluate a Collaborapedia article to see if it is reliable enough to use as a source in an essay and find – if they look carefully enough – that it has been hijacked by a contributor with a particular agenda; students even have the opportunity to “flag” the article as being in need of revision.

In the second chapter, which deals with privacy management, players are taught how to select appropriate privacy settings for their SpaceFace profile and to create strong passwords (and, of course, are advised not to share those passwords with anyone). Privacy policies, as well as limits on what information youth can legally be asked to give out online, are addressed when students are asked to fill out a survey on a Web site devoted to their favourite band. Students are also taught to recognize marketing techniques such as “friendvertising” and targeted advertising as well as to choose whether to opt in or out of having their data resold by MyMusicMart. In the chapter’s culminating task students are asked by a friend whose SpaceFace account has been compromised to help her manage her privacy, allowing the student to apply the skills she has learned earlier in the chapter.

In the third chapter, which addresses issues of online relationships, the student is repeatedly called upon to mediate between her friends, such as when Hailey posts an unflattering photo of Maya or when Maya is worried that Blake may be addicted to online gambling. Students also learn how to respond to hate speech and to recognize the warning signs of an unhealthy online relationship; this information is put into action when the student discovers that Hailey has a second online identity and is involved in a range of risky behaviours both online and offline.

Ethical Internet use is addressed in the fourth chapter where students explore intellectual property issues, learning about topics such as copyright, public domain and Creative Commons licences as they look for music to use in a class video project. Another important topic in this chapter is cyberbullying, with examples ranging from Maya posting her ex-boyfriend’s love poetry publicly, to an organized campaign of online harassment against Hailey. As students research cyberbullying they are also taught about plagiarism and techniques for quoting, paraphrasing and citing sources correctly. Finally, students must help Hailey deal with being the target of a cyberbullying attack and decide whether or not to turn the tables on the perpetrators.

MyWorld provides teachers with tools to track each student’s performance in the tutorial, including the recording of students’ scores on each task and a reflection activity at the end of each chapter in the form of a blog entry. Teachers are also provided with walkthrough presentations to get them started using MyWorld, a Teacher’s Guide which gives detailed instructions for using the tutorial in class, and a Classroom Activities Guide with background information on the major issues covered and suggestions for warm-up and extension activities tied to each chapter. As well, curricular connections charts are available on this Web site to show teachers how MyWorld fits into the curriculum for their province or territory.

MediaSmarts has been creating interactive Internet literacy tools since 1998, when it launched Privacy Playground: the First Adventure of the Three Little CyberPigs (an updated version is available on this Web site). With each project MediaSmarts has broadened its focus, adding resources that deal with topics such as privacy, online advertising to children, ethical Internet use, online hate and propaganda, and parenting in the Internet age. In addition to classroom and community-based resources, MediaSmarts also produces a professional development tool – the Web Awareness Workshop Series – which educates teachers about issues related to children and teens’ online activities.

With MyWorld, MediaSmarts has created its most comprehensive, interactive, and technically sophisticated digital literacy resource to date. The program is available through a licensing arrangement. For more information, or to preview MyWorld, contact

MyWorld is made possible through financial contributions from Inukshuk Wireless Learning Plan Fund and TELUS.

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