21st Century Learning: 'We're Not Even Close'

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Without incorporating technology into every aspect of its activities, no organization can expect to achieve results in this increasingly digital world. Yet education is dead last in technology use compared with all major industrial sectors, and that has to change in order for schools to meet the challenges of 21st century learning--this according to a paper released Monday by the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills at the SETDA Leadership Summit and Education Forum in Washington, DC.

"How will we create the schools America needs to remain competitive?" the paper asks. "For more than a generation, the nation has engaged in a monumental effort to improve student achievement. We've made progress, but we're not even close to where we need to be."

The paper, Maximizing the Impact: the Pivotal Role of Technology in a 21st Century Education System, calls on education leaders to incorporate technology comprehensively in school systems in the United States to boost 21st century skills, support innovative teaching and learning, and create "robust education support systems."

The paper reported that there are two major conceptual obstacles preventing schools from taking full advantage of technology as a catalyst for improvements in teaching and learning: a narrow approach to the use of technology and an unfounded assumption that technology is already being used widely in schools in a comprehensive and effective manner.

According to the paper:

To overcome these obstacles, our nation's education system must join the ranks of competitive U.S. industries that have made technology an indispensable part of their operations and reaped the benefits of their actions. This report is a call to action to integrate technology as a fundamental building block into education in three broad areas:

1. Use technology comprehensively to develop proficiency in 21st century skills. Knowledge of core content is necessary, but no longer sufficient, for success in a competitive world. Even if all students mastered core academic subjects, they still would be woefully underprepared to succeed in postsecondary institutions and workplaces, which increasingly value people who can use their knowledge to communicate, collaborate, analyze, create, innovate, and solve problems. Used comprehensively, technology helps students develop 21st century skills.

2. Use technology comprehensively to support innovative teaching and learning. To keep pace with a changing world, schools need to offer more rigorous, relevant and engaging opportunities for students to learn--and to apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways. Used comprehensively, technology supports new, research-based approaches and promising practices in teaching and learning.

3. Use technology comprehensively to create robust education support systems. To be effective in schools and classrooms, teachers and administrators need training, tools and proficiency in 21st century skills themselves. Used comprehensively, technology transforms standards and assessments, curriculum and instruction, professional development, learning environments, and administration.

So what do these mean? In the first case, the paper calls on educators to teach technology and build technological fluency in students not just through direct instruction in a specific hardware or software, but through the integration of technology in other areas of learning.

"... Technology must empower students to accomplish their own "knowledge work"--work that involves using, processing and creating information and knowledge, which is increasingly prevalent in workplaces and communities. Technology also must enable students to acquire all of the 21st century skills they need to participate fully in the global economy and to manage their own destinies."

In the second case, the use of technology to support teaching and learning, the organizations posit that technology can be an aid in nine key areas of education:

  • Building conceptual understanding of core content;
  • Addressing misconceptions;
  • Fostering inquiry and investigation;
  • Applying knowledge and skills to interdisciplinary challenges;
  • Creating and transforming knowledge for meaningful purposes;
  • Collaborating with others;
  • Apprenticing with experts;
  • Engaging and motivating students; and
  • Differentiating instruction to meet individual needs.

"Technology also can be an extraordinary support for teachers, who can use it to become more effective in their classrooms," according to the paper. "Standards and standards-based lessons and multimedia resources available online can provide teachers with exemplary models, research-based strategies and useful materials. Technology-based classroom assessments can give them an instant read on student performance. Technology can enable teachers to keep all students working productively--and give them time to work with students individually or in small groups."

Finally, in the area of the use of technology to create robust support for education, the groups declared, "In a 21st century education system, technology must be used comprehensively and purposefully to create robust education support systems for standards and assessments, curriculum and instruction, professional development and professional learning communities, and administration."

To this end, educators and staff members must themselves master 21st century skills to be effective in their roles.

"Such technologies as videoconferencing, online learning, networking, and instant messaging can support professional development and professional learning communities. Using technologies like these, educators can learn and collaborate with peers, mentors, experts, and community members routinely. They can build ongoing professional relationships, develop capacity in teaching 21st century skills, benefit from just in time communications, and reduce the time and expense of travel."

And for administrators, "Technology can support administration in providing instructional leadership, managing learning environments and professional learning communities, and making decisions that support proficiency in 21st century skills. Networking technologies, for example, can support administrators in communicating with staff members, parents and community members. Data management systems enable states, districts and schools to make sense of the mountains of data they collect, monitor technology and other resources, and track trends in student achievement."

The three groups responsible for the paper--SETDA, ISTE, and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning--concluded with several calls to action for federal, state, and local policymakers and education agencies and for business and community leaders. It called on federal and state policymakers to "integrate technology as a part of every program and initiative for the effective and efficient implementation of a 21st century education system that includes 21st century skills and core subjects" and require standards (such as NETS) for the educational use of technology.

For state and local agencies, it called for linking technology plans to school improvement or 21st century learning plans; the appointment of education technology directors at state and district levels; support for the development of effective strategies to teach and assess media and technology skills; and the implementation of technology-based professional development, among others.

It also called on business and community leaders to advocate proficiency in 21st century skills, advocate technology in education systems, and support policies that fund technology in education.

Further information about the groups and the paper, Maximizing the Impact: the Pivotal Role of Technology in a 21st Century Education System, can be found at the links below, including case studies for best practices and links to research.

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

David Nagel is the executive producer for 1105 Media's online K-12 and higher education publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. He can now be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/THEJournalDave (K-12) or http://twitter.com/CampusTechDave (higher education). You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192.

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