AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine educator will join the ranks of such luminaries as President Bill Clinton, George Lucas and Elmo from Sesame Street this week when he is honored by a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that aims to help parents and teachers improve children’s experiences with media and technology.
Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director for the Maine Department of Education, is a “tireless advocate” for digital literacy and digital citizen education in Maine schools, according to an official from Common Sense Media.
Rebecca Randall said that Maine is still one of the only states with a comprehensive laptop program for students.
“Ultimately our feeling is that in order for these students to fully benefit from the laptops, they needed to know how to use them in a smart and ethical way,” she said Thursday. “Jeff and the Maine Department of Education agreed … the state has really provided the support and professional development to teachers and Jeff Mao has really been leading the vision on this from the very beginning.”
Mao, 41, lives in Topsham and has spent eight years working for the Department of Education. He said that Maine’s laptop program has attracted positive attention both nationally and internationally and that he has spoken about it to educators on five continents.
“Once you get outside of Maine, everyone wishes they were Maine,” he said of the state’s educational reputation, especially in the push for technology in schools. “I think most educators will recognize that the presence of having technology at the fingertips of kids, for learning, is a great thing.”
Many Maine middle-schoolers live in small, rural or remote locations. Providing them with easy access to the Internet can broaden their outlook on the world and give them educational opportunities, he said. But safety, Internet etiquette and digital citizenship must all be addressed so that students can have a positive experience.
It wouldn’t be fair for the state to start the laptop program and then let individual school districts scramble to figure all that out, according to Mao.
“From the state’s perspective, we own some of this because we handed out these laptops,” he said. “It makes sense to us to work with a national organization.”
That’s where the state’s relationship with Common Sense Media comes in.
“We need to help schools, not just on the safety thing but on what has become digital citizenship,” Mao said. “The Internet and these online worlds have added complexity to all these conversations. These new ways that kids are interacting.”
Common Sense Media, a decade-old national organization, works around the country to help kids become good digital citizens, according to Randall.
“To think critically, to behave safely,” she said. “We think media and technology can offer amazing opportunities for kids, but they can come with risks.”
The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization rates and reviews applications and websites, determining whether they have educational value. It also offers a free, comprehensive K-12 digital literacy and citizenship curriculum with the goal of “empowering kids,” Randall said.
Common Sense Media has worked closely with the Maine Department of Education and 75 percent of public schools in the state have used the group’s materials.
“Maine actually was one of our first partner sites,” she said. “It’s been a very symbiotic relationship.”
There is even a staff position at the Maine Department of Education that is partially funded through Common Sense Media.
Mao said that the partnership has helped Maine schools and students learn about issues including intellectual copyright, content creation, making sure students use “age-appropriate” websites and more.
“Maine is somewhat unique in this idea, in having this big laptop program,” he said. “We also at the state level have a deep commitment to doing this work. That’s what led to this award. They said, ‘In Maine, they’re doing it right.’ I get the accolades — but I wasn’t alone in this.”
Jeff Mao will be honored Wednesday at the eighth annual Common Sense Media Awards at City Hall in San Francisco. Other honorees include actor Nick Cannon, media activist and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz.