Teachers might incorporate more digital tools into classroom lessons if they feel secure in evaluating those tools.

A nonprofit organization plans to launch a resource that will help teachers and parents rate and review digital media and assess the learning value of various digital tools.

The resource, set for release later this year from Common Sense Media, will address age-appropriateness and entertainment value and will guide users on learning potential along with advice on how to get the most out of playing a game, exploring a website, or using a mobile app. It will be similar to Common Sense Media’s current media ratings.

Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer said the new evaluation tool might inspire the creation of more high-quality learning media.

The initiative “will not only give parents and educators yet another set of tools to make smart media choices, but will also … really elevate the way we think about the learning potential of media and technology,” he said.

Digital media can help connect children to learning experiences they otherwise might not have, but it often can be difficult for parents and children, and even teachers, to find high-quality digital tools.

The 2011 Always Connected report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center revealed that “children’s exposure to and consumption of different types of digital media are growing rapidly.”

Children have more choices, not only when it comes to content, but also when it comes to content delivery.

“Not only do more children than ever have access to digital media, they have an increasing number of choices in the types of media they can own and use. The definition of a media ‘platform’ has blurred as it has become possible to consume media in a variety of ways. Television, for example, can be streamed via the internet and viewed on a personal computer,” the report notes. “Children’s books can be read on iPads. Cell phones can browse the web, play video games, and hold a 5,000-song music collection, in addition to making calls. There is an ever-increasing menu of options in how kids access content.”

A 2008 poll from Common Sense Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center revealed that parents recognized digital media might carry educational benefits. This new program will evaluate and highlight learning opportunities in popular and educational digital media such as mobile apps, games, websites, and more.

“Our kids spend more and more of their time online, learning, playing, and interacting with one another,” said Cathy N. Davidson, a Duke University professor and co-founder of HASTAC, an organization that examines how technology can influence teaching, learning, and communication.

“Rather than being one-size-fits-all, Common Sense [Media] tools will allow parents to set their own standards and goals for their kids’ media use and then see if the media out there meets those standards,” she said. Davidson added that the tool will help “parents to choose the right media and, perhaps even more importantly, to be informed enough to help their children learn how to make good choices for themselves.”

The new tool might prompt teachers to use more digital media in their classrooms if they feel better equipped to evaluate various digital tools.

The 2010 Speak Up Survey results from Project Tomorrow revealed an “exploding interest” in digital content and eBooks.  Just one year ago, only 9 percent of administrators surveyed said they were concerned about how to evaluate the quality of digital resources. The latest survey revealed that 35 percent of administrators reported those same concerns.

School librarians have played a key role in helping teachers use digital content, with 47 percent of librarians in the survey reporting that they find specific digital content to support classroom lectures. Thirty-three percent said they help to train teachers to locate and evaluate digital content.

Only one-third of teachers surveyed said they are creating digitally-rich learning environments using tools such as games, animations, and simulations or videos. Just 25 percent said they are providing opportunities for their students to create their own digital content with multimedia tools.

Forty-five percent of technology coordinators and 44 percent of administrators cited a lack of teacher skills as a significant barrier to greater use of digital content.

Teachers and administrators differ on how to evaluate digital resources. Teachers place more value on digital content that is free, created by a teacher, or recommended by a colleague. Principals tend to trust student achievement results from use of the tool first.

Librarians, who often help teachers learn how to evaluate such resources, indicated the following factors when it comes to evaluating digital media:

• Content accuracy (81 percent)
• Ease of use by teachers and students (76 percent)
• Alignment to curriculum standards (73 percent)
• Credibility of the content publishing organization (66 percent)
• Cost (60 percent)
• Level of engagement and interactivity (50 percent)

“… In addition to the roles of digital content cheerleader within their schools, librarians are also increasingly going to be called upon to be the arbitrator of quality and appropriateness for classroom instruction,” the survey report said.

A January 2010 survey from PBS and education research group Grunwald Associates revealed that 76 percent of K-12 educators said they use digital media in the classroom, up from 69 percent in 2008. Of those teachers, 80 percent are frequent or regular users, though digital media use is less common among pre-K educators, with only 33 percent reporting that they are frequent or regular users.

Common Sense Media partnered with SCE, a new social investment foundation that connects talent and innovation with market forces to drive social change. SCE’s Digital Learning program focuses on the potential of digital media technologies to help children learn and practice both traditional and 21st-century skills.