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New Jersey May Require K-12 to Teach Digital Media Literacy

The state legislature overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill that would mandate the creation of statewide guidelines for lessons on information literacy across digital, visual and technological media.

social media safety
A classroom at Sandyston-Walpack Consolidated School in Layton.
Patti Sapone/TNS
(TNS) — With the Internet and social media now firmly established as dominant places to get news and info, New Jersey may soon create standards for students in all grades to learn how to discern trustworthy sources, conduct research using facts and data, and avoid misinformation.

Though Garden State schools already have some requirements to teach the topic, the state Legislature has overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill (S588) that would mandate a state Department of Education committee to develop specific statewide guidelines for lessons on information literacy across digital, visual, and technological media.

The state Board of Education would then adopt the standards — covering kindergarten through 12th grade — and each school district in the state would then apply them.

The state Senate voted to pass the measure 36-0 last Monday, after the state Assembly approved it 61-8, with four abstentions, last month. It’s now up to Gov. Phil Murphy to decide whether to sign it into law or veto it.

Supporters say the move is needed in the wake of the rise of social media and as misinformation becomes more common online. The lessons, they said, would help students distinguish fact from fiction and mold them into more informed citizens.

A Pew Research Center survey from July found half of U.S. adults get news from a social media platform at least sometimes. A 2020 Stanford University study showed college students struggled to identify misinformation.

“The Internet can be an invaluable resource for students at every grade level, but it can also be rife with misinterpretations, lies, and rumors that can be confusing or even dangerous,” said state Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, a main sponsor. “The new standards will help develop young residents who can recognize false claims and have the skills to succeed in a web-driven world.”

Olga Polites, the New Jersey chapter leader of Media Literacy Now, said schools should teach students “critical thinking skills to combat the disinformation that comes across social media feeds and electronic devices.”

“Unless we can do it in our K-12 school system, we are doomed,” Polites told NJ Advance Media. “Our democracy is not going to be able to sustain itself.”

She also stressed that sources matter.

“I love my Twitter, but I love my Philadelphia Inquirer more,” Polites said. “That’s the difference. There are so many people that conflate the two. Because it comes over an electronic device, they give it credibility. But if we can get this into K-12 schools, we will be on our way to solving this incredibly huge problem.”

Mary Moyer Stubbs, a consultant with the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, told lawmakers in September that while New Jersey provides computer devices for students to learn, it doesn’t teach them how to “safely use those devices.”

“That is what you are doing when you are giving computer devices to students and telling them to figure it out and just Google it,” Moyer Stubbs said during an Assembly committee hearing on the legislation.

Ewa Dziedzic-Elliott, a librarian with Lawrence Township schools, told lawmakers in June she taught her students to study news in Europe when Russia invaded Ukraine in February to see how news may be manipulated or taken out of context.

“The information literacy bill is a good start to ensure that New Jersey students will be productive global citizens that do not contribute to the spread of misinformation,” Dziedzic-Elliott said during a Senate committee hearing on the measure.

State Sen. Michael Doherty, R- Warren, expressed concern about the standards, citing examples of how he felt certain media organizations were slanted or punished for having slant.

“It seems today we have these gatekeepers controlling information and sending the country on wild goose chases,” Doherty said.

But he ultimately voted for the bill.

Under the legislation, the state Department of Education would convene a committee of educators and certified library media specialists to draft the standards, consulting with other experts along the way.

The state Board of Education would be required to conduct at least one public hearing in the northern, central, and southern parts of the state to get input from residents.

Schools’ library media specialists would help develop the curricula in individual districts.

NJ Advance Media staff writer Tina Kelley contributed to this report.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.