An Interdisciplinary Curriculum for the Digital Age
Developed and written by Reuben Loewy, Founder
This curriculum is primarily designed for students in 9th–12th grade, but differentiated lesson plans can be taught to students in lower grades, as well as to college/university students, teachers, and parents.
Note: In this curriculum, the terms “Internet”, “Web”, and “Online” are used interchangeably, though they are, of course, not synonymous.
- A is for Algorithm
- Digital Activism
- Diversity of Thought
- The Economy of the Internet
- Digital Divide
- Wikipedia and Open Source Knowledge
- Digital Disruption
- Data: Big, Meta, and Visualization
- Writing in the Digital Age
- Bytes & Bots - How the Internet Works
- Remix Culture
- Digital Ethics
- Online Learning
- Gaming in Education
- Cyberwarfare/Terrorism/Crime - The “Underbelly” of the Web
- Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence
- Cyberskeptics vs. Digital Utopianism
This lesson explores personal identity and the self in the online world, with a focus on how the concept of identity is shaped by social media and hyper-connectivity. Students will gain insight into how their identities may be unconsciously shaped by digital media and online socialization. We will examine how individuals craft and express their identities across multiple online and offline contexts, and discuss the implications of having different identities, avatars, and facets of ourselves across different networks, for example our personal and work life. How do we choose what to reveal and what to conceal? Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg believes that we should only have one authentic identity, and that anything else is deceptive. This is contrasted with the view that individuals are multi-faceted and that identity is “prismatic”. As part of the debate on the nature of identity, we will consider: What is “authentic identity”? What is the significance of authenticity, pseudonymity and anonymity in the online world? We will also explore to what extent identity is defined by what one does online, and examine the relationship between online identity and offline activity.
2. TRANSPARENCY - The Right to Know
Free and open access to information is essential to making informed decisions in a democracy, and to ensuring that governments respect the civil liberties of their citizens. Digital technology is a tool for delivering transparency by making information accessible to everyone, everywhere, and at every level. As curated traditional (“legacy”) media are being displaced as the main source of our news, transparency is also assuming a new level of importance as a way for individuals to evaluate the bias of social media and websites. In this lesson, we will examine the assertion that transparency is expanding the role of citizens, not just as passive consumers of political information and occasional voters, but as active players, monitoring what governments and politicians are doing, and participating in problem solving. Students will also debate whether the highly controversial leaking of information to the public through digital means (Wikileaks, Snowden, Manning, et al) is helping or harming our democracy.
3. A IS FOR ALGORITHM
The beating heart at the center of today’s online world is the algorithm. Yet beyond computer scientists, algorithms remain largely unknown, operating as they do behind secretive walls of intellectual property.
While programs tell the computer what to do, it is basically algorithms’ job to tell them how to execute these commands. This module will show how algorithms are responsible for the bulk of financial trades on Wall Street, which ads pop up on our computer screens, and which books Amazon thinks we may want to buy. Students will also learn how algorithms write news headlines, sometimes even whole news stories, direct our web searches, recognize our faces, match us with potential soul mates, and build our playlists.
The omnipresent power of algorithms can be helpful in many aspects of our lives, big (showing truths that enhance our understanding of the world) and small, (such as regulating the temperature in our homes to save energy). However, the same algorithmic power, and inherent bias, is also causing alarm in some circles, spawning “anti-algorithms” to humanly curate the web. This class will discuss whether this fear of computer coding is misplaced or justified. Should algorithms be subjected to regulation, transparency and oversight? Or should we resign ourselves to letting companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google continue to tell us “You may also like”? Classroom texts include Christopher Steiner’s Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World.
4. PRIVACY – Does It Still Exist?
Privacy is dead, some pundits and Internet entrepreneurs would have us believe. Or is it just our traditional definition of privacy that needs to be revised for the Internet era? One thing is indisputable: it is virtually impossible to remain private online today, and as we increasingly live our lives online, we are divulging more and more details about ourselves. It is often claimed that we are trading away our privacy in return for convenience and free online services, even as our trust in the ability of companies and institutions to protect our data is constantly being challenged. Is it simply becoming too complicated for individuals to protect their privacy? We will examine whether we still have a right to privacy, or whether privacy is instead being reduced to a commodity.
This class will ask: What is left of privacy in the digital era, and how much do we actually value it? Is it fair to say that privacy is only an issue for those who have something to hide? Is it our responsibility as individuals to maintain our own online privacy, or is it the responsibility of the companies and institutions with whom we entrust our data? We will examine some of the key legal, commercial, and ethical privacy issues being debated today, and also look at possible models for living online with a minimal digital footprint. Class texts may include It’s Complicated by danah boyd, Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin, and The Social Machine by Judith Donath.
5. DIGITAL ACTIVISM
The Internet is hailed by many as a vehicle tailor-made for social and political activism. Others dismiss it as an easy way out for “armchair activists” (labeled as “slacktivists” or “clicktivists”), who have zero political or social impact, but can feel good about themselves and show their online friends how much they care, without having to march in the streets. This lesson will review the arguments on both sides, and examine the inner workings of digital activism through a number of case studies from around the globe (Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, #Ferguson, and the Israeli social demonstrations of 2012), as well as the experience of students. The class will ask whether reality could in fact be more complex: Is a hybrid model of activism developing, where social media inform, galvanize, connect, and protect activists, who have already proven their power by rallying support online and on the streets for a wide range of causes? Students will also learn about some of the key digital tools that are fueling online activism, and enabling activism in countries with oppressive regimes.
Class material may include a UNESCO fundraising ad (“Likes don’t save lives”), Google CEO Erik Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s book The New Digital Age, Malcolm Gladwell’s article Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted (The New Yorker, October 2010), The Revolution Will be Hashtagged by Professor Henry Jenkins, and Hashtag Activism, and Its Limits by David Carr (The New York Times, 03/25/2012).
6. DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT - Breaking Out of the Bubble
Is digital technology making us more open-minded as we connect and exchange ideas with people across the world? Or is the increasing personalization of information by search engines and online sharing threatening to limit our access to information, and enclose us in a self-reinforcing worldview, as Eli Pariser claims in his book The Filter Bubble. Pariser was one of the first to warn about the dangers to us and to our democracy of getting trapped in a ‘filter bubble’. In this course, we will hold up a mirror to our own online activities as a starting point for reflection on the broader nature of news, information, and opinions, and how these are communicated and used. We will explore how filtering and personalization can narrow our perspectives, and some of the questions we will examine include: Where do we get our news? Do we actively seek out opinion that may differ from, and challenge, our own? Do we reinforce our own “filter bubble” by sharing items through our social network? How can we establish a nuanced view of the world if we do not practice diversity of thought?
7. THE ECONOMY OF THE INTERNET - No Free Clicks
The business model for almost everything on the World Wide Web can be summed up in one word: advertising. Websites generate money by attracting visitors, and then selling the personal data they gather from these visitors to their sites. In this class, we will examine the consequences of a system that ostensibly is making most of the web free for users, while in reality these same users are generating billions of dollars of new wealth for Internet entrepreneurs. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and one of the architects of this business model, now apologizes for what he calls a “fiasco”. Another leading Internet scholar and web designer claims that “the entire foundation of our industry is rotten.” We will look under the hood of the Internet to examine the development and mechanics of online advertising. A free web is a web that is open to everyone, so what is it about the web’s advertising-driven model that its critics think has failed us? We will discuss Ethan Zuckerman’s answer (surveillance, lower content quality, and centralization), and ask: Is there a better model?
8. DIGITAL DIVIDE
At its birth, the Internet was heralded as The Great Leveler. With the world just a click away, the Web held out the promise of being a revolutionary technological bridge that would bring people, ideas and opinions closer. In this class, we will ask why, 25 years into the life of the Internet, we are still facing a digital divide on multiple levels: geographic, race, gender, socio-economical - both in the US and globally. This lesson will examine the consequences of the technological imbalance in today’s society, and what is being done to bridge the digital divide. Today, close to three billion people around the world are using the Internet, leaving over four billion people without access, and therefore at a significant disadvantage. We will examine the argument that the real issue is not only about creating equal access to digital technology, but also about the benefits derived from this access, such as education, jobs, and health. Students will also gain insight into patterns of Internet connectedness and behavior among different groups.
9. WIKIPEDIA & OPEN CONTENT
An online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to, has thousands of editors, but is not owned by anyone, sounds like a recipe for disaster. Yet in less than 15 years, Wikipedia has established itself as the world’s largest collaborative model of knowledge, and the sixth-most visited site on the Web, sustained primarily through the work of an army of volunteers. And it is free. By any measure, this is an astonishing phenomenon.
In this course, students will examine the creation, curation, and dissemination of knowledge in a networked world, and discuss the merits and disadvantages of open-source/open-access materials, and the consequences of the erosion of print (closed-source) encyclopedias. Students will develop critical-thinking skills through learning how to evaluate the quality, reliability, and truth of Wiki pages (referencing verifiable sources). We will learn how Wikipedia deals with disagreements and disputes about knowledge, and understand the deeper value of transparency as an integral part of the process of writing, editing, and correction of Wikipedia pages.
In a hands-on workshop, students will have an option to learn how to be sophisticated users of Wikipedia, and also contributors, through writing (or editing) their own Wiki page. This will include group writing, and learning the crucial role peer review and revision plays in sustaining Wikipedia, while gaining experience working and interacting in a real-time, real-world collaborative community. In addition to the added benefits of reaching beyond the walls of the classroom to help the wider Wikipedia community, this activity has the potential to create a new generation of responsible Wikipedians.
Material in this class may include The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), Born Digital by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson, and From Guttenberg to Zuckerberg by James Naughton.
10. DIGITAL DISRUPTION
Digital technology is proving to be one of most powerful vehicles for disruption that we have ever witnessed. “Disruption” literally means the act of breaking something apart, which may sound more like destruction. But in contemporary business terminology, the term is used to describe the process whereby technological advances are creating opportunities for more people to meet more customer needs at lower costs. This makes disruption both destructive and creative at the same time. And virtually no part of our society – from agriculture and media to healthcare - is immune. It is not a question of whether disruption will happen or not, but when and who will cause it.
Through case studies, such as Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes, this class will examine the difference between disruption and innovation, and discuss how digital technology is acting as a disrupting force. We will also look ahead at which industries may be ripe for disruption. Class texts may include Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation by James McQuivey, The Innovator's Dilemma by Professor Clay Christensen, and The Digital Disruption by Erik Schmidt and Jared Cohen (Foreign affairs, November/December 2010).
11. DATA - BIG, META AND VISUALIZATION
We are witnessing a massive explosion in the quantity of data that our society is producing, and the way that we process this data is poised to change the way we live, work, and think. Advocates of “big data” claim that we can predict events and human behavior with much greater accuracy than statistical sampling ever could. In this module, students will learn about the many applications of big data, and examine the ethical implications and risks that it may pose to privacy.
“Metadata” is often described as “data on data”, or data stripped of any content (for example, the names of the sender and recipient of an email, without the content of the actual email). We will examine how collection and analysis of this form of data is commonly presented as being innocuous, whilst metadata in fact can reveal intimate details of our lives, and, according to some experts, be even more intrusive than the gathering of content. The class will also discuss topical issues, such as national security interests versus personal privacy.
The final part of the module, “Data Visualization”, will highlight how the imaginative use of digital technology, data journalism, and creative artwork has revolutionized the visual representation of data, helping people understand data, explore it, and act upon the insights derived from it.
Cyberpsychology is the study of the human mind and behavior in the context of our interaction with technology. To many users of the Internet, there is no divide between the “online world” and their “real world.” But from a psychological perspective, the virtual world is quite a different place. This module takes students on an exploration of the effect of the Internet on the psychology of individuals and groups, examining areas such as online self-disclosure, the differences or divergences between online and offline behavior, personality types in cyberspace, the “disinhibition” effect (when people behave in an
uninhibited way compared with their usual “offline” behavior), gender and identity issues in cyberspace, the psychology of online worlds, and online lingo.
Course texts include The Psychology of Cyberspace by Professor John Suler, Ph.D.
For further information, contact:
Living Online Lab
Princeton, New Jersey