In celebration of Internet safety month, Google has released a classroom curriculum and computer game to teach children about online safety and security.
The program, called "Be Internet Awesome," is part of Google's effort to instill the youth with digital savvy and to encourage people to be good Internet citizens. The company teamed up with YouTube stars like John Green, the author and popular video blogger, to promote the initiative, which includes educational materials aimed at students in the third to fifth grades.
Developed by Google, the online game, called Interland, invites players to roam around four floating island worlds that contain challenges, puzzles, and quizzes related to online safety. The game is free and accessible via all major Web browsers. (Not just Google Chrome!)
"Embark on a quest to become a fearless explorer of the online world," the game urges during its opening sequence, while promising "awesome and blahsome surprises." Internet users can play it here.
As the adventure proceeds, players battle cyberbullies, hackers, and scammers while picking up skills designed to help keep them safe in an increasingly connected world. The graphics are blocky and colorful, similar to the visuals in Microsoft's (MSFT, -0.54%) popular Minecraft computer game, which will no doubt be familiar to the target demographic.
One world, Tower of Treasure, tasks players to outrun a baddie and collect alphabet letters that will form the basis of a strong password. Another world, Mindful Mountain, charges players to ricochet lasers off mirrors to hit certain targets, thereby teaching them to share certain information only with proper designees.
(Not to brag, but this author earned a "truth sleuth" badge in a level, Reality River, that tests one's knowledge about phishing.)
"To really make the most of the web, we need more than just helpful products: we need to provide guidance as our kids learn to make their own smart decisions online," wrote Pavni Diwanji, vice president of engineering for kids and families at Google, in a blog post on the company website.
"It’s critical that the most influential people in our kids’ lives—parents and teachers, especially—help kids learn how to be safe, positive and kind online, just like we teach them to be offline," said Diwanji, who has been involved with the development of similar Google projects, like YouTube for Kids. "This is something we all need to reinforce together."
Kerry Gallagher, a digital learning specialist at St. John's Prep, a private all boy's school in Danvers, Mass., piloted the program with a sixth grade class. Her 100 student testers "overwhelmingly" told her that they would have preferred learning online safety lessons this way versus traditional schooling methods, and that they would absolutely recommend it to their younger siblings, she said.
Gallagher also tested the program with her 8-year-old daughter, a second-grader. "She found it really fun," Gallagher told Fortune on a call. "She learned what the game intended to teach without her even realizing it."
"A lot of adults don’t know how to talk to young children about the Internet because it's so big and daunting," Gallagher added. "This is a great way to kick that door open and get that conversation going."
Other testers echoed Gallagher's enthusiasm. "They loved it," said Donnie Piercey, a fifth grade science and social studies teacher, who previewed the game with his students at Eminence Elementary School in Kentucky. "Some of the conversations I was able to have with students after they had made their way through the program were some of the most authentic, down-to-earth discussions we had."
"The stuff they post now online, it's going to follow them through the rest of their lives," Piercey said. "That's something I don't want to take lightly, and the Be Internet Awesome program is probably the best way I can think of to teach students that lesson."
Google collaborated with several organizations to bring the program to fruition, including the International Society for Technology in Education (ITSE), the Family Online Safety Institute, the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, and ConnectSafely.
"It gives teachers and parents a way to learn about how to talk with students or children around being good citizen online," said Carolyn Sykora, senior director of the standards program at ISTE, which certified the Google-designed program.