What Do Digital Natives Need to Be Taught About Computers?

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Kids spend hours in front of the computer, both at home and at school. But are they learning how to be smart Internet users?

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A new school year is here, and with it, a new crop of cool computer learning tools and 3-D textbooks that will help students learn more math, history, science, you name it.

Today's students spend a lot of time in front of a computer -- and not just gossiping on Facebook: In 2008 it was estimated that 100 percent of public schools had instructional computers with Internet access, about three such computers for every student in the country. The average kid spends an hour and a half in front of a computer every day.

But does spending time using a computer automatically make kids computer-savvy? Software and websites tend to be sufficiently well-designed that it's possible to write an essay or finish a science project without ever entering the trickier terrain of the Internet: What information can be trusted? Which people can be trusted? What information is it okay to share about oneself online? How can information found online be ethically used?

These questions aren't ultimately about basic computer skills, or at least not technical skills. Rather, being a smart Internet-user requires cognitive tools that are harder to measure. Students have to learn how to evaluate the trustworthiness of the information that they find, rather than just regurgitate. The web flattens the differences between different web pages. You're reading an article about ancient Greece from the Encyclopaedia Britannica website, which has been vetted by a series of experts? Well, it has many of the same keywords as a story written by some content farmer for $3 in twelve minutes. And that looks kind of the same as a research blog from a cutting-edge Greco historian. We can't trust the old signs of pedigree and imprimatur, but that doesn't mean we don't need methods for distinguishing good information from bad.

Yet few schools have implemented curricula that focus explicitly on inculcating such skills, but guides for teachers and librarians exist online. Particularly excellent is Common Sense Media's free Digital Literacy and Citizenship Classroom Curriculum, which has units and lesson plans appropriate for different age groups on topics such as online safety, ethical use of information, and how to evaluate the quality of a website.

Parents and teachers out there: What are you doing to help your children and students become better Internet users? How much do you see them learning from everyday computing and how much needs to be explicitly taught?

Image: Jim Sneddon/Flickr.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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