I recently attended an education forum where the main focus was on the role of technology in 21st century learning and education. The typical 21st century skills were shown. Personally I am not a big fan of 21st century skills because I don’t think these skills are unique to this century. To be able to collaborate, innovate, communicate, etc, have always been important skills, even back in the 12th century. 21st century learning is certainly not about interactive whiteboards and learning management systems. One of the speakers at the forum showed two photos of teaching that really got the room thinking. What exactly is the difference between the photo on the top and the photo on the bottom?
While technology certainly plays a large role in education, I think for effective learning to occur in the 21st century and beyond relies on how teachers, educators and society perceive how technology is shaping knowledge and content.
Our current education and schooling system is built upon the premise that content is scarce. When mass education started, content was difficult to access. Content was recorded in books that were expensive and only a limited number of these books were printed. Only a small number of people had access to this content and this is why children had to be crammed into a classroom to learn this content from someone who knows it. You had to memorise content because it is so difficult to find again. You memorise it or copy it so that you have access to it later on.
Now that we’re in the 21st century, do we still need an education and schooling model that is based on content being difficult to access? We now have YouTube, Wikipedia, Khan Academy and various other online resources that makes content available 24 hours a day, regardless whether you are in the city or rural areas or whether you are at home or on the train. Even children in developing countries have access to this. So why are we still making students come to a particular room at a particular time to access content that they can access online anytime anywhere?
Some people will at this point jump to the conclusion that a computer cannot replace a teacher. I agree. Just having access to content doesn’t make you understand that content. What teachers need to do is to develop students’ abilities in identifying what their learning needs are, how to find the resources for these needs and how to decide whether the resources are suitable. Teachers will need to help students clarify their understanding and develop students’ abilities in assessing and evaluating their own progression. In addition, teachers will also need to develop students’ abilities to collaborate with a global community.
And here’s where I think strategies such as the flipped classroom, games based learning and problem based learning come in. They are about learners owning their own learning processes in an environment where knowledge is at their fingertips and the teacher is not the source of all knowledge that just tells learners what they need to know. Unless teachers truly grapple with the concept that knowledge is now widely accessible to anyone and that learning can happen anywhere anytime (often without them being there), it doesn’t matter how much we talk about 21st century learning, how many interactive whiteboards we install or how many laptops are made available to schools, teachers will still transmit knowledge like the 19th century.