Technology & Education
Technology Literacy as a Catalyst for Systemic Change
- By Dennis O. Harper, Rebecca F. Kemper
The K–12 education system
needs to change.
This sentence has been uttered for centuries, and millions of
educators and billions of dollars have attempted to make this change.
John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Seymour Papert, Jonathan
Kozel, and many others spent their lives developing proven models of
teaching and learning. National efforts such as “A Nation at Risk”
(United States, 1983), Technology Innovation Challenge Grants (U.S.
Department of Education, 1995), and “No Child Left Behind”
(United States, 2001) are just three examples of recent efforts to
systematically change schools. So why haven’t these efforts
resulted in significant change? Why have we read every year for the
past century that “the K–12 education system is in crisis?”
This article will argue that
three factors are now (2021) different and can result not only in
meaningful educational reform but also in overall systemic change in
systems beyond education. The article then will propose that
technology literacy is the catalyst to take these new factors into
account and create overall global systemic change. This article will
further provide five Suggested Solutions that could be implemented by K–12 schools that can address both technology literacy and systemic
Stein (2019) in his book "Education in a Time Between Worlds”
summarizes what current education system reform should entail and why
it is key to reforming systems beyond education.
preoccupied with 'fixing' the existing system of schools do not stop
to ask questions about what schools are for, who they serve, and what
kind of civilization they perpetuate. As I have been discussing, our
civilization is in transition. Across the planet major
transformations are underway -- in world system and biosphere -- that
will decenter the core, reallocate resources, and recalibrate values,
the economy, and nature itself. This is the task of education today:
to confront the almost unimaginable design challenge of building an
educational system that provides for the re-creation of civilization
during a world system transition. This challenge brings us
face-to-face the importance of education for humanity and the basic
questions that structure education as a human endeavor."
article is more than reforming the K–12 education system. It is about
changing all systems. We will present a case for how to meet the
challenge identified by Stein to “rebuild an educational system
that provides for the re-creation of civilization during world system
transition.” We will suggest that achieving this rebuild is now
possible for three reasons: urgency, technology, and youth infusion.
We then argue that K–12 technology literacy is a key catalyst for
The article will conclude with five examples of ways schools begin
rebuilding the education system to achieve the above goals.
Technology Literacy, Catalyst, and Systemic Change
Prior to building a case for K–12 technology
literacy as a key
we need to clarify our definitions of the three major terms in this
K–12 Technology Literacy
— What does it mean for a K–12 student to be technology literate?
What should a high school student need to know upon graduation from
high school? To be literate in any subject area is always a moving
target. As time passes more history happens, more literature is
written, more science is discovered, etc. Technology literacy is
perhaps the most fluid of all literacies. The current pandemic has
shown that first graders have had to master distance learning apps
and cloud-based environments, skills that heretofore were not
The International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) has addressed technology literacy for
the past 20 years by developing the comprehensive ISTE Standards for
Students (ISTE, 2016). These standards divide technology literacy
into seven key components.
Components of the ISTE Technology Standards for K–12 Students
- Empowered Learner
leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving,
and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by
the learning sciences.
- Digital Citizen
recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of
living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world,
and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical.
critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to
construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make
meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.
- Innovative Designer
Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.
- Computational Thinker
develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving
problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods
to develop and test solutions.
- Creative Communicator
communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a
variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats
and digital media appropriate to their goals.
- Global Collaborator
use digital tools to broaden their perspectives and enrich their
learning by collaborating with others and working effectively in
teams locally and globally.
There are hundreds of attempts
to define technology literacy, but, for our purposes, we use the
following definition because of its close alignment to the ISTE
Technology Standards for K–12 Students:
a term used to describe an individual’s ability to assess, acquire
and communicate information in a fully digital environment. In
practice, students who possess technology literacy are able to easily
utilize a variety of digital devices (e.g., computers, smartphones,
tablets) and interfaces (e.g., e-mail, internet, social media, cloud
computing) to communicate, troubleshoot and problem solve in both
academic and non-academic surroundings” (Top Hat, 2021).
— “A person
or thing that precipitates an event or change or something
that causes activity, an event, or change and usually, these events
and changes are big.” (Dictionary.com) In this article, Technology
Literacy is the catalyst and the change is systemic change.
simply, systemic change occurs when change reaches all or most parts
of a system, thus affecting the general behavior of the entire
system.” (Connolly, 2017)
for the Future, in May of 2019, convened over 40 senior leaders
across philanthropic, corporate and investment communities to share
ideas on how to activate systemic change (Uren 2019). In the below
table are nine strategies that came out of this forum:
Key Strategies to Create Systemic Change
Create a robust case for change
Make information accessible
5 - Create disruptive innovations and routes for them to scale
Create the right incentives, business models and financing
Develop policies that facilitate and reinforce systemic change
Shift culture, mindsets and behaviors
Develop rules, measures and standards for the ‘new normal’
each of these nine strategies for systemic change will require
following diagram illustrates how these three definitions relate to
each other and show how K–12 Technology Literacy is the key catalyst
for system change.
Achieving the ISTE Standards
for Students and realizing our definition of technology literacy has
had limited success. If our premise hinges on K–12 students being
technologically literate in order to address and achieve systemic
change, then we must briefly recognize the following major obstacles
Incurring a Cost for
programs, training, technology, research, etc. require additional
funding. To move forward, schools need to procure additional funding
and/or cut existing programs. Both these options are difficult to
implement so schools decide that change is not worth the effort.
Technology is Considered
there is a T in STEM, and computer science is certainly now a major
science in STEM’s S component, schools still consider technology
literacy as defined above to be outside the traditional core
Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies curricula. Related
to this is that there is no required technology literacy test.
Schools are hesitant to implement something if it doesn’t increase
test scores. Of course testing technology literacy as it is defined
above would be almost impossible and probably a bad idea.
Teaching and learning are more complex in terms of both singular
subject material and technological change. Teachers are already
overburdened with careers and their lives. Any change requires
additional time and therefore is often not seriously considered. In
the past two decades, K–12 schools have spent an inordinate amount
of time preparing for and taking tests and trump any systemic
Much data has recently surfaced showing a substantial digital divide
(the opposite of digital equity) existing between K–12 schools and
students. Both access to devices and connectivity are nonexistent or
inadequate for millions of students. Even more important are the
inequities in what students and teachers do with these devices and
connectivity (NPR, 2011).
Overly Myopic View/Understanding of Technology Literacy:
Schools that have a robotics club with ten students, or an annual
hour-of-code, or an eSports team do not come close to meeting our
definition of technology literacy for both the few students who
participate in these activities or the vast majority who don’t.
Schools that require all students to “do” The PowerPoint or take
keyboarding may be teaching useful but not nearly sufficient
Aggressive Vendors/Vendor Fatigue:
Thousands of ed tech vendors compete for a small portion of a
school’s overall budget. The larger companies aggressively market
their products to schools, and this often results in purchases not
based on research and results. Smaller startup companies with proven
products that address technology literacy have a tough time
getting-the-ear of overburdened decision makers who are deluged with
emails and cold calls.
Lack of Collaboration with
Students/Failure to Infuse Youth into the Solution:
This is probably the most significant obstacle to change. Schools
that deploy their students as change agents rather than the object
of change have shown greater academic and technological literacy
success. (GenYES External Research Studies, 2021)
Resistance to Change:
Anytime something new is needed in K–12 schools, it is generally
resisted or ignored. Countless books, articles, and research have
addressed systemic K–12 change. Major identified obstacles include
the fear of making mistakes that may well result in bad publicity,
especially in today’s social media and cancel culture. Any change
in operations causes an additional administrative load. But there is
a need to weigh the short-term cost of such change against the
larger, longer-lasting cost to society if outdated educational
practices are continued; harm can and is done when educational
practice is not updated (Tocci,
Ryan, Pigott, 2019).
Some of the above obstacles
and roadblocks have been around for decades. These mountains seem too
big to climb. Is there anything different today that can provide us
optimism in achieving widespread technological literacy as a catalyst
for systemic change? We will now suggest three significant
People are finally realizing it is time to take seriously some of
the problems the world is now facing and that present systems are in
need of change. Yes, humans have been dealing with critical problems
for thousands of years. As we are now in the third decade of the
21st century the problems have become more challenging with far dire
consequences if we fail to reform. Climate change, pandemics,
Internet hacking and misinformation, education reform, income
inequality, systemic racism, nuclear proliferation, and tribalism
are some of the urgent challenges that we must now address.
Technology has been advancing for centuries, especially during the
past three decades. Technology may finally be at the point where we
can actualize bringing about the systemic changes necessary to
address the urgent problems facing humanity. High-speed networks,
cloud-based storage, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc. can now
become elements in a powerful toolkit, giving us a chance to save
Kid Power: K–12 students have always had energy and the mental prowess to
create change. All of today’s K–12 students were born in the 21st
century and are keenly aware of the urgency of the times, as they
have the most to lose if humanity fails to address the above
challenges. They have a pretty good idea of how today’s
technologies can help solve problems and don’t have to be
convinced that technology literacy is critical. We see today’s K–12 students working in powerful ways in their communities and
wanting to do more. K–12 educators are finally beginning to realize
that without the energy, expertise, and passion of their students,
reform is not possible.
Peter Exley, president of
the American Institute of Architects, recently stated that a wave of
youth activism as well as the past year’s global reckonings on
racial justice, health and inequality have made the current
generation of students increasingly insistent that their curriculums
confront a fast changing world. (Roache, 2021)
COVID-19 has shown us that K–12 schools can adapt when urgency (the pandemic), technology
(distance learning), and kid power (youth infusion) come together.
These three factors provide the background for the following modest
suggested steps that K–12 schools can do in the short-term (one to
four years) to ensure their students graduate from high school with
the technology skills addressed above and the ability to use those
skills to achieve the systemic change we so desperately need.
Innovative Solutions for Achieving Systemic Change
Thus far, we have:
Made a case for K–12
technology literacy as a key catalyst for systemic change
Addressed current roadblocks K–12 schools experience in meeting their technology literacy goals
Identified three factors that
are now present that provide an opportunity to overcome these
Based on the authors’
experiences in achieving systemic change and current research, we now
provide some ideas to K–12 leaders (including students) on some
potential innovative solutions that can lead to universal technology
literacy. The Forum for the Future’s Nine Strategies for Systemic
Change listed above provide excellent guidance on achieving this
change. Here we will focus on Strategy 4 (Create disruptive
innovation) and Strategy 5 (Routes for them to scale).
This table lists the
challenges associated with systemic change that were discussed above
along with how each of the subsequent Suggested Solutions help
alleviate the challenge.
Challenge to Change
How Suggested Solutions
Incurring a cost for
All these models have youth
infusion at their core. Students receive class credit or community
service for their input and support. If they are paid, it is
typically lower wages than professional staff. This can
substantially lower the cost of change.
Tech is considered
technology more readily into their classrooms when they know
onsite support is available in the form of their students.
Teachers don’t have to keep up with all the tech changes as
students bring their expertise and energy to the fore.
Well prepared student
technology leaders can prepare materials for teachers, assist
peers for both online and in-school situations, provide on-demand
professional development, etc. All this saves teachers time while
allowing students to learn by doing.
All the sample solutions
reflect the school’s student diversity and one solution goes a
step further and brings diverse students throughout the nation
together that reflect national demographics.
Myopic view of tech
Each solution works with
teachers of all current and future subject areas and is not
isolated in “tech classes” for computer “nerds.”
Student technology leaders
can be a buffer between educators and vendors.
Lack of student/educator
collaboration is at the center of each solution
Resistance to change
Schools are more likely to
embrace change when they see how the change empowers students.
Addressing the challenges listed in this table also encourages
We know that the following
solutions are not completely new but we look at them through the lens
of the three different factors identified above: Urgency, Technology,
and Kid Power.
Suggested Solution #1:
Student Technology Leaders
A class of 15 to 25 Student Technology Leaders (elective in
middle/high school and pull-out/club in elementary schools) is highly
trained to provide tech support to their teachers, administrators,
and staff. Student Technology Leaders (STLs) can provide another
perspective to both school administrators and teachers when it comes
to school improvement, how technology can enhance learning and
ensuring that all students are technology literate.
A K–12 school delivers a year-long class where students learn the
technology available in their school. Most of the learning takes
place as they assist adults in all things related to technology. STLs
keep track of the projects they do. This STL implementation should be
a top priority because it helps administrators and teachers achieve
their other priorities.
Further Information: The Generation YES nonprofit
organization has received over $30 million in grants over the past 25
years developing this model (GenYES and Harper 2018).
Suggested Solution #2:
Youth Infusion Task Force
A team of K–12 stakeholders (teachers, administrators, staff,
parents, community members, board representatives, and most
importantly students in grades 4-12) form a task force to develop
strategies and an implementation model that focuses on how youth will
be involved in the issues of technology literacy and systematic
change in their school/district. This solution aims directly at the
meaningful systemic changes laid bare by the pandemic. Infusing youth
into this process also results in solving the leadership challenges
necessary to achieve urgent systemic change.
A task force is established via volunteers or invitation. The task
force members attend an intensive 2-day retreat during summer or
other school breaks to lay the groundwork for creating the Youth
Infusion Implementation Model. A task force member familiar with such
a process will need to prepare for and mediate the retreat. The
retreat will result in a customised mission statement, goals,
objectives, timelines, milestones, and next steps. The Task Force
meets periodically to create drafts, solicit feedback, publish a
working implementation model, monitor progress, and revise as
necessary. Such activation of youth power is consistent with GenYes
and Sally Uren (2019) Forum for the Future models for success.
The definitive resource for K–12 students working with adults on a
task force, school board, curriculum committees, etc., can be found
at the Youth Infusion website (Lesko 2021).
Suggested Solution #3:
After School For-Credit Learning
In this solution, middle and high schools require each student to
participate in one or more online or onsite after school learning
activities related to one or more of these three learning topics --
youth leadership, systemic change or achieving technology literacy.
A committee of stakeholders (including a substantial number of
students) determines the minimal amount of time these learning
activities must take to meet this requirement. The committee can
provide a list of acceptable learning activities that could include
online courses, community service projects, internships, existing
school and community based learning opportunities, etc.
Students in the school can
also suggest other learning activities that could meet this
requirement by submitting a proposal that addresses one or more of
the learning topics. In this case, the committee would create a
proposal application for the student to submit to the committee. The
committee would then determine whether to accept, reject, or modify
The committee would also
decide whether an artifact will be required to receive credit for the
learning activity. Artifacts could include videos, podcasts, recorded
webinars, social media posts, websites, digital presentations, oral
presentations, etc. Exemplary artifacts can be posted on the school
or district’s website as examples for future after school learning
This solution is basically a required after-school onsite or online
course. The literature is rife with information on this learning
methodology. The Aurora Institute is a leader in this field and has
many useful resources (Aurora, 2001). The uniqueness of this solution
is that it is a strategy specifically addressing technology and
systemic change. Estonia is a country that has a similar requirement
for every student taking after school classes in their Hobby Schools.
Suggested Solution #4:
Local Required Systemic Change Class
A half or whole day each week is dedicated to every middle and/or
high school student attending a Systemic Change Class. Every student
will take and every teacher will teach the same class. The class is
divided into six 6-week learning modules. The first module addresses
technology literacy and the remaining five each address systemic
change issues in education, health, economy, environment, and
justice. Each class will be randomly selected from the entire school
population stratified to ensure, as much as possible, an equal number
of students from each grade level and gender. Teachers will have
access to some resources related to each topic but they can teach the
class as they see best matches their academic interests. For example,
a history teacher would look at each systemic change module through a
historical perspective, an art teacher through art that reflects each
system, a math teacher through statistics and graphs, a coach through
health and fitness, etc.
Much of this and the following Suggested Solution’s preparation and
delivery of this Class depends on the teacher. Some professional
development and guidance will be provided but trust must be given to
teachers, all who have college degrees and subject area expertise.
There is no prescribed learning here. Teachers address critical
issues using their creativity. Having every teacher in a school teach
the same Systemic Change Class from their perspective ensures that
students relate systemic change and technology literacy to all
subject areas and their daily lives. Of course, the students
themselves should be part of determining the module’s direction and
what learning will take place. If a school has a student technology
leadership team (Solution 1 above), these students can be distributed
into each class to provide technology support.
The first Systemic Change
Module addresses technology literacy and centers both on the
technology they will need to use in this course, as well as
technology’s effect on society in general and five Systemic Change
Modules that follow.
Each module will include the
production of one artifact that summarizes what the class did and
learned. This artifact can take many forms (videos, websites, music,
podcasts, infographics, slideshows, graphic arts, etc.). The only
restriction is that the artifact has to be available to share on the
school or district website. At the end of the school year, a school
with forty teachers will have created 240 artifacts from 240
different Systemic Change classes.
The previous three Suggested Solutions are based on rigorous research
studies and a long history of successful implementations (GenYES,
Youth Leadership, and after-school learning). Of course linking these
strategies to technology literacy to systemic change makes all these
solutions unique. This Solution #4 and its related Solution #5 have
little historical research. Requiring a K–12 student body to take a
substantial amount of time each week to discuss topics of national
concern and urgency is in its infancy. Spain, Italy, and the
Netherlands are in various stages of such a model as it relates to
climate change (Roache 2021 and Coelho 2018). Given the premise of
this article, the timing may be right to engage in a major research
grant to study the efficacy of such an approach.
Suggested Solution #5:
National Required Systemic Change Class
This solution is similar to the the previous Suggested Solution #4.
The difference here is that the Systemic Solution Class is made up of
students in multiple schools from multiple states; students connect
virtually across these different geographic locations. Diversity is
added to Solution #4. The teacher and student makeup of each class
will come from urban, suburban, and rural schools resulting in a
racially diverse class. A major reason for systemic inequality is
that the majority of schools serve students in their racially
segregated neighborhoods. This model takes into account the present
day urgency for systemic change and uses technology to bring
different perspectives into the Systemic Change Classroom.
This is much the same as Suggested Solution #4 except that putting
together the classes is more complicated. Participating schools must
be carefully selected so they are as diverse as possible. Anywhere
from four to ten schools would work. Each school would submit a list
of students who would be participating along with their grade level,
gender, and race. Once this information is obtained, the students are
distributed in the most diverse manner possible. Each Systemic Change
class would contain at least two students that attend the school
where the teacher is located. Once the class is created, it operates
the same as the localized version of the model.
Here is an example of how the
selection process would work. Ten nationally diverse schools submit
their participating student and teacher names. In this example let’s
assume that the total number of students is 5,000 (average of 500 per
school) with 250 teachers (average of 20 students per teacher/class).
Larger schools would end up with more students from their own school
in their classes and vice versa. At least two students from each
school will be enrolled in each class in that school. This ensures
that each teacher has two students to assist them with all aspects of
the class. Each of the 250 teachers will receive their class lists
prior to the start of the school year. These 250 classes will produce
1,500 Systemic Change artifacts.
See Suggested Solution #4 above
Keeping our formal education
spaces updated to equitably prepare students for the times has always
been a challenge in schools. Technology advancement, alongside
current pandemic public health safety protocols requiring -- at least
partially -- remote instruction, has made the educational space ripe
for adopting a more holistic, innovative use of technology within the
classroom to better prepare a 21st century citizenry. Yet, we know
that to maintain the relevance of these technologies, kids themselves
need to be empowered within the classroom’s adoption of technology
to sustain these efforts. Put another way, youth should be infused
technological literacy endeavours to actualize systemic change.
Further understanding of technology-enabled participatory
instructional modes in formal education is needed for change.
Relatedly, educational research is needed to understand how students
empowered in this way learn not just the course material but
fundamental collaborative and communicative skills necessary in
Technology literacy is more than knowing how
to adeptly move across various devices or use these devices to create
digital content; it is also understanding how
to be a responsible
citizen of an online, interconnected society both locally and
globally. Our world demands much of our young people: knowing what
online information is valid, keeping up with changes in technology
and digital outlets, being able to communicate their own needs across
a myriad of platforms. Is it time for young people to demand
classroom experiences to enable lifelong learning? It is the
intention of this article to synthesize the lessons learned from the
past forty years to guide classrooms in empowering youth to be
digital citizens in a world that demands it. Increasingly, schools
require more information about the complex in-real-life and digital
learning ecologies that they inhabit. To this end, researching how
technology-enabled digital spaces interrelate to school settings is
critical; with this knowledge K–12
schools can ensure their students are prepared to use technology as a
catalyst for systemic change moving forward.
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