When will students need 21st century technology skills? Yesterday!

David Scanga

Educators of the 21st century are being challenged to create new learning environments that will not only meet the needs of a diverse student population, but prepare all students for a world vastly different from the one we experience today (Snyder, Acker-Hocevar, and Snyder, 2000). The dynamic social and economic change that occurred toward the close of the twentieth century touched schools in a profound way, leaving many educators disoriented and unsure of the future. Schools learned that they were not beyond the external influence of driving world forces. Friedman (1999) discusses the system of globalization that is reaching beyond boundaries and connecting markets, nation-states, communication technologies, and people. Few organizations can escape the penetrating effect of today’s global forces. And yet, many public school systems continue as if little has changed, unwilling to consider that changes in the world require changes in school.

The CEO Forum on Education and Technology (www.Ceoforum.org) is a unique four-year partnership between business and education leaders who are committed to assessing and monitoring progress toward integrating technology into American Schools. The CEO Forum’s final report (2001) highlighted the need for students to develop strong academic skills, as well as critical information age skills needed to be successful in the 21st century. “In a rapidly changing economy, there is a corresponding shift in the skills and abilities that students will need to thrive in the future. These twenty-first century skills include digital literacy, inventive thinking, effective communication, teamwork, and the ability to create high quality products” (CEO Forum, 2001, p. 2).

Complementing the work of the CEO Forum is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a group of major business and education organizations, formed in 2002 to work on closing the gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2002). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.21stcenturyskills.org) recognizes the need for students to be proficient in information and communication technologies (ICT). ICT literate students can use digital technology and communication tools to manage information, construct new knowledge, and communicate efficiently with others around the globe.

According to both organizations, digital literacy, which is the ability to use computers, networks, and digital content, has become a critical skill. The expectation that students will need to have advanced skills in information processing and communication is aligned with the corresponding changes in the global economy and a dramatically different society. Technology applied to the learning of higher-order thinking is synonymous with the development of 21st century skills. And yet, the importance of technology integration in schools continues to be questioned and the application of technology limited in scope.

The technology that has become so pervasive in our daily lives is still outside our comfort zone in the school environment. Too many of today’s educators are the product of an educational system that taught how to acquire knowledge, but not necessarily how to use knowledge, reshape knowledge, and apply knowledge. The challenge is to shake off tradition and change pedagogical practices in ways that reflect the changing social, political and economic landscape in which 21st Century students will learn.

The need for digital literacy among students, and the expansion of the global technology network, provides an opportunity for all educators to align learning environments with how students live and how they learn.

A groundbreaking perspective on the impact of technology on education around the world has been offered by Technology Counts Report 2004, the seventh edition of Education Week’s annual report on educational technology (2004). The island nation of Singapore is an exemplary model of technology integration. Despite high ratings on a benchmark worldwide comparison, Singapore is striving to become even more connected to a technology-based curriculum with hopes of maintaining its position in an information-based world. Currently Singaporean students and teachers use cell phones and computers on a regular basis in the classroom to complete school projects. Scandinavian schools are also on the forefront of applications of technology. Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland all have significant national initiatives for technology that promotes social, economic, and educational development on a global platform. The Technology Counts Report 2004 explains that although the sophistication of technology is vastly different from place to place, technology is reaching extreme locations around the globe, for example, in Sub Sahara Africa and the Islands of the South Pacific.

The need for digital literacy among students, and the expansion of the global technology network, provides an opportunity for all educators to align learning environments with how students live and how they learn. Snyder, Acker-Hocevar, and Snyder (2000) encourage educators to engage students in a global way with real local, regional, and worldwide problems that need to be addressed, using multiple sources of information, and connecting with other students facing similar learning experiences. The tools of technology allow individuals to access information at a global level, making it possible to “open up” classrooms, and extend learning opportunities worldwide.

What will it take to move schools in the direction of a globally connected learning environment with students capable of using technology as a tool for communication and learning? There are two challenges embedded in the transformation of this vision. The first is the availability of technology and the technical skills of the users (students and teachers). For the most part the Technology Counts Report 2004 indicates that this hurdle has been jumped by most of the countries displaying the strongest economies. Of course, there are pockets within every country where technology is not available, but the gap is closing between connected and non-connected in technology-rich countries. Even where technology lags significantly behind, people from around the world report some access to the Internet and the ability to connect sporadically to the World Wide Web (Technology Counts, 2004). When looking at the least common denominator there is a continual need to reduce the cost of acquiring and maintaining technology in all countries, however, day-by-day the trend to connect across America and around the world continues at an accelerated pace. For example, currently 92 percent of all classrooms in the United States have Internet access, up from 50 percent in 1998.

As technology becomes available around the world, the second challenge of using technology to enhance teaching and learning will continue to be a stretch goal for most schools, in a globally connected learning environment. As Steve Rappaport argues (2003), “It is true that technology is a destabilizing agent - it certainly does change the way we do things - but throughout history, social systems of all kinds have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of technological and other revolutions, and we have ample evidence in our day that educational practice is highly resistant to change”(p. 28). It is not the placement of an Internet connected computer in the classroom or the acquisition of a computer lab that creates opportunities for digital literacy. It is an educator’s ability to reflect on the process of education and to determine the necessary learning, then to visualize technology as a tool to mediate that learning.

To achieve both availability of technology and effective use in the learning environment the following recommendations are proposed. All recommendations are aligned with current literature in the field of educational technology. Few argue that technology and digital literacy will somehow slide from the spotlight even in the current climate of increased accountability of basic academic skills and difficult economic challenges for schools. Accelerating technological change, rapidly accumulating knowledge, increasing global competition, and rising workforce capabilities around the world make 21st Century skills, such as digital literacy, essential (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2002).

View Technology as an Accelerator of Learning

The technology premise by Jim Collins (2001) in his book Good to Great about companies that went from good, but mediocre companies, to great companies applies to education. Good-to-great companies use technology as an accelerator of momentum for change, but not as a change agent. Even companies that have technology as a core application tend to think first about what they hope to achieve and then to search for the technology tool to accomplish the goal. The first recommendation is to reflect on the main objectives of your organization, and then determine the technology that will accelerate the changes you wish to make. The virtual learning community of the International School Connection (www.iscweb.org) serves as an example; a core purpose of the ISC is to develop global education leaders. The virtual learning community (the technology piece) is designed to connect educational leaders within and across borders, and to create a forum for discussion about the effects of emerging global trends in education. The website that houses the virtual learning community provides the means to carry out the core purpose. When it comes to applying technology, “crawl, walk, run can be a very effective approach, even during times of rapid and radical technological change” (Collins, 2001, p. 163).

Use a Project-based Approach to Technology

It is the educational process that determines the potential for learning, not the tool, and technology is only a tool. ThinkQuest is a project-based learning program whereby students from around the world communicate and collaborate on a project that becomes a web site for others to view. The actual product does not require technology, the task could be completed by a group of students in a library, and the end product of assimilated learned materials could be a play, instead of a website (Rappaport, 2003). Twenty-first century skills dictate that students need more than digital literacy, but competencies to work cooperatively, problem solve, communicate clearly, and create knowledge. The knowledge of how to use technology must be embedded in the educational process. The use of project-based learning provides meaningful activities that can unite teachers and students around the world using technology as the connecting tool.

Focus on 21st Century Skills in Context

The expectation that students will need to have advanced skills in information processing and communication is in line with the corresponding changes in the global economy and a dramatically different society. Technology makes it possible to bring the world into the classroom and to get students out into the world through virtual exploration. The International School Connection’s mission is to assist school leaders around the world in developing their schools as Global Learning Centers (GLC). GLCs create the framework for students to identify local and global forces and engage in meaningful problem solving that is similar to real-world experiences they will face in future work. Moreover, research shows that this kind of contextual learning leads to increased engagement, motivation, and positive attitudes about learning.

Design Assessments to Measure 21st Century Skills

Computer-based assessments are on the rise with nine US states having such assessments in place and three additional states piloting similar systems. In an age of accountability using technology to provide feedback on student achievement and 21st century skills has become an essential component of plans for educational technology. The fact that computer-based assessments can only measure a few critical skills and knowledge, must be balanced with other types of assessment (e.g. project-based assessment, portfolios) that demonstrate a student’s proficiency to learn on a broader canvas including: communication skills, critical thinking, interpersonal and self-directional skills.

Increase Competencies of Teachers and Administrators

As schools become more sophisticated in their use of technology for teaching and learning, there are clear implications for the professional development of teachers and administrators (Creighton, 2003). Staff development is of considerable importance in a journey along the continuum of automated technology use, to learning opportunities that challenge students to think critically, and to a level of leading-edge technology that allows schools to make data-driven decisions based on high-tech problem solving capabilities (Valdez et al, 1999). Over the past decade, there have been several movements to define the competencies needed for students, teachers, and school administrators in the area of technology literacy (CEO Forum, 2001; International Society for Technology in Education, 2001). Matching these competencies with the application of technology in the school environment is a common goal for school systems. Research has identified the positive relationship that exists between technology-robust schools and strong technology leadership and technology savvy teachers (Clark and Denton, 1998; Heaton and Washington, 1999).

In conclusion, for schools to thrive they must adapt to change. Developing learning environments that reflect the current need of businesses, communities, and families are critical adaptations. “Students will spend their adult lives in a multitasking, multifaceted, technology-driven, diverse, vibrant world – and they must arrive equipped to do so” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2002, p. 4). The effective use of technology, every day all day for every student in a context of local and global real-world problems, will promote the transformation of learning environments.


CEO Forum: School Technology and Readiness Report. (2001). Key building blocks for student achievement in the 21st century. Retrieved December 27, 2001, from http://www.ceoforum.org/home.cfm.

Clark, S. and Denton, J. (1998). Integrating technology in the school environment: through the principals’ lens. East Lansing, MI: National Center for Research on Teacher Learning. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 417696).

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: why some companies make the leap… and others don’t. New York, New York: Harper Collins.

Creighton, T. (2003). The principal as technology leader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

Education Week’s Technology Counts (2004). Global links: lessons from the world. American Education’s Newspaper of Record. 23(35), 8-11.

Friedman, T. L. (1999). The lexus and the olive tree: understanding globalization. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Heaton, L. A. and Washington, L. A. (1999). Developing technology training for principals. Montreal, Canada: American Educational Research Association.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). (1998). National educational technology standards for students. Retrieved October 5, 2001, from http://cnets.iste.org/tssa/resources.html.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). (2002). National educational technology standards for administrators. Retrieved March 10, 2002, from http://cnets.iste.org/condition.htm.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2002). Learning for the 21st century. Retrieved January 30, 2004, from http://www.21stcentruyskills.org.

Rappaport, S. (2003). Why we’ve failed to integrate technology effectively in our schools. eSchool News. 6(8), 28-29.

Snyder, K. J., Acker-Hocevar, M., & Snyder, K. M. (2000). Living on the edge of chaos: leading schools into the global age. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: ASQ Quality Press.

Dr. David Scanga
Research, Testing and Evaluation
Pasco County School Board
Florida, USA