In some circles there are those who still (13 years into the 21st century!) resist the notion that learning in the 21st century is any different than it has ever been. Perhaps they might even go as far as claiming that the “21st century learner” is a myth. As a learner who has learned (and taught) in both the 20th and the 21st centuries, I am a firm believer that, even though some aspects of learning haven’t changed, the changes that have occurred are significant and cannot be ignored. The International Society for Technology Education (ISTE) National Educational Technology for Students (NET*S) standards have been established to address the needs of the 21st century learner.
The NET*S standards identify six domains that learners in the 21st century need “to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly global and digital world.” Through the guidance of these standards, 21st century educators take part in producing individuals who will be prepared to maximize their potential and achieve future success. The six domains serve to develop skills that will prepare learners for an unpredictable future. These skills can serve individuals in the careers that we know exist today, but are transdisciplinary in nature and can be applied to those careers that are yet unknown.
Creativity and Innovation
Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
During my high school education in the 1980s, I was rarely, if ever!, asked to do anything creative outside of art class. I can specifically recall once in my sophomore English class an assignment to create a book cover for an Agatha Christie novel we had read as a class. I remember my teacher raving about mine in front of the class because rather than try to draw something, I had glued on the pieces of an old makeup compact that was somehow connected with the plot. During my teenage years in high school, creativity was somewhat limited to construction paper, Elmer’s glue, and colored pencils. As a result creativity essentially belonged to those who could draw and write short stories and poetry.
Today, I watch students create in ways that weren’t even part of my way of knowing in 1985. Students who can draw amazing stick people on a good day are not limited by only one or two options to express themselves. Those who can draw and write creatively have an audience beyond their sketchbooks and diaries. For my 15 year old son, the physical act of putting pen to paper is a slow and tedious experience as the small motor skills required for penmanship don’t really result in anything that resembles legible adult handwriting. I listen to him tapping out 700 – 1000 word blog posts on the computer keyboard every day/night . If pen and paper were his only option, I doubt he would be motivated to pursue and develop his passion for writing. I’ve seen students in my English classes who are challenged by the writing process communicate their deep thinking through a video montage or a computer generated graphic.
Through the development of student creativity and innovation, learners in the 21st century are able to demonstrate their depth of knowledge and the connections that they are making through a variety of medium.
Communication and Collaboration
Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.
All of the communication that I was expected to do in high school was generally between me and my teachers. My essays were written for my teachers. My ability to communicate my mathematical thinking wasn’t even acknowledged. Communication as an idea wasn’t even the priority. I needed to memorize historical dates and events for tests and grammatical rules in order to diagram sentences. I did this alone at my desk in a row, mostly in silence. French class is about the only place I remember any type of communication and collaboration. Pairing up with a classmate and writing a dialogue to perform for the class was (and still is) a common occurrence in second language classes.
As a 21st century learner, the any time, anywhere possibility of communication and collaboration has made me a better learner and, thus, a better teacher. I can learn something new at 10 p.m. on a Friday night from someone on the other side of the world. I am not limited by a physical location at a specific time. I am not limited by the thoughts of 15 individuals (whose background is a lot like mine) in a classroom on a university campus on Wednesday nights. I communicate with my virtual classmates and collaborators who are diverse learners scattered all over the globe.
Research and Information Fluency
Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.
Remember spending hours in the university library stacks poring over volumes of bound and printed texts? Of course, that was after the hours spent at the computer terminal gathering a list of titles that might provide the information your research topic required. Much of my research involved French language, literature, and culture while I was at universities in Michigan and Wisconsin pre-internet. Limiting to say the least…
Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.
This is arguably the skill that will carry students forward to success in an unknown future. Honestly, the 1980s really didn’t offer up a lot of educational simulation opportunities where decisions needed to be made. However, people who participated in role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons created problem solving and decision making contexts for themselves. This was not the type of learning activity provided in my local school district.
Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.
Was character education really part of 20th century education? I certainly don’t recall this being present in any of my history as a learner. Character education is a precursor to digital citizenship. There is certainly crossover as “doing unto others” is a universal as analog and digital lives collide. However, the contexts of “legal and ethical” behavior in the digital world are not always as clear cut as
- “Be kind”
- Does this feel different when a human being is represented by a string of typed words?
- “Respect authority”
- Who is the authority online?
- “Play by the rules”
- Rules established by whom?
- “Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements”
- Could typed expletives and capital letters seem more peaceful than yelling and hitting?
Digital citizenship carries an additional layer beyond character education as the many facets of the digital world create new and complex learning environments and communities that have a feel much different than the face-to-face world. How students choose to represent themselves in a digital format feels very different than how they actually behave in real life.
Technology Operations and Concepts
Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations.
Here adults often defer to the myth of the “digital native.” This is a very slippery slope as so many students really lack an understanding of technology beyond texting, Facebook, Word, and Powerpoint. That is not to say that they cannot quickly progress into more complex understandings of “concepts, systems, and operations.” This is where education plays a crucial role. As iPad technology is integrated into classes to support learning and creativity, students and parents begin to understand that the iPad is something more than a fun device only for gaming. And, consequently, students can make self-guided decisions about how to use technology to support their own learning.
Teaching the NET*S standards is a community effort. A school must support teachers in implementation. This requires school administration to understand and communicate the role of the standards. Parents should be encouraged to develop and awareness of how these standards support the growth of digital learning. In order to ensure that the NET*S are being met, it is vital for a school to have a purposeful plan for implementation. Ideally a school would create a skills continuum based on the National Educational Technology Standards to guide a developmentally appropriate approach to integration.