Technology, 21st century skills, and education

As Jon Andrews points out, the education world seems obsessed about framing our thinking around what the future holds, and guestimations of its possibilities. The term ‘21st century skills’ is a symptom of our future-obsession, as schools and governments scramble to prepare their students for … duhm duhm daaaahhhhmmm … The Future. In the late 20th century those words were a way of saying educators were futures thinking, but almost 20 years into the 21st century, I wonder about the usefulness of the phrase. How about just talking about the knowledge, skills, and capabilities students need now and into the future? Does ’21st century skills’ mean anything or is it a meaningless phrase interpreted in different ways by different people? When will we start talking about 22nd century skills?

In my recent reading and thinking about technology in education, talk of 21st century skills is ubiquitous. As Higgins (2014) notes, however, there is no consensus or clear definition of what it means, or what these skills entail. On the one hand, there is a sense of global urgency around the integration of technology in schools, and on the other there is challenge and resistance to technology integration and the contestability of 21st century skills (Hunter, 2015).

Higgins (2014) points out that discussion of 21st century skills is driven by a focus on the economic imperative for productivity and preparing students for the future world of work. In his review of literature around 21st century skills, he finds that the central tenant of what is considered a 21st century education is critical thinking, especially because digital worlds mean that information is increasingly available and questionable in its nature. Other skills that abound in global discussions around the skills required for being successful in the current century include creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, problem solving, risk assessment, research and information fluency, and digital citizenship (Higgins, 2014). The US Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills defined deeper learning as knowledge that can be transferred or applied into new situations (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2013), mirroring Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005, 2011) focus on transfer as the key focus of learning.

Fullan (2013a) is critical of the 21st century learning skills agenda, calling it a vaguely defined skill set with too much focus on standards and assessment and not enough on pedagogy, and with little integration of student use of technologies. For Fullan (2013b), deep learning goals are what he refers to as the 6 Cs:

  • Character education: honesty, self-regulation and responsibility; perseverance; empathy for contributing to the safety and benefit of others; self-confidence, personal health and wellbeing; career and life skills.
  • Citizenship: global knowledge, sensitivity to and respect for other cultures, active involvement in addressing issues of human and environmental sustainability.
  • Communication: effective oral, written, and digital communication; listening skills.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving: thinking critically to design and manage projects, solve problems, and make effective decisions using a variety of digital tools and resources.
  • Collaboration: working in teams; learning from and contributing to the learning of others; social networking skills; empathy in working with diverse others.
  • Creativity and imagination: economic and social entrepreneurialism; considering and pursuing novel ideas; leadership for action.

Fullan (2013a) urges educators to move beyond a superficial homage to 21st century learning skills to developing what it means to actually implement them in practice. Higgins (2014) challenges us to ask: “Do we need a curriculum with less specified knowledge, allowing a greater emphasis on skills, based on the argument that information (and therefore knowledge) is more readily accessible? Or do we need more knowledge, as the basis for developing greater expertise and the ability to make informed and complex judgements, based on a deeper understanding of a topic or field?” (p.571). Certainly there are those who argue that knowledge is now more important than ever, and question a primarily skills-based education (e.g. Hirsch, 2016).

As part of the 21st century skills movement, digital literacy has become a global focus. In the UK, the Communications Act 2003 tasked the media regulator, Ofcom, with promoting and researching media literacy, defined on its website as enabling “people to have the skills, knowledge, and understanding to make full use of the opportunities presented by both traditional and new communications services” and helping “people to manage content and communications, and protect themselves and their families from the potential risks associated with using these services.”

A Commonwealth of Australia (2009) report highlights digital media literacy as a dynamic concept and a necessary condition for a successful digital economy. It says: “Digital media literacy ensures that all Australians are able to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy: it promotes opportunities for social inclusion, creative expression, innovation, collaboration, and employment. … The focus of digital media literacy policy and programs is on the development of three core skill sets:

  • the technical ability to engage at a basic level with a computer and the internet, such as to create documents and emails;
  • the ability to understand and critically evaluate digital media and digital media content; and
  • the ability to create content and communications.”

While the movement to focus education on a contested set of 21st century skills is debated in education circles, governments around the Western world have acknowledged the need for their citizens to be critical, creative, collaborative, interdisciplinary in their thinking, and to be able to leverage technologies. I agree with Fullan that we need to move beyond lip service homages to preparing students for uncertain futures. I also align with Higgins’ suggestion that students need more knowledge as the basis for expertise. Skills don’t exist in a vacuum, and students can only think critically, creatively, divergently, and entrepreneurially, once they have a knowledge base from which to do so. I would like to think, for instance, that a knowledge of literature and history can help our students to become global citizens knowledgeable about past events, multiple perspectives, and dystopian possibilities. And that a knowledge of mathematics and science can lead to creative problem seeking and systematic problem solving.

What do you think? Can we retire ’21st century skills’, and instead talk about what knowledge, understandings, skills, and capabilities, our students need now and into the future?


Fullan, M. (2013a). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Fullan, M. (2013b).  Great to excellent:  Launching the next stage of Ontario’s education agenda.

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.

Hirsch, E. D. (2016). Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology integration and high possibility classrooms: Building from TPACK. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Pellegrino, J. W., & Hilton, M. L. (2013). National Research Council. Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Choosing the (digital) pedagogical tool fit for the learning

source: @byrev

The list of digital technologies that might be used for teaching and learning is extensive. It includes: LMSs (Learning Management Systems); MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses); BYOD (bring your own device); BYOT (bring your own technology); BYOC (bring your own connectivity); makerspaces; robotics; digital portfolios; online discussion forums; blogging platforms; wikis, microblogging; back channels; audio recording and music making; image and video editing; creation of infographics, slideshows, and presentations; digital storytelling; social media; collaboration tools; mobile apps; game-based learning and environments; coding and computer programming; augmented and virtual realities; technologies for creating physical or virtual 3D models; gesture-based computing; learning analytics and statistical analysis software; online authoring tools; wearable technology; affective computing; rubric generators; quizzes; online response systems such as polls and surveys; video conferencing; cloud computing; and student feedback tools such as Turnitin, GradeMark, and PeerMark.

E-learning technologies are sometimes defined as asynchronous (any-time) or synchronous (real-time). Flipped learning is that in which traditional teacher instruction is delivered between classes via online video or presentation technologies, and class time is used for application and collaboration. Blended learning melds traditional classroom pedagogies with online learning tools and environments. Rhizomatic learning, a loose appropriation of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome in an educational context, is non-linear and not predetermined (Cormier, 2008; Koutropoulos, 2017) and heutagogical learning is self-determined (Hase & Kenyon, 2000, 2007; Netolicky, 2016). Beetham (2013a) describes e-learning as learner-centred experience that allows learners more control over the time, place, and pace of their learning and the opportunity to connect with learning communities worldwide, much like the experience of many teachers who use social media for networking and learning.

I’ve been doing some reading since I recently posted my initial thoughts about digital pedagogy and I am reassured that scholars tend to agree that pedagogy should drive the use of technologies, rather than technologies driving the way teaching and learning happens, or as an end in themselves. Digital technologies and methods are mostly seen as part of a teacher’s arsenal of tools for teaching curriculum content, skills, and understandings.

Laurillard (2013) states that, while the scope and style of pedagogy changes as technology changes, no one has yet shown that we need to change our understanding of how students learn. Higgins (2014), however, argues that technology has changed what we learn and how we learn.

The changing digital technology landscape has led to educators attempting to personalise and gamify learning, to construct open online learning environments and self-directed learning opportunities, to leverage students’ personal mobile devices for learning, and to utilise technologies to facilitate processes such as analysis, collaboration, communication, and creation. Dichev and Dicheva (2017), however, found that even though gamification in education is a growing phenomenon, practice has outpaced research and we do not know enough about how to effectively gamify education or even whether gamifying education is beneficial. Additionally, online learning such as that via MOOCs can be overwhelming and confusing to those without highly-evolved skills in managing their connectivity (Beetham, 2013b). This brings into question the equity of technologies. Who has access? Who dominates? Who becomes lost in the system or excluded from it?

Many authors note that teachers should not assume that because students are surrounded by technology they are savvy, confident, ethical, or safe users of it. Safe, ethical use of technology needs to be guided and explicitly taught, as do skills such as online collaboration and evaluating the quality of available information. Students need the skills and aptitudes to sustain engagement with digital learning, especially if it is self-directed and self-paced.

Most proponents of digital learning base their use of technologies on traditional pedagogy. Good pedagogical design, traditional or digital, ensures that there is alignment between the curriculum we teach, the teaching methods we use, the learning environment we choose, and the assessment procedures we adopt (Biggs, 1999). Importantly, a role remains for teachers as expert designers of learning (Laurillard, 2013; Selwyn, 2016) who establish learning tasks, supportive environments for learning, and conducive forms of social classroom relations. Hunter (2015) suggests the following questions to teachers:

  • Where is the pedagogy?
  • What is the content?
  • How is your choice or the students’ choice of particular technology tools going to enhance learning?

So, we need to start with the desired learning outcomes. Curriculum design comes before pedagogy, which comes before technology. Then we choose the pedagogical tool fit for the learning purpose.

It cannot be assumed, however, that teachers, even those who are tech-savvy, know how to best use technologies for pedagogical purposes. Lei (2009) found that although pre-service teachers are often digital natives who use technology extensively for themselves, they lack the knowledge, skills, and experiences to integrate technology into classrooms to help them teach and to help their students learn, even when they recognise the importance of doing so. Teachers can leverage digital technologies within a pedagogical frame, but only when we have the knowledge and understanding of available technologies and their pedagogical potential.


Beetham, H. (2013a). Designing for active learning in technology-rich contexts. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.31-48. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Beetham, H. (2013b). Designing for learning in an uncertain future. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.258-281. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press.

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate 4(5).

Dichev, C., & Dicheva, D. (2017). Gamifying education: what is known, what is believed and what remains uncertain: a critical review. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education14(1).

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogyultiBASE In-Site, 5(3), 1-10.

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: A child of complexity theory. Complicity: An international journal of complexity and education4(1).

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology integration and high possibility classrooms: Building from TPACK. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Koutropoulos, A. (2017). Rhizomes of the classroom: Enabling the learners to become curriculum. In S. P. Ferris & H. Wilder (Eds.), Unplugging the classroom: Teaching with technologies to promote students’ lifelong learning, pp.103-118. Cambridge, MA: Chandos Publishing.

Laurillard, D. (2013). Forward to the second edition. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.xvi-xviii. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Lei, J. (2009). Digital natives as preservice teachers: What technology preparation is needed? Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, 25(3), 87-97.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 1(4), 270-285.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Education and technology: Key issues and debates. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Digital Pedagogy


I have worked in one-to-one schools for most of my 17-and-a-bit year teaching career, and I’ve tended to be an experimenter with and adopter of learning technologies. I’ve been known to use online discussion forums to extend class discussion around English and Literature texts and concepts. I’ve used class blogs, wikis, and backchannels as collaborative learning spaces or expansions of the classroom. I use Twitter, Google Docs, Voxer, and blogging for my own learning and development. I have participated in MOOCs (massive open online courses).

I’ve recently been considering digital pedagogy from more of an organisation and systems level, as I look into how to refine my school’s use of technologies as tools for learning and teaching. As I begin a search of what research literature might offer us in this realm (please, if you have a seminal paper or reference here – pass it my way!) I have a couple of reflections. One is that, as technology moves quickly and research moves slowly (from data generation to publication), research on digital pedagogy needs to be treated with caution. Research around technology is emergent and fast changing; by the time it is published, it may be well out of date.

My other initial reflection is that there seems to be a discrepancy between the use of digital technologies promoted by enthusiastic teachers, conferences, and technology companies, and the discussion about education technologies in academic research. The former often promotes the possibilities of technologies for learning as future-building and positive. The latter tends to reveal a more cautious or critical approach to what digital technologies can offer teaching and learning.

It’s not surprising that tech giants promote themselves to schools, but there are some worrying reports that tech corporates, such as Edmodo and Google, use schools and students to collect and track big data. Corporate agendas are something we might consider when thinking about how technologies infiltrate or colonise our schools.

Neil Selwyn (in his 2016 book Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates) points to the limitations of digital technologies, arguing that there is a lack of genuine diversity in the educational opportunities provided by educational technologies, but rather more of the same. He notes that “any ‘individualisation’ or ‘personalisation’ involves fitting individuals around preconfigured outcomes and expectations rather than offering genuinely bespoke education. … an individual is not actively self-determining but conforming to the requirements and expectations of a mass system” (p.161).

I share Selwyn’s cautiousness around technology in schools when it is seen as a shiny new thing or an end in itself. I am more comforabtle when digital pedagogy is about choosing the tool fit for the purpose, aligned with learning objectives. Technology is part of the teacher and learner’s arsenal, not the end point in themselves.

Additionally, while digital pedagogies are often viewed with much hope for their possibilities, the realities seem to be more disappointing. Marte Blikstad-Balas and Chris Davies (in their recent Oxford Review of Education paper ‘Assessing the educational value of one-to-one devices: Have we been asking the right questions?’) show that one-to-one devices are often positioned as having benefits to pedagogical change, development of future skills, and efficiencies and cost savings. (Interestingly, at my school the photocopying bill did not decrease with the move to one-to-one devices.) In looking at three schools (two in the UK and one in Norway), Blikstad-Balas and Davies found some benefits of one-to-one devices, but these tended to be focused on convenience, instrumental use, and functionality, rather than pedagogy. The three schools studied raised concerns including ad hoc teacher enthusiasm and uptake of one-to-one-devices, and teacher scepticism around implementation of digital technologies as part of pedagogy. Students reported feeling either pressured to use devices they didn’t want to use, for purposes they didn’t see as valuable, being distracted from their learning by one-to-one devices, and finding one-to-one devices unreliable. Year 11 and 12 students reported using their one-on-one devices for whatever they wanted (such as social media and online gaming), which was often not what the teacher was instructing. These findings are a sober reminder to schools about the realities of implementing educational technologies.

The educational world is saturated with information and promotions of various digital technologies. The 2016 Horizon Report for Higher Education, for instance, identifies a number of future trends and technologies predicted to influence education. Those working in education institutions need a way to make sense of the digital noise. Selwyn’s 2016 book Is technology good for education? provides useful questions to ask ourselves when considering digital pedagogy (p.24):

  • What is actually new here?
  • What are the unintended consequences or second-order effects?
  • What are the potential gains? What are the potential losses?
  • What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  • In whose interests does this work? Who benefits in what ways?
  • What are the social problems that digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  • How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems likely to be?

At my school we are working with a purposeful and transparent frame for making decisions about digital technologies and pedagogies. This frame is based around our strategic intents for our students, and our beliefs around learning, good teaching, and the core business of schools. No matter what the latest tech fad or shiny device, any pedagogy needs to start with the purpose of the learning and the design of curriculum. Pedagogy first. Digital if and when appropriate.