Technology & Education

Technology Literacy as a Catalyst for Systemic Change

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 change.

Zachary 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.

"Those 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."

This 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 achieving systemic change. The article will conclude with five examples of ways schools begin rebuilding the education system to achieve the above goals.

Defining Technology Literacy, Catalyst, and Systemic Change

Prior to building a case for K–12 technology literacy as a key catalyst for systemic change, we need to clarify our definitions of the three major terms in this article’s title.

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 considered necessary.

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.

Seven Components of the ISTE Technology Standards for K–12 Students

1 - Empowered Learner

Students leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving, and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences.

2 - Digital Citizen

Students 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.

3- Knowledge Constructor

Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.

4 - Innovative Designer

Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.

5 - Computational Thinker

Students develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods to develop and test solutions.

6 - Creative Communicator

Students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals.

7 - Global Collaborator

Students 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:

Technology Literacy — “Is 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).

Catalyst — “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.” ( In this article, Technology Literacy is the catalyst and the change is systemic change.

Systemic Change — “Put 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)

Forum 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:

Nine Key Strategies to Create Systemic Change

1 - Create a robust case for change

2 - Make information accessible

3 - Create collaborations

4 & 5 - Create disruptive innovations and routes for them to scale

6 - Create the right incentives, business models and financing

7 - Develop policies that facilitate and reinforce systemic change

8 - Shift culture, mindsets and behaviors

9 - Develop rules, measures and standards for the ‘new normal’

Achieving each of these nine strategies for systemic change will require technology literacy.

The 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.

The 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. 

Making the Case

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 and roadblocks.

  • Incurring a Cost for Innovation: New 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 Tangential: Although 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.

  • Time Intensive: 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 education changes.

  • Digital Equity: 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 to achieve technology literacy.

  • 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 differences.

  1. Urgency: 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.

  2. Advanced Technology: 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 ourselves.

  3. 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.

Suggested Innovative Solutions for Achieving Systemic Change

Thus far, we have:

  1. Made a case for K–12 technology literacy as a key catalyst for systemic change

  2. Addressed current roadblocks K–12 schools experience in meeting their technology literacy goals

  3. Identified three factors that are now present that provide an opportunity to overcome these roadblocks

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 Address Challenge

Incurring a cost for Innovation

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 tangential

Teachers integrate 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.

Time intensive

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.

Digital divide

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 literacy

Each solution works with teachers of all current and future subject areas and is not isolated in “tech classes” for computer “nerds.”

Aggressive vendors

Student technology leaders can be a buffer between educators and vendors.

Lack of student/educator collaboration

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 change.

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

The Concept: 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.

The Implementation: 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

The Concept: 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.

The Implementation: 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.

Further Information: 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

The Concept: 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.

The Implementation: 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 proposal.

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 activities.

Further Information: 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. (Hatch, 2017)

Suggested Solution #4: Local Required Systemic Change Class

The Concept: 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.

The Implementation: 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.

Further Information: 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

The Concept: 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.

The Implementation: 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.

Further Information: 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 within 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 today’s world.
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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