Many Florida high schools now teach a cybersecurity program. There's a larger plan to help students figure out what is and isn't true online. Organizers hope it will become a nationwide model.



Think of all the disinformation online over, say, the presidential election or the COVID-19 pandemic. It's hard enough for adults to sift through all that. So how are kids supposed to navigate the cyber landscape? In Florida, some schools are teaching digital literacy under a program inspired in part by a former director of national intelligence. NPR's Greg Myre has the story.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: At Countryside High School in Clearwater, Fla., 16-year-old Sage Waite is already taking a class in cyber security, and she'd welcome a new class in cyber disinformation.

SAGE WAITE: Well, for the longest time, I didn't actually know what disinformation was. Like, there was always the idea that things could be wrong in what you're hearing and what you're being told, but the idea of misinformation and disinformation wasn't in my day to day.

MYRE: This past year, she says, has been an eye-opener, particularly the COVID pandemic.

WAITE: The whole, oh, don't get your kids vaccinated because it could cause all sorts of things, stuff like that, like, those bigger things, it's like, where did that come from?

MYRE: A new program on improving digital literacy is now in the works, thanks in part to Mike McConnell. His long career in national security included a stint as the director of National Intelligence. At age 77, he's now focused on combating bad information aimed at young people.

MIKE MCCONNELL: We need to understand this so we can understand and appreciate what's happening to us and be able to not only understand it, to be able to navigate through it. That's what I call digital literacy.

MYRE: McConnell is the executive director of Cyber Florida, which is based at the University of South Florida in Tampa. It works with kids throughout the state at universities, high schools and even those in younger grades. McConnell's group set up the cyber security program now being taught at Florida schools. The new project is even more ambitious.

MCCONNELL: And we think if we can do this for Florida, we can replicate it across the nation.

MYRE: Separating fact from fiction online is a major challenge for the country. We saw this in the swirling claims surrounding the presidential election and with the ongoing pandemic. Yet schools are still trying to figure out how to teach digital skills to students who increasingly live, study and play online. At Countryside High School, computer teacher Jason Felt already has informal discussions on how disinformation is weaponized, like Russian interference in the U.S. elections.

JASON FELT: One of the things that I've talked to my students about are nation-state actors and how nation-state actors try to attack the United States, create websites, Web servers, that people will visit on through social media, pass the information around.

MYRE: Felt says he mostly teaches kids who already have good computer skills. The expanded program will try to make digital literacy something all students get at several grade levels. Another key partner in this project is New America. The Washington think tank is curating dozens of the most promising online tools and building a site designed to be user-friendly for teachers, parents and school systems nationwide. Lisa Guernsey is with New America.

LISA GUERNSEY: Sometimes a teacher may just want to help students understand what deepfakes are. In other cases, a teacher may want to spend several weeks talking about what it means to verify sources.

MYRE: New America plans to have this portal up and running by summer. There's no date yet for the new classes in Florida, but teacher Jason Felt says it can't come soon enough.

FELT: The Internet is a wonderful tool. It's fantastic. It's connected all of us together in a way that's never really been seen before. But it's a blessing, and it's also a curse.

MYRE: Teaching students the difference, he says, is a huge challenge. Greg Myre, NPR News.

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