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New Media Literacy Education (NMLE):

A Developmental Approach

By: Diana Graber


December 17, 2010

Fielding Graduate University
Final Capstone Project



















































New Media Literacy Education: A Developmental Approach

All media work us over completely. They are so persuasive in their

personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and
social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected,
unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and
cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media
work as environments. (McLuhan, 1967, p. 26)

When renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote the passage above, he
scarcely could have imagined the Internet we know today, let alone the plethora of digital
devices and assorted networks that have cropped up since the general public was first
granted Internet access in 1992. Social networking, blogging, gaming, video and picture-
sharing, Ipods, Iphones, virtual reality, YouTube, Twitter, Wikis, Facebook, Second Life,
LinkedIn and more have all become part of the common vernacular of our time. It is
hardly believable that less than a decade ago most of these devices and networks did not
exist. Yet McLuhan’s words are as salient today, if not more so, than they were when
published over four decades ago.
While for many of us, it feels as though the ground is continually shifting beneath
our feet, for “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), otherwise known as those who have grown
up during these digital times, this environment represents the world, as they know it. A
survey published this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 8- to18-year-olds
spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) using media on a typical day (and this
does not include time spent using the computer for homework, texting or talking on the
cell phone). Additionally, because today’s youth are so good at multi-tasking, they
actually fit 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.
This represents an increase in media usage of more than an hour a day compared to just
five years ago (Rideout, et. al., 2010). In fact, today’s young people spend more time
online, texting, watching TV and movies, and playing video games than they do in school
or with their parents (Common Sense Media, 2009).



Even for those families and groups who urge their youth to just turn it all off, the
fact remains that media is so ingrained in our cultural milieu, it is literally inescapable
(Thoman & Jolls, 2008). And what about those young people who may not possess
computers and Internet access in their homes? They are still participants in a shared
culture where social media, digital media distribution and production have become
commonplace (Horst, as cited in Ito, et. al., 2010). “Media no longer just influence our
culture. They are our culture” (Thoman & Jolls, 2008, p. 21).
However, it is not simply the amount of media exposure that has changed so
dramatically, it is the nature of this exposure. Jenkins, et. al. (2006) refer to the nature of
the changing environment that today’s youth find themselves immersed in as: a
participatory culture. He defines a participatory culture as having the following
attributes: low barriers for artistic expression and engagement, strong support for creating
and sharing, informal mentorship whereby experienced users pass their knowledge on to
novices, an atmosphere that encourages a sense that contributions matter, and an
opportunity for social connection. This new landscape seems ripe with fresh opportunities
for education. However, as Jenkins and his colleagues point out, schools have largely
been either slow to react or have missed the mark completely when it comes to
capitalizing on what this new participatory culture has to offer traditional education.
But this is hardly surprising, few institutions are as slow to respond to change as
education; and few changes today are as mercurial as technology. It is no wonder that
these two forces have had trouble learning how to co-exist.

A Short History of Media Literacy Education

Take One- A Focus on Technology Literacy
The proliferation of the Internet during the mid 1990’s kick-started a national
debate about how to best use digital technologies for teaching and learning, causing many
to rethink education in light of all the new possibilities technology afforded schools
(Ohler, 2010). When computers started finding their way into the classroom, driven
primarily by proponents of educational technology (i.e., vendors of product) and
enthusiastic government leaders, the educational focus was primarily on one thing-
teaching students how to use the tools (Ohler, 2010; Jenkins, et. al., 2006; Cordes &



Miller, 2004; Oppenheimer, 2003). One of the most influential groups spearheading this
approach was the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). In 1998,
ISTE developed the first national standards for students (referred to as the NET’s),
followed closely by standards for educators and administrators. This was significant
because it finally allowed educators to “point to a nationally recognized professional
group for support, recognition and the articulation of standards that were specifically
developed to address the presence of computers in the classrooms” (Ohler, 2010, p. 19).
Although ISTE was not the only organization to develop technology standards for
education, they were and still are the most active group in advocating for these standards
at state and national levels (Cordes & Miller, 2004).
ISTE’s efforts thrived in a political climate that also propelled the broader standards
movement. In fact, over $55 billion was spent on computer technology and related
services during the ten-year span from 1994 to 2004 (Cordes & Miller, 2004). The impact
of this investment was disappointing however; study after study showed little or no
improvement in student learning as a result (Oppenheimer, 2003). In fact, Susan Patrick,
director of the United States Department of Education’s Office of Educational
Technology, affirmed in 2004 that, “despite a decade of investment (in educational
technology), most achievement indicators are flat.” (Branigan, 2004, ¶6). The research
also showed that even schools that went to the trouble and expense of fully training
teachers and integrating technology into the daily work of their students, underperformed
when compared to other schools (Schmitt & Slonaker, 1996, as cited in Oppenheimer,
Cuban (2002) writes that, like technology that preceded it, the computer had little
effect on learning in school. The list of reasons cited for this is long and varied:
inadequate teacher training, lack of technical support, too much focus on drill and
practice programs, not enough time during the school day, stubborn adherence to
traditional instructional methods rather than more constructivist approaches, and on and
on. MIT computer scientist Seymour Papert, who spent five years studying with Swiss
childhood development expert Jean Piaget before becoming one of America’s leading
experts on children’s technology, summed up the state of affairs as follows: “[a]s long as
schools confine technology to simply improving what they are doing rather than really



changing the system, nothing very significant will happen” (as cited in Oppenheimer,
2003, p. 25).
But another part of this complicated puzzle may simply be that computers were
introduced to education ahead of their time, in the era proceeding Web 2.0, or the social
net, which transformed computing from a passive viewing experience into an interactive
one, thus setting the stage for what was yet to come… Jenkins’ (2006) participatory
Take Two- A Shift to Media Literacy
Ironically, the explosion of information made possible by the same technologies
that failed to transform schools, instead transformed the world around the hallowed halls
of education. As the digital environment transformed, so too did everyone’s ideas about
how to teach students about these technologies. It became increasingly apparent that it
was entirely unnecessary to teach young people how to use the tools; they were already
using them far more proficiently than their “digital immigrant” (Prensky, 2001) parents
or teachers. Consequently, the importance of teaching technology literacy paled in
comparison to teaching new media literacy. This realization sent everyone scrambling to
determine what skills students would need to become new media literate in the 21st
The definition of media literacy most frequently cited during the 1990’s was simple
and concise: “Media Literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media
in a variety of forms” (Aspen Institute of Media Literacy, 1992).
However as we headed full speed into the 21st Century and new varieties of media
seemed to pop up every day, it became evident that this definition needed revising. So
the Center for Media Literacy expanded the definition in 2003, placing it more squarely
in the context of the current cultural environment:
… Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a
framework to access, analyze, evaluate and create messages in a variety of
forms – from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an
understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of
inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy. (Center
for Media Literacy, 2003)



This expanded definition of media literacy presented a conundrum for traditional

education. After all, for the last several decades, public schools in America have focused
primarily on teaching facts prescribed by a pre-determined curriculum, and administering
standardized tests to see how well students memorize these facts. The No Child Left
Behind Act reinforces this standards-based system by holding schools accountable if
certain benchmarks are not met. This well-established method of educating America’s
youth, however, starts to lose its relevancy in an environment where up-to-date facts are
available at the click of a mouse. Suddenly the skills that become important are those that
help students find and evaluate what they need to know, when they need to know it,
“basic higher-order critical and creative thinking skills (Thoman & Jolls, 2008, p. 6).

In addition, as Collins and Halverson (2009) write:

The new literacy extend the symbolic decoding and manipulation skills of
traditional print media by integrating video, images, music, and animation a
comprehension that give rise to new kinds of production. Teens who are creating
web pages with animated computer graphics and sound, remixing images to
develop music video, participating in web chats and forums, and writing their own
blogs are engaged in developing a sophisticated media literacy not taught in
schools. (p. 13)
In order to keep up with the changing times, ISTE updated its National Educational
Technology Standards (NET’s) in 2007. As Ohler (2010) points out, in these refreshed
standards “[t]he word digital seems to replace references to ‘technology’ found in the
first set of standards. This signifies a move away from a machine focus and toward a
focus on content and communication. That is, our interest has shifted from ‘the gear’ to
what we are doing with the gear” (p. 23).
In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the
21st Century, Jenkins et. al. (2006) write that a participatory culture shifts the focus of
literacy from individual expression to one of community involvement. The authors of this
report write of the urgency to help young people “develop the cultural competencies and
social skills needed for full involvement” (p. 4) in this new media environment.



Skills Needed for New Media Literacy

Several scholars and media advocacy groups have written extensively in recent
years about the skills they think young people need in order to become new media literate
in the 21st century. For example, Jenkins et. al. (2006) suggest that while textual literacy
(the ability to read and write) remains a central skill, the other essential new media
literacies are all social skills: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking,
distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation,
networking, and negotiation. Three obstacles, however, prevent young people from
successfully acquiring these skills. The first obstacle is the participation gap. More
commonly referred to as the digital divide, this refers to the fundamental inequalities in
young people’s access to new technologies and all the opportunities inherent in that
access. The second obstacle is a transparency gap; a gap that exists because young
people are limited in their ability to examine media carefully and thus need to develop
critical thinking skills. The third problem, the ethics challenge, requires young people to
consider the choices they make as users of new media. “One important goal of media
education should be to encourage young people to become more reflective about the
ethical choices they make as participants and communicators and the impact they have on
others” (Jenkins, et. al., 2006, p. 17).
Ethical thinking is the central theme in a Goodwork Project Report (2008) from the
Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. This report suggests “for the
promises of the NDM (new digital media) to be positively realized, supports for ethical
participation- indeed for the creation of “ethical minds” (Gardner, 2007a, as cited in
James, 2009, p. 42)- must emerge” (James, 2009, p. 42). Because young people don’t just
use media, but help shape it, becoming thoughtful and reflective about their actions is
essential. These key skills “are not learned in a vacuum, and certainly cannot be assumed
to accompany technical skills. Here the responsibility lies with adults (educators,
policymakers, parents, etc.) to provide young people with optimal supports for good play
and citizenship” (James, et. al., 2008).
Prensky (2010) concurs, suggesting that ”installing ethical behavior- figuring out



the right thing to do and how to get it done- ought to be our number one concern. We
need to best configure students’ brains so that they can constantly learn, create, program,
adopt, adapt, and relate positively to whatever and whomever they meet, and in whatever
way they meet them, which increasingly means through technology” (p. 12).
Likewise, in an article exploring how Web 2.0’s unique capabilities influence learning
and teaching, Drotner (2007) asserts that media literacy education needs to extend
beyond teaching technical skills to encompass the skills and ethical issues surrounding all
the digital activities that young people are engaged in, including texting, blogging,
editing images and sound, circulating files through mobile phones, and gaming (as cited
in Greenhow, et. al., 2009, p. 252). Even the ISTE is in agreement on this, as evidenced
by their reworked standards which place less emphasis on technology operations, and
new emphasis on the five skills they list before it: creativity and innovation;
communication and collaboration; research and information fluency; critical thinking;
and digital citizenship (ISTE, 2007). In his new book about digital citizenship Ohler
(2010) writes that the new digital environment calls on all of us to “develop a personal
ethical core that can guide us in areas of experience that are in many ways unfamiliar” (p.
4). He even suggests that technical literacy “may become a second-tier skill set” (p. 215).
Finally, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan
(2010) sets five goals they believe, if reached, will transform technology education. The
first goal they identify emphasizes ethics: “[a]ll learners will have engaging and
empowering learning experiences both in and out of school that prepare them to be active
creative, knowledgeable and ethical participants in our globally networked society” (p.
A New Tool
While critical thinking will always remain an essential media literacy skill, new
media literacy clearly requires the addition of a new tool to the toolkit: ethical thinking.
It is important to remember that critical thinking was first called into service during the
1960’s in order to help students understand the mass media and its efforts to persuade
viewers to think certain ways and to buy certain products (Ohler, 2010). However, this
one-to-many characteristic of mass media has changed dramatically in the recent past,
giving way to the many-to-many pattern that enables anyone and everyone to become a



producer as well as a consumer of media. With this new power of participation comes
new responsibility, making ethical thinking skills increasingly vital.
Every time a student creates, shares, interacts, produces, downloads, uploads or
remixes, he or she has to make a choice: do I credit the photographer for the photo I just
cut and pasted into my paper? Should I post that unflattering picture of a classmate on
Facebook? So while critical thinking is still, well, critical… ethical thinking (which has
largely been given a back seat in education in recent years) is becoming the skill du jour.
The question that new media literacy educators should be asking themselves now is this:
how do we cultivate ethical thinking skills?

A Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Ethical Thinking

The aim of education is growth or development, both intellectual and moral. Ethical
and psychological principles can aid the school in the grates of all construction –
the building of a free and powerful character. Only knowledge of the order and
connection of the stages in psychological development can institute this. (Dewey,
1964, as cited by Kohlberg, 1975)
Overlooked By The ISTE Standards
When the ISTE formulated its original NET’s in the late 1990’s, it called for
“developmentally appropriate uses of advanced electronic media in the classroom”
(ISTE, 1998), yet the authors provided no accompanying research references to support
what they considered to be developmentally appropriate. This was a bone of contention
for many who pointed to a large body of uncontested research on what comprises healthy
cognitive development in a child’s early years: face-to-face contact, creative play, hands-
on activities, and physical movement (Siegel, 1999; Strauch, 2003; and Diamond &
Hopson, 1999 as cited in Cordes & Miller, 2004). The ISTE standards, which advocated
for a “technology-enhanced” (ISTE, 1998) learning environment beginning at ages three
or four, was a huge departure from what was recommended by the existing
developmental research.
This failure to acknowledge what many considered healthy cognitive
development in children is often cited as one of the reasons why computers so miserably



failed to transform education in the mid-90’s. This reason, whether it is the reason or not,
bears a closer look.

Cognitive and Moral Development

As Ohler (2010) writes,
Cognitive and moral development are linked, with the latter preceding the
former. In plain English, the smarter we become, the better able we are to
puzzle through ethical decision making. In the process, we become more
capable of autonomous moral reasoning. Thus critical thinking is the solid
foundation upon which moral development rests. (p. 174)
While the terms ethics and morality are often used interchangeably, Ohler
(2010) makes an important distinction, “morality deals with how we act, while
ethics deals with how we think about how we act. That is, ethical consideration
informs moral actions” (p. 157).
Gardner (2006, in press, as cited in Davis, et. al., 2010) uses the terms
neighborly morality and the ethics of roles to explain the distinction he makes
between morality and ethics. He describes neighborly morality as the
“understandings and relations that govern a person’s connections to those whom
he sees every day and with whom he has a reciprocal relationship” (¶15). In
contrast, the ethics of roles relate to “those individuals, both known and unknown,
to whom relations are more formal, more tied to roles, and may not even involve
person-to-person contact” (¶15). While morality requires an understanding of
what is deemed appropriate by certain groups, ethics requires more abstract
thinking or, “an attempt to extract universal principles governing moral conduct”
(Lee, 1928, as cited in Davis, et. al., ¶15).
It is impossible to consider moral and ethical thinking without a
familiarity with the two most prominent figures to study cognitive and moral
development, Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. While Kohlberg focused
primarily on moral development, he based his theories on the cognitive
development understandings of Piaget who forged what is still considered the
single most comprehensive and compelling theory of intellectual development for



children (Crain, 2005).

Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development: sensori-motor, pre-
operational, concrete and formal. According to Piaget, children in the sensori-motor
stage, from birth to two years, experience the outside world through their immediate
actions, senses and feelings. During the pre-operational stage, which encompasses ages
two to seven, children are able to solve one-step logic problems, and begin to think using
symbols and internal images. The concrete stage occurs from ages seven to eleven. At
this time children begin to develop their capacity to think systematically, but only when
they can refer to concrete objects and activities. From twelve on children are in the
formal operations stage, when they finally develop the capacity for logical and abstract
thinking. An important observation made by Piaget was that children think differently
from adults, most notably, they start out with a completely egocentric view of the world
and are unable to understand how someone else’s viewpoint might differ from their own.
Although children slowly decenter from this mindset as they move through the
developmental stages, a sense of egocentrism lingers even into the formal operational
stage, or the teen years (Blake & Pope, 2008).
Like other prominent developmental theorists, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and
Maria Montessori, Piaget believed that to best foster cognitive development, learning
should be a process of active discovery geared towards a child’s developmental stage
(Crain, 2005). He also believed that children progressed naturally through these stages,
guided by play and direct sensory contact with the environment. In fact, it was through
his observation of children at play that Piaget determined that morality, too, was a
developmental process (Murray, n.d.).
Kohlberg advanced the work of Piaget by developing a stage theory of moral
development based upon his predecessor’s cognitive development understandings. He
identified six stages of moral development, which were grouped into three levels:
Preconventional, Conventional and Postconventional. Kohlberg believed that during the
Preconventional Level, which often lasts until age nine, children’s moral judgment is
characterized by a concrete, individual perspective. Like Piaget, Kohlberg thought that
children at this level slowly progress from egocentrism and the inability to consider the
perspectives of others, to the early emergence of moral reciprocity, although they are still



only able to reason as isolated individuals, not as members of a larger society (Murray,
Kohlberg postulated that it is not until somewhere between the ages of 10 to 15,
when children enter the Conventional Level, that they start to believe people should live
up to the expectations of their community and behave in ‘good’ ways. At this level they
begin to understand that “good behavior means having good motives and interpersonal
feelings such as love, empathy, trust and concern for others” (Crain, 2005, p. 155). At the
completion of this level of moral development children finally have the cognitive ability
to perceive themselves as a citizens of a larger society. They reach this understanding
through social interactions that allow them to consider and work through the competing
interests of themselves and others.
Finally, the Postconventional Level of moral development encompasses the upper
domain of abstract thinking (Ohler, 2010). Kohlberg believed that while this stage could
be entered into as early as age 12, some individuals simply never reach this level of moral
Like Piaget, Kohlberg (1975) thought, “[s]ince moral reasoning clearly is
reasoning, advanced moral reasoning depends upon advanced logical reasoning; a
person’s logical stage puts a certain ceiling on the moral stage he can attain” (p. 671).
Thus, children whose logical stage is Concrete (which can last up and into middle school)
are still in the Preconventional moral stages. Therefore, asking a child at this stage to
reason through the ethical choices often required by powerful electronic devices that
connect them to the outside world is, according to these developmental theories, beyond
their cognitive capacities.
As Piaget and Kohlberg point out, children spend the first 12 years of life
developing the cognitive structures that enable them to grasp the abstract, metaphoric,
and symbolic types of information that lead to ethical thinking. This understanding of
cognitive and moral development requires us to at least consider how electronically
mediated interactions may impact the youngest members of our society.
A Developmental Trajectory for Digital Media Use
Developmental psychological research largely supports a trajectory for digital
media use where “[e]arly childhood (up to about eight years old) is a time of high



physical activity and low media use with media use at home increasing beginning at ages
9 through 11” (Livingstone, 2008, as cited in Bauman & Tatum, 2009, ¶10). However,
traffic on websites for young children (ages 3-12) has increased dramatically in recent
years. Data from 2007 shows that monthly visits to one popular site for children (Club
Penguin) more than doubled to 4.7 million from the previous year (Buckleitner, 2008).
Shellenbarger (2006, as cited in Bauman & Tatum, 2009) observes that many social
networking sites compete for subscribers as young as eight, and since many parents don’t
even follow this guideline, younger and younger children going online.
While much attention has been placed on the activities of older children on social
networking sites like Facebook, what has largely been absent from the public discourse
“is any discussion of the increasing availability and presence of websites designed for
younger children that have components of social networking (e.g., Club Penguin,
Webkinz, Kidzworld)” (Bauman & Tatum, 2008, ¶7). These sites all include interactive
components that are similar to elements found on adult social networking sites. While
there are safety measures in place on most of these sites, Bauman and Tatum (2008)
suggest, “younger children may not be developmentally ready to understand the
dynamics of these kinds of relationships and communication” (¶5).
Some concerns that experts raise include the inability of young children to
distinguish between reality and the virtual world (Baumgarten, 2003; Buckleitner, 2008;
Shellenbarger, 2006, as cited in Bauman & Tatum, 2008, ¶14). For example, attachments
to virtual friends or pets that may get disrupted for a variety of reasons (an online friend
is no longer on the site, an online pet gets ill) can cause real distress to a child that a
parent or teacher may not understand (Fryer, 2009, ibid). Greenfield (2004) expresses
concern with the way advertising is integrated within the content of these sites. This is
important because children younger than five are unable to distinguish between
commercial and noncommercial content and children younger than seven or eight cannot
understand that commercials are shown in order to sell things. Often, sites designed for
young children that include advertising (which is virtually all of them) are likely to
capitalize on this developmental characteristic.
Greenfield (2004) also raises issues about sexuality and aggression. Noting that
while the possibility of sexual predators lurking about these sites receives considerable



media attention, what is actually more common are references to such things as ‘being a
couple’. References like these are developmentally inappropriate for an age group still
learning how to develop and maintain real-life friendships. And finally, Greenfield
(2004) observes that though these sites technically prohibit swearing and aggression,
savvy children are able find a way around built-in mechanisms, and bullying does occur.
There is a growing concern that the anonymity afforded by these sites encourages some
children to say or do things they would not say or do in a face-to-face context.
Despite an awareness of developmental issues such as these, children are going
online at younger and younger ages, and adults are largely absent from and unfamiliar
with these online worlds. While we can do our collective best to shield young people
from a digital world they may be developmentally unprepared to navigate, at some point
both parents and teachers need to actually enter and understand this world, in order to
help young people cultivate the skills necessary to navigate it confidently and ethically.
So how do we go about cultivating those skills?

Ethical Thinking and New Media Literacy Education

While little is known about why some youth use their digital powers wisely and
others do not, one thing is clear: few are inclined to actually engage in ethical thinking
when they are online (Davis, et. al, 2010). While in the past adults have played an
important role in helping young people develop moral and ethical thinking (Fischman,
Solomon, Greenspan, & Gardner, 2004, as cited in Davis, et. al, 2010) today they remain
largely absent from the online world where children and youth need ethical guides the
Ethical thinking, characterized as the highest plane of thinking, involves taking
the perspective of others, awareness of one’s roles and responsibilities in the online
communities in which one participates, and reflection about the more global harms or
benefits of one’s actions to communities at large (Davis, et. al., 2010). James and Flores
(in preparation, as cited in Davis, et. al., 2010) found that this way of thinking is rarely
displayed by young people when they discuss their online activities. While this
information is unsettling, it does present a great opportunity for both educators and
parents to help children and young adults develop the moral and ethical skills needed for



new media literacy, and to lay the groundwork for developing these skills early on.

Educating for New Media Literacy

Prensky (2010), who suggests that “installing ethical behavior... ought to be our
number one concern” (p. 12), also warns that trying to graft such skills onto an existing
curriculum is entirely ineffective. Instead the best way to teach the skills that lead to good
digital citizenship is to incorporate them into every subject starting in elementary school,
“then by the time they left us, students would have practiced these essential skills
hundreds or even thousands of times and would likely have internalized them as an
effective way of doing things” (p. 187).
However, the reality in today’s classrooms is that teachers already have a full plate,
and as we learned by observing the failure of putting computers into the classroom during
the end of the last century without carefully considering this, simply adding more to their
workload without looking at the big picture does not work. What is desperately needed,
as Ohler (2010) suggests, is a “whole school approach to behavior that sets the entirety of
being digitally active within an overall ethical and behavioral context- character
education for the Digital Age” (p. 145).

Character Education for the Digital Age

It seems that we are faced with a remarkable irony: that in an age of
increasing artificiality, children first need to sink their hands deeply into
what is real; that in an age of light-speed communication, it is crucial that
children take the time to develop their own inner voice; that in an age of
incredibly powerful machines we must first teach our children how to use
the incredible powers that lie deep within themselves. (Monke, 2004,
Technology with a Human Purpose section, ¶ 5)
One Approach
While researching his comprehensive book about technology’s impact on our
educational system, Todd Oppenheimer (2003) visited dozens of public, private, urban,
and rural schools across the country. In this book and elsewhere, he writes extensively



about a pedagogy, Waldorf education, that he views as a “smarter path” (p. 363) towards
preparing students for the future. He writes,
The notion that imagination is the heart of learning animates the entire arc
of Waldorf teaching. When that concept is coupled with the school’s other
fundamental goal, to give youngsters a sense of ethics, the result is a
pedagogy that stands even further apart from today’s educational system.
(p. 366)
Although Waldorf schools do not utilize overt methods to impose ethical or moral
values upon children, strategies that might be more commonly employed in religious
schools, advocates of Waldorf education firmly believe that it lays a solid foundation for
both moral reasoning and ethical thinking. Yet scant research exists to support these
Hether (2001) addresses this paucity of research by conducting her own, which
she writes about in her dissertation, Moral Reasoning of High School Seniors From
Diverse Educational Setting. This paper “call(s) attention to the un-heralded and
relatively unknown Waldorf movement as an educational intervention that appears to
have a notable positive affect on advanced moral reasoning” (p. 150). Using a
quantitative survey of the development of moral reasoning, called the Defining Issues
Test (DIT), Hether measures and compares scores of high school seniors from different
educational settings. She uses the DIT because it is recognized as a valid and reliable
measure of moral reasoning development derived from Kohlberg’s cognitive
developmental theory and the database of DIT research constitutes the largest and most
diverse body of information on moral judgment that exists today (p. 91).
Hether’s (2001) study shows that Waldorf educated students scored significantly
higher in moral reasoning than students from a religiously affiliated high school*, and
students in public high schools. Waldorf educated students scored in a range that that
would be more commonly associated with college graduates (the effect was enhanced in
the small group of students who received both Waldorf education and non-Waldorf non-

*The religiously affiliated group actually scored the lowest in the DIT, suggesting, “the
didactic methods promoted by advocates of character education… do not appear to be the
best way advance moral reasoning ” (Hether, 2001, p. 150).



secretarian private school education). While this data is significant, what is particularly
interesting about Hether’s (2001) research is its second phase, which explores the aspects
of Waldorf education that might contribute to higher moral reasoning; aspects that could
be transported into other educational settings. She identifies five areas in Waldorf
education that contribute to moral development: an emphasis on educating the whole
person; sensitivity to developmental appropriateness; the practice of storytelling; the
integral place of the arts in the curriculum; and the preservation of a sense of wonder
towards the natural world.
Educating the Whole Person, Waldorf education is firmly rooted in the idea of
engaging a child’s diverse modalities, especially in the early years of schooling. This
concept is addressed thoroughly in Dr. Howard Gardner’s (1993) book, Frames of Mind.
Gardner, the renowned cognitive psychologist and co-director of Harvard Graduate
School of Education's Project Zero, is widely known for his theory of multiple
intelligences and in this book proposes the notion that we possess not one but eight
distinct forms of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic,
musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. According to Gardner (1993), “only
if we expand and reformulate our view of what counts as intellect will we be able to
devise more appropriate ways of assessing it and educating it” (p. 4).
Waldorf schools, along with a handful of other educational models, consider
education of the whole child, head, heart and hands in Waldorf terminology, to be
essential, and thus integrate that concept into all aspects of the curriculum. A Waldorf
lesson in math, for example, might be taught to the children visually, orally, through
song, movement or by working together towards a common goal, such as building a small
structure that requires the measuring of surfaces, etc. In fact, in a Waldorf setting children
spend a good part of their day making things with their hands, often working together,
not only because it engages several of the senses, but also because making something of
use contributes to the development of a strong will. Moral development in the Waldorf
doctrine is often described as the transformation of will forces into willpower (Hether,
2001). Kohlberg (1975) also noted that the “[w]ill… is an important factor in moral
behavior” (p. 672), particularly when informed by mature moral judgment.



The concept of educating the whole child, especially in the early years, is
endorsed by child development experts who consider it critical to provide children with
“a broad base- emotionally, intellectually, and in the five senses” (Oppenheimer, 2003, p.
198). A multisensory approach to learning both deeply imprints lessons in children and
accommodates different learning styles, and is especially effective for children who have
learning disabilities (ibid). While traditional public schools currently rely heavily on
teaching to the linguistic and logical-mathematical modalities, cognitive psychological
research suggests, “abstract reasoning grows out of the physical experience of action”
(Healy, 1998, p. 212). As discussed earlier in this paper, abstract reasoning is a cognitive
prerequisite for Kohlberg’s higher levels of moral development.
A Commitment to What is Developmentally Appropriate. The advantages of
developmentally based learning, which got its start in the Waldorf movement with the
opening of the first school in 1919, were later supported by the work of Gesell, Piaget,
Gardner and others (Dancy, 2004). In many respects the Waldorf approach aligns
particularly well with Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, as close attention is
placed on matching curricular content to the student’s developmental stage. For example,
when children are in the pre-operational stage (which can last up until age seven), heavy
emphasis is placed on hands-on activities and make-believe play. It is through such play
that young children develop their imaginations and symbolic thinking, without it an
important element of cognitive development falls by the wayside (Crain, 2004).
While time for play has largely been squeezed out of the traditional public school day, its
importance is being recognized widely outside of education. Play is one of the six
essential aptitudes identified by Pink (2005) as necessary for success and personal
fulfillment in what he calls the ‘conceptual age’. In the book, A Whole New Mind (2005),
he notes that even the Education Ministry of Japan, a country that excels in math and
science, is remaking its vaunted education system to “foster greater creativity, artistry and
play” (p. 52).
Likewise, Jenkins, et. al. (2006) identify play as the first of the core media literacy
skills needed for the 21st century, writing:
Play, as psychologists and anthropologists have long recognized, is key in
shaping children’s relationship to their bodies, tools, communities,



surroundings, and knowledge. Most of children’s earliest learning comes

through playing with the materials at hand. Through play, children try on
roles, experiment with culturally central processes, manipulate core
resources, and explore their immediate environments. As they grow older,
play can motivate other forms of learning. (p. 22)
Attention to developmental readiness is considered throughout the grades in the
Waldorf pedagogy. Like Piaget and Maria Montessori, Waldorf educators believe that
children develop capacities over time; therefore it is customary for one main teacher to
stay with a class for up to eight years. This practice allows the same adult to watch the
development of a student’s different capacities unfold over many years, and to be ready
to meet that development. Much care is taken not to hurry children to do things they are
not ready to do. In fact, unhurried time for reflection is hallmark of this educational
model. Often lessons are presented over the span of a few days, allowing the children to
go home, sleep on the information, and return to school with their questions over the
following days. This process “institutionalizes an important principle- to let students
struggle toward their answers and individual understanding. Indeed this notion is the
foundation of one of the more popular modern-day progressive reforms, the practice
called constructivism” (Oppenheimer, 2003, p. 381).
For these developmental educators, pressuring children to attempt intellectual
tasks before they are developmentally ready for them can lead to what Piaget (1969)
referred to as “verbalisms” (p. 164), using words that have no real meaning for them. For
example, while children in the concrete stage of cognitive development can be taught to
memorize and repeat abstract concepts, they most likely will not understand them on a
deep level. This often leads to a dislike for school, or worse, contributes to the school-
related stress that pediatricians find is on the rise (Wallace, 2000, as cited in Crain, 2005).
Storytelling. Pink (2005) identifies story as another essential aptitude in today’s
emerging landscape, saying that stories provide “context enriched by emotion, a deeper
understanding of how we fit in and why that matters” (p. 115). For many of the same
reasons, storytelling is a key aspect of the Waldorf curriculum. As Hether (2001) points
out, “Waldorf schools appear to practice what voices crying for ‘character education’
desire: all elementary grade students are immersed in stories that offer moral lessons,



ranging from fairy tales at earlier ages through fables, Nordic and other ethnic myths, and
Biblical stories as they get older” (p. 74).
It is the Waldorf approach to storytelling, however, that is so unique. First of all,
both children and teachers often act out stories in order to make them come alive.
Teachers are taught to create this dramatic atmosphere so that the moral principles in the
stories they present are not only pondered, but also felt deeply. For example, fourth
graders often act out Nordic myths by stomping around the room in rhythm to a poem
about Norse gods who symbolize pride, loss of innocence and the power of the intellect,
issues that are developmentally relevant to fourth grade students (Oppenheimer, 2003).
This approach ensures the information that the children are learning is processed in a
deep and meaningful way. Current cognitive psychological research supports the validity
of this approach, finding that “[t]o ensure memory is available over time, information
needs to be elaborately processed in ways so that it is meaningful to us” (Herrmann,
Yoder, Gruneberg, & Payne, 2006, p. 87).
In a marked contrast to more overt approaches to instilling moral lessons, teachers
in a Waldorf setting do not ask pointed questions about these stories or require direct
analysis or judgment. Rather, they let moral lessons sink in, and help students build moral
images by drawing pictures, role-playing or repeating verses related to the stories. As
Oppenheimer (2003) notes, “[l]earning through stories as well as practical experience is a
concept long advocated by progressive-education leaders, particularly the great reformer
John Dewey” (p. 375). Psychological research into the development of moral intelligence
in children also finds that an immersion in moral stories leads to the development of
moral intelligence in children (Bettelheim, 1977; Coles, 1997, as cited in Oppenheimer,
A Place for the Arts in the Classroom. While the arts continue to get squeezed out
of traditional public education due to budget cuts and a focus on academic instruction,
they remain an essential element of the Waldorf curriculum. Painting, drawing, singing,
playing musical instruments, knitting, dancing, and more are all entwined in the academic
day. This integration of art into the curriculum “builds such thinking skills as analysis,
synthesis, evaluation and critical judgment. It nourishes imagination and creativity… it



fosters flexible thinking and appreciation for diversity, qualities that appear to be
especially relevant to moral reasoning” (Hether, 2001, p. 139).
A recent study found that American creativity scores have been inching steadily
downward since 1990, and that “[i]t is the scores of younger children in America—from
kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is most serious” (Bronson &
Merryman, 2010, ¶ 6). Noting that this problem is due largely to the reduction of art
classes in elementary school, this study calls the potential consequences of a general
decline in creativity dire, pointing out that “[a] recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified
creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future” (ibid, ¶ 7). In Shanghai,
China, where students rank 1st in the world in math (U.S. students rank 31st), “creativity
is part of their national educational plan” (Mayo, 2010).
Ohler (2009) calls on schools to “treat the arts as the next R, rising it to a level of
importance equal to the traditional 3 Rs.” (¶ 20). He reminds us that the world of new
media requires students to possess competencies that will allow them to “consume and
produce the media forms of the day” (Ohler, 2010, p. 208), much of which is artistic in
nature. Observing that art has become mostly expendable in today’s schools, he points
out that the world of work is built upon “visual presentation and the media collage“ (p.
209) and says that art should be infused across the entire curriculum.
Poets and writers alike have linked art and morality, perhaps none more
eloquently as Ingersoll (1888):
Art cultivates and kindles the imagination, and quickens the conscience. It
is by imagination that we put ourselves in the place of another. When the
whigs of that faculty are folded, the master does not put himself in the
place of the slave; the tyrant is not locked in the dungeon, chained with his
victim. The inquisitor did not feel the flames that devoured the martyr.
The imaginative man, giving to the beggar, gives to himself. Those who
feel indignant at the perpetration of wrong, feel for the instant that they are
the victims; and when they attack the aggressor they feel that they are
defending themselves. Love and pity are the children of the imagination.



Preserving a Sense of Wonder Toward the Natural World. Finally, preserving a

sense of wonder for the natural world is a hallmark of the Waldorf pedagogy. Nurturing a
children’s relationships with other human beings and the rest of the living world is seen
as “the most essential preparation children need for grappling with the daunting social
and ecological choices that technology will pose in the 21st century. Young people need
to have direct experience of the natural world in all its diversity, messiness, and beauty if
they are to appreciate its fragility and irreplaceable value” (Cordes & Miller, 2004, p. 61).
Furthermore, it is held that “when students are separated from a direct experience of
nature, they develop a passive attitude toward the environment and environmental
problems” (Hether, 2001, p. 144).
It is important to note here that in general Waldorf-inspired schools resist
introducing any type of technology to students until well into the middle school years,
often after 8th grade. Additionally, it is customary for these schools to ask families to
limit their children’s home access to technology to weekends only. The reason for this is
the consideration that “the ubiquitous presence of electronic technology is an assault on
the senses and diminishes children’s natural sense of wonder and curiosity about natural
events” (Hether, 2001, p. 143). Furthermore, there is a general belief that it could have a
negative impact on the moral development of children, as formative years spent
interacting with a machine, rather than with other humans or the natural environment,
inhibits healthy cognitive development.
This stance, however, has softened in recent years. Many in the Waldorf
schooling movement are realizing that, though they may be right about limiting access to
technology in the early years, by middle school it is time to equip students with the skills
necessary to become creative, competent and ethical users of the tools of their day.
Ironically, by providing children with an imaginative and moral base, this educational
model may actually be giving its students the ideal foundation for digital citizenship,
without a single piece of technology in sight.



Digital Citizenship for Middle School Students

It’s Not About the Tools
Joseph Weizenbaum, professor emeritus of computer science at MIT and inventor
of the first talking computer system, believed that students could learn all the computer
skills they needed to know “in a summer” (Slonaker & Schmitt, 1996, as cited in
Oppenheimer, 2003, p. 180). He felt that, given the rapid pace at which today’s computer
products and software come and go, any computer program a child might learn in school
was likely to be obsolete by the time he or she entered the workforce. Weizenbaum’s
concern therefore was focused on “our internal architecture of values and morals…”
(ibid, p. 189).
As pointed out earlier in this paper, this concern is being heard more and more,
particularly given the fact that few guidelines exist to help students navigate the ethical
dilemmas of the day. What is becoming abundantly clear is that as young people
increasingly participate “in networked publics, their ability to grasp the moral and ethical
potentials of their participation is critical – for their own futures, for that of their friends
and peers, and for the communities in which they are citizens (Santo, et. al., 2009, p. 5).
Middle School Students and Networked Publics
Early adolescence is the time when young people’s interest in all things digital
reaches its peak. The Kaiser Family Foundation (Rideout, et. al., 2010) reports, “the jump
in media use that occurs when young people hit the 11-14-year old age is tremendous.
Their usage increases by more than three hours (3:00) a day in time spent with media
(total media use), and an increase of four hours (4:00) a day in total media exposure” (p.
5). It is important to note that during this time,
Their emerging moral framework is being developed in an environment
where there is little affective feedback, where there is a reduced risk for
authoritarian-delivered punishment but the potential for being ostracized
as a consequence of inappropriate behavior, where an individual is judged
on the basis of what they write and not who they are, where there is a
constant need to authenticate information to determine its truthfulness,
where there is a high level of interaction with people from throughout the
world and where there is the ability to act out different personas. The



impact of interactions in this kind of an environment on the development

of moral reasoning is unknown. (Willard, 1997, p.1)
In an effort to better understand these unknowns, Dr. Howard Gardner and his
colleagues at Harvard University School of Education’s GoodPlay Project have been
conducting research to discover what ethical issues young people encounter in the digital
world. They have identified five areas of interest: Identity (how youth handle and
perceive self-expression and identity online); Privacy (how, where and with whom youth
share personal information); Credibility (how youth establish trustworthiness of people
and information); Authorship/Ownership (how youth perceive intellectual property and
practices like downloading/remixing content); and, Participation (the meaning of
responsible conduct and citizenship in online communities) (Santo, et. al., 2009).
Although each of these individual areas is important, Gardener (n.d.) recently stated
in an interview that his team found the issue of Participation to be particularly
troublesome. It seems that characteristics that make the digital environment so appealing
to young people, its communal and participatory nature, are also what make it so
challenging. Because these spaces are so different from anything any of us have
experienced in the past, they are void of established ethical practices or boundaries.
Media scholar dana boyd (2007) states that what sets these networked publics apart from
any other type of public space we may be familiar with are these properties: persistence,
searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. In short, whatever information a
young person may post to a public space, say, an a photo or comment on Facebook,
remains in the digital stratosphere forever, can be searched for and found by anyone and
everyone, can be copied and shared, and has the potential to be viewed by strangers
around the world. While young people can’t be expected to understand the enormity of
all this, nor can any of us for that matter, participation in networked publics by middle
school students is on the rise. This has the potential to either empower them with a
feeling of enormous positive impact and/or be incredibly damaging. Any way you look at
it, community participation has taken on an entirely new meaning in the digital age.
Teaching Digital Citizenship
Recognizing the need to equip students with the ethical skills to become good
digital citizens, Common Sense Media (2010) has developed a Media Digital Literacy



and Citizenship curriculum. Based upon the digital ethics research of Dr. Howard
Gardner and the GoodPlay Project, their curriculum for middle school students is divided
into five units that directly align with the five ethical issues identified by Gardner and his
team. The overall goal of this curriculum is to “empower young people to harness the
power of the Internet and digital technology for learning, and for them to become safe,
responsible, and respectful digital citizens” (Common Sense Media, 2010). Following is a
brief overview of the units in this curriculum and ethical issue each corresponds with:
Digital Life Unit (aligns with Participation): Students explore the positive
and negative impact of digital media on their lives and communities, and
define what it means to be a responsible digital citizen.
Privacy and Digital Footprints Unit (aligns with Privacy): Students learn
that the Internet is a very public space, and therefore they must carefully
manage their information and respect the privacy of others online.
Self-Expression and Identity Unit (aligns with Identity): Students identify
and explore different ways they can present themselves online while also
learning to recognize when playing with identity crosses the line into
Connected Culture Unit (aligns with Credibility): Students explore the
ethics of online communities – both the negative behaviors to avoid, such as
cyberbullying and hurtful behavior, and positive behaviors that support
collaboration and constructive relationships. They also learn about how to
clearly communicate by email.
Respecting Creative Work Unit (aligns with Authorship/Ownership):
Students learn about the value and responsibility of being a 21st-century
creator: receiving credit for your own online work and giving others respect
by properly citing their work (Common Sense Media, 2010).
Visual Portion of this Paper
The visual presentation that accompanies this paper explores lessons
and activities included in each of the units above.



The power of social networks and participatory culture create a Digital
Noblesse-Oblige to produce ethical and responsible citizens (Buckner &
Rutledge, 2010).
We inhabit a unique place in time with unprecedented power at our fingertips and
opportunities for connection and collaboration that were unimaginable just a short decade
ago. The digital world is full of both possibility and peril, with rules of engagement being
hashed out as we go. While schools are still “hesitant to embrace new technologies as a
backlash from the significant, and largely ineffectual, investment in classroom computers
as an instructional panacea during in the mid-1990’s” (Collins & Halverson, 2009, p.
140), young people have taken to the digital world and all its participatory wonders like
ducks to water. Although they certainly don’t need our help learning to operate the
devices or the software (we need theirs!), they do need us to prepare them to use these
powerful technologies responsibly and ethically. By nurturing healthy cognitive
development in young students, we are also laying down the building blocks of ethical
thinking, a necessity for true new media literacy.
Without fully realizing it Waldorf-inspired schools have stumbled upon a
successful formula for the early development of new media literacy skills. By providing
rich sensory experiences and social interactions for students from the time they are very
young, these schools are actually sowing the seeds of digital citizenship. The challenge
they now face is taking the next step. The Common Sense Media curriculum based on the
work of Dr. Howard Gardner’s GoodPlay project is an ideal place to start. By
incorporating aspects of this curriculum into its existing pedagogy, Waldorf-inspired
schools can model Ohler’s (2010) vision of a “whole school approach to behavior that
sets the entirety of being digitally active within an overall ethical and behavioral context”
(p. 145). In doing so perhaps some of these practices will find their way into traditional
schools, giving even more students a chance to experience a developmental approach to
new media literacy that will equip them to be creative, capable, and ethical users of
today’s technology, or technologies that are yet seeds in their imaginations.




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