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New Jersey Law to Require K-12 Digital Literacy Courses

A bill signed Wednesday by Gov. Phil Murphy would require K-12 students to receive digital literacy training at all public schools. The move is part of an effort to combat online misinformation.

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(TNS) — New Jersey has become the first state in the country to require public schools to teach media literacy to K-12 students as a way to combat misinformation, under a bill signed Wednesday by Gov. Phil Murphy.

Advocates say the measure will help students who are bombarded with information from social media and news outlets learn how to discern whether the sources are credible. Media literacy will be required at every grade level.

"Our democracy remains under sustained attack through the proliferation of disinformation that is eroding the role of truth in our political and civic discourse," Murphy said in a statement. "It is our responsibility to ensure our nation's future leaders are equipped with the tools necessary to identify fact from fiction." The bill was overwhelmingly approved last month by the Legislature with bipartisan support. It was backed by the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, which believes it will change the education landscape in the state.

"Living in the digital era gives us access to endless information, but not all is equal. That is why it's so important to prepare students in New Jersey with a robust information literacy education," according to a statement by Assembly Democrats, including Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (Camden), a bill sponsor.

Under the law, which takes effect immediately, the state Department of Education must implement literacy curriculum standards, which include researching, using critical thinking skills, and learning the difference between facts and opinions and primary and secondary sources.

School librarians and media specialists and teachers would be enlisted to help develop standards for information learning, including digital, visual, media, textual, and technological literacy. The law requires that public hearings be held on the standards before adoption by the state Board of Education.

New Jersey is the first to implement media or information literacy statewide beginning with kindergarten, according to Erin McNeill, president and founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Media Literacy Now. Some schools require it but not comprehensively, she said.

The law, formerly Bill A-4169/S-588, was introduced in 2016, and then reintroduced annually. Supporters including Olga Polites, a retired longtime English teacher in the Lenape Regional school system, even hired a legislative consultant.

N.J. is about to make kids more media-savvy. Every state should follow suit.

The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump protesting the outcome of his defeat pushed information literacy to the forefront. Besides false claims that the presidential race and other elections around the country were stolen, misinformation spread during the pandemic about COVID-19 vaccines as well.

"At a time when misinformation and disinformation are eroding the foundations of that democracy, it is imperative that students have the tools they need to determine what information they can trust," said Sean M. Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association.

Polites, a Rowan University professor and leader of the New Jersey chapter of Media Literacy Now, was overjoyed at the passage. In recent years, her students have relied upon misinformation from their social media feeds for class assignments, she said.

"It is such a huge, huge impact today," said Polites. "This is what we need for our children."

Polites believes students will become better citizens as adults by learning how to conduct research, analyze information, determine credible sources, and ask questions to better reach their own conclusions. It will be left to districts to incorporate the information instruction into their curriculum to align with the state's learning standards.

"This is a great idea and much needed," said Eric Fieldman, a history teacher at Collingswood High School.

In his U.S. history classes, Fieldman said he spends the first weeks teaching students how to identify informational sources, who is curating news and their possible agenda. This also includes "lessons on perspective, and how that affects the viability of a source, as well as how to research and not get lost down rabbit holes of misinformation," he said.

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.