Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What 21st Century Skills Should Mean

Last week, my school had a presentation during professional development by Promethean, one of many companies specializing in educational technology.

I have seen many presentations about smartboards and classroom response systems (commonly known as "clickers") over the years, and I'm happy to report this is the first time I wasn't the only person in the room who wasn't at all impressed by what I saw. In short, they're gimmicks. As my colleagues were quick to point out, the presenter used it as little more than a glorified PowerPoint presentation; it was completely teacher-centered. Of course, in practice you could have students do a lot more with it, but is it really any better than having them go up to the board, or write something on the overhead, or participate in a well-designed lesson?

Now, I'm willing to admit that in the right hands, this could be a powerful tool to not only keep students' attention and keep them on task but actually help them learn. Unfortunately, I get the impression that most proponents seem to think the former is as important as the latter. This month's Instructor magazine happens to have a cover story about smartboards, and both the author and the teachers interviewed seemed to agree with that as well. Everything they mention doing in class could be done quite easily with just an LCD projector, or no technology at all. I know getting students engaged is essential to teach them anything, but one doesn't automatically result in the other.

I'm reading more and more about how our students need "21st century skills," without any consensus about what that means. The presenter seemed to believe that smartboards were the answer, but is manipulating a touchscreen the essential technological skill every occupation will soon require? If so, aren't iPhone-style smartphones or cutting-edge mp3 players more powerful, flexible and cost-effective tools that students should be mastering instead?

Much of the educational technology sold to us as the solution to these problems are not authentic to what students often learn on their own outside of school and what they actually need in the real world. Students need to learn about using software efficiently and effectively on multiple platforms, basic programming, and learning to fix and avoid security issues for many jobs now, and especially jobs in the future. More importantly, students will continue to need the ability to create and collaborate on projects using an ever-evolving set of web-based applications. We should be figuring out how to have students learning with iPods, smartphones, digital audio and video equipment--these are the technologies they'll need to know in the near future.

The focus of all of these efforts should be on the one thing that engages most of our students already, the one thing every 21st century career will require now and forever: creating powerful content, no matter the medium.