Marketers tell us their products support ’21st Century learning’. The products may have been invented in the 21st Century, but are they supporting 21st Century learning or are they merely automating 19th and 20th Century learning and thus creating an obstacle for schools and colleges wanting to move forward?
’21’st Century learning’ is a problematic idea. It implies that learning before the millennium was traditional or insufficient. It suggests that learning over the past decade or so has improved just because technology has progressed. That is simply not the case in many places. Some schools in the 80s and 90s, without 21st Century technology, were more engaged in practices currently described as ’21st Century learning’ than schools that currently tout the phrase.

The common student practice of uploading PowerPoint and Word files (20th Century innovations) to a cool Website is not necessarily 21st Century learning. Decommissioning students’ online learning accounts at graduation is not lifelong learning. Forcing students and teachers to use ‘school-only’ tools which are disconnected from wider social media undermines digital citizenship. Providing feedback to students only after they turn work in is not formative assessment. Providing every student a tablet device and an Internet connection and calling it ‘1 to 1′  does not of itself mean students will experience personalised learning. Even the commendable practice of introducing young learners to blogs and class Twitter accounts managed by the teacher can at times say more about the teacher’s energy levels than students’ real engagement as 21st Century digital publishers. With all the 21st Century noise in the market, authenticity can be a real issue.

The issues are more telling when we take a step back and look at the broader vista. A search on Google reveals that twice as many sites present a “District Technology Plan” compared to sites presenting a “District Learning Plan.” That’s a bit like the fire department producing twice as many plans on fire equipment compared to plans for actually fighting or preventing fires. Even fewer districts seem to have documented how the learning approach they are planning for is driving their technology choices and strategies. Corcoran Unified District’s (CA) Learning Plan is an impressive exception and there are others. Superintendents like Dr. Ember Conley at Park City School District (UT) show the difference good leadership can make to develop a Learning Plan from the start with community consultation.

When we examined Google results 18 months ago, there were far fewer published District Learning Plans. More learning communities are documenting their approach to learning in detail. A growing number of Learning Plans are moving beyond traditional statements on attendance, conduct, exam requirements and “excellence”. Corcoran Unified District provides a detailed plan of  what 21st Century learning will look like across its schools. Decisions on technology, school design, and teacher professional development logically flow on from the Learning Plan.

Authentic 21st Century learning is more about how learners use technology and other resources; less about which technologies they use. ’21’st Century learning’ is a problematic idea. It implies that learning before the millennium was traditional or insufficient. It suggests that learning over the past decade or so has improved just because technology has progressed. That is simply not the case in many places. Some schools in the 80s and 90s, without the 21st Century technology, were more engaged in practices currently described as ’21st Century learning’ than schools that currently tout the phrase. In other words, many school communities across the world applied 21st Century learning approaches in the 20th Century, obviously before 21st Century technologies were invented. Arguably, ‘ 21st Century learning’ has become a handle for technologists, marketeers, bureaucrats and media who are bereft of the deeper arts of effective pedagogies and change management. Shiny, funky technology can turn the clock in either direction.

With all the #edtech social media buzz, technology conference seduction and vendor Webinar hype, it is no wonder that more than a few well-meaning educators pressed to come up with improved test scores have simply assimilated the latest, shiny 21st Century technology into their 20th Century pedagogical landscape and called it 21st Century learning. The explosive uptake of Interactive Whiteboards on the back of GFC stimulus funding is arguably a case in point. No matter how many slick infographics, high-quality ‘videotorials’ or catchy listorials are published through industry or conference sponsorship, authentic 21st Century learning will always come back to the approach to learning.

Does your school, district, college, university, ministry or department of education or private education consortium have a detailed, documented Learning Plan? World Mosaic is currently interviewing education leaders to support them in developing and executing effective 21st Century Learning Plans.