21st Century Teaching and Learning, Part 1


I am what is currently known as a "digital immigrant" simply because I did not grow up with new technology--"digital native" (Prensky, 2005, pp. 8-13)--but acquired certain skills and understanding of new technology through necessity. As that necessity demanded, I acquired skills that would help me navigate and survive new challenges while remaining true to my own already established ways of knowing and learning and processing of information. My background in higher education has been in traditional research-based universities that have been driven by asking questions, not teaching.

In more recent years higher education has been challenged increasingly to provide good teaching and even insitutions that previously had the luxury of mainly focusing on literary disciplines and research are being challenged to provide good teaching expertise through their faculty. Additionally, more of this teaching focus in both teaching instutions and other more traditional institutions is being driven by employment standards. As a result, K-12 preparation is also focusing on employment standards rather than conventional academic standards. The result is an entire educational system that is more employment-driven than knowledge-driven. While this is understandable in many ways, there is also a subsequent gap in the knowledge ability of students.

The problem with all of what we currently do in the general scope of education is that we, the educators, hold on to how we learned and how we process information and knowledge rather than thinking through the realties of how new students and future students think and process and the challenges they will bring to our courses. Even those most innovative "early adopters" among us struggle to discover effective uses of technology in education but do not really understand how our students perceive what we do or how they process the content we give them. All of this is further challenged in the delivery and distribution of learning. At present enough is not known to establish conclusions about which is better, but we know enough through our own experience to realize that things are different. New technology has challenged the way in which education is delivered, but newer technologies are now challenging how people process information and what they expect to be able to do with that information.

Cognitive psychologists (e.g., the work of the Vanderbilt Cognition and Technology Group) have told us for some time that people process information differently and that meditative and transmittive technologies have affected thinking and perception, which in turn has affected learning (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1999, pp. 274-289). Therefore, instructors have had to become instructional designers conscious of how technology works and what it can offer to the teaching and learning process. Current mobile technology challenges that design even further as it demands a totally different approach to instructional design and also teaching methodology. It requires a fluidity never before seen and new skills from both teacher and student. In fact, I would argue that while we focus on the skills needed for students in the 21st century, we must discuss more and learn more about the skills required of teachers in the 21st century.

For example, while we are aware that distance learning means mediated instruction that is delivered via technology, we are not fully aware of how distance is becoming more "usual" than optional and what that means for education and teacher training. Distance is also becoming more about mobility than simply scheduling flexibility or physical distance. New mobility capabilities challenge instructional design in all areas from content form and format to mediating technology to delivery technology and, ultimately, to distribution. Additionally, this new mobility is challenging skill development in teachers like never before.

Virtual Connections
Instructional content and supporting information must now be seen as "connective" rather than prescriptive. While this seems "diminishing" or less rigorous for current teachers, the reality is that it can promote a real sense of inquiry in students, which is a good thing. That is, content cannot now be presented exhaustively for students. Current students find that "boring" and unchallenging. Therefore, teachers must realize that information now is only a part or piece of something more ... like a puzzle. Not a puzzle in a concrete sense but a virtual puzzle of obvious or implied connections. Those connections are made by students as they navigate through content when presented with the possibility to do so. They do not necessarily perceive those connections as we linear folks would in a two-dimensional, logical sequence but in a sequence of logic that is three-dimensional and that includes input from a variety of sources and a variety of output representations. Our task as educators is crucial in guiding which of those sources and representations is legitimate and beneficial, but we should not try to control the connections in terms of prescriptive flow, but rather in content coherence, academic strength, and relevance.

Summary of Thought
Additionally, instructors must think through linear content and summarize to support concept building rather than memorization of information. This challenges teachers who are in academic disciplines that are concept-based to maximize the potential of how information is presented to better facilitate the concept-building process. For those teaching in disciplines that reserve concept building for advanced stages (e.g., applied mathematics) they are now challenged to teach conceptually earlier in the learning process.

Points of Inquiry
Content can also now be presented as launching pads for inquiry. This stimulates critical thinking and immediate application of knowledge in terms of connection, summary, and inquiry. We have heard and seen much about the diminishing of information through information bites; my sense is that this can help us become more intentional about those bites and use them to motivate students forward more critically in their learning process.

Project-Based Mobile Instructional Design
At this point, the smallest distributable points are cell phones, and, starting with the "end in mind," as in a project-based instructional design, we pose this central question: "If this is being viewed via a cell phone, what is crucial for students to know so that connections can be made, summaries can be completed, and inquiry pursued?" Working backward, instructors then decide which supporting questions should be posed, resources made available, and assessments created to facilitate this process. Finally, the starting point of the course becomes the ending outcome: engaged learning.

Impatience with screen information flow is commonplace in Web development. Current Internet users demand efficiency of text and even prefer icons or graphics rather than long titles or long scrolls. Common to current Web development, scrolling past the screen break means that there is too much text, and it should be re-formatted to fit in one screen. That also maximizes the hyper-technology of the Internet and means that "web-out" becomes a skill developed by frequent Internet users. I must confess, even as a digital immigrant, I am becoming increasingly impatient with long, static text pages and even long text link titles directing my navigation. While we can see that this results in students having less attention and concentration on texts, it can force us to think through the outcomes of a course and stimulate students to respond critically, efficiently, and relevantly through content design and distribution. What seems to be having negative affect on students can also become a positive stimulus in the learning process. The implications of that, however, are that we as teachers must become highly intentional and consciously efficient in our instructional design planning.

Therefore, while we do not know enough about long-term affects on thinking and perception, we can make sure of the technical capabilities and work hard to develop in ourselves the instructional skills we need to meet students where they are in terms of expectations and familiarity. We can also become more critical ourselves in how we perceive our own disciplines and more mobile in how we distribute content and intentional in how we stimulate student response. While mobile technology is coming at us via communication demands, we can monopolize these technological advances and think through how we can use them for instructional benefit and effectiveness.

Part 2 in this series will address types of skills needed in teachers, skills required of students, and holistic measurement of success.


Prenksy, Marc (2005). Listen to the Natives, Educational Leadership, December 2005/January 2006, Vol., No. 4, Learning in the Digital Age

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1999). Schools as knowledge building organizations. In D. Keating & C. Hertzman (Eds.), Today's children, tomorrow's society: The developmental health and wealth of nations

Vanderbilt Cognition and Technology Group: http://www.nscc.edu/

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About the author: Ruth Reynard is the director of faculty for Career Education Corp. She can be reached at [email protected].

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