Just a few days ago I attended an online PD session on e-learning with some 21st century learning discussion woven in. It got me thinking about what I believe 21st century learning to be... and more importantly... not.
To begin I should start with what I feel does not fit within the parameters of 21st century learning. By doing so, it is my hope that what I believe 21st century learning to be can be more clearly articulated.
First of all the purchase of technology does not automatically put a teacher or classroom in the 21st century learning environment. For example, a school district can purchase computer consoles and interactive whiteboard technologies and claim 21st century learning has taken place. If the teacher simply uses the interactive whiteboard to present content or uses the computer consoles for word processing, then the shift to 21st century learning has not taken place.
Secondly, the provision of mobile technologies in teaching and learning, whether it be through district purchase or byod (bring your own device), in and of itself does not give a free pass or ticket to enter the 21st century classroom. We can allow students to access things without the use of wires, but if we constrain the learning with those devices to be in the classroom or with a linear curriculum flow with strict time constraints for evaluation, then the use of mobile technologies just provides a new tool in a traditional classroom. Furthermore if we constrain their ability to "network socially", we further limit the reason for their use in education.
Having provided examples of what 21st century learning is not, I can define what 21st century is... in my opinion.
I believe 21st century learning can be summarized in one word... flexibility. It is the flexibility for students to learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it and where they need to learn it that defines the true 21st century learning environment.
First of all let me explore the flexibility of "where". It is here that mobile technologies are the cornerstone to the 21st century classroom. In a face to face classroom students should not have to sit in their seat and watch a teacher present content. They should be able to watch content presentations while sitting in the corner of the classroom, in the cafeteria, etc... you get the idea. Furthermore, should the student have the flexibility to receive that learning at home? While on vacation? Traveling with the Football team? The "where" can be decided by the student. Of course, to achieve this flexibility, the content has to be in HTML 5 and all tools would have to be accessible on all devices. In addition the move to cloud storage is an absolute must.
The "when" is the next flexibility that I will explain. As I have described, if learning only takes place within the visual of the interactive whiteboard, then the 21st century learning environment simply does not exist... and never will. Traditionally, students have to consume particular curriculum outcomes only when the teacher decides it can be consumed. Let's suppose that a student still needs more time on a previous curriculum outcome before mastery is achieved. Suppose a student is able to master those outcomes quite rapidly. In one cases, a student is being pushed ahead and in another, being held back. Is that fair to either student? The answer is obvious. Can it be prevented? Of course it can! But the teacher will need to give up control as the exclusive source of knowledge and rely on external sources like videos and interactive content.
The "what" is the next flexibility that perhaps the school system is most accustomed to but at the same time most uncomfortable with. In mathematics curriculum we have been teaching similar curriculum outcomes for many years. Depending on the outcome, we have moved where it is taught from one grade to another. One year we may teach trig expressions in grade 12 and in a curriculum revamping, teach it in grade 11. Further revamping may put it back into grade 12. Students have had success in both grades that is taught in, and also struggled with it in both. In a mathematics curriculum that is developed in a more modular fashion, could we let students learn what they want to learn and have flexibility in the order in which they choose it? Should a student be allowed to decide when they tackle units in English? History? I think you get my point here. These things are possible.
I can say with confidence that this 21st learning environment can be created in the online distance learning environment. Given a synchronous tool and a LMS that allows for tracking/reporting/analytics, any teacher can create this type of learning environment. Evaluation of student progress would have to include online assignments/tests in addition to analytics reporting to confirm that students are doing the work ie: video consumption, web searches, etc... with analytics reporting given a "score" along with tests and assignments in the evaluation. The synchronous teaching would still be needed for remediation, student interaction and perhaps even social presence. Nothing replaces a good teacher, but evolution certainly can change the essence of one.
But... there is one more aspect of the 21st learning environment that I have not mentioned and that is the idea of collaboration/cooperation during the learning process. It is this essential component of the 21st learning environment that is hard to build in the online environment (despite social networking) but far easier to accomplish in the face to face classroom. This component is the reason why we will see different models/hybrids of the 21st century learning environment. Simply put, for students to work together, they may need to be learning similar outcomes. Individual learning paths can still cross at many points, and the road will sometimes be the same. I believe that good teachers will create their own unique models for learning that fall under the umbrella of 21st century learning. These models will be unique to both grade levels and subject areas. Their students will demand it of them.
For the record I use interactive whiteboard technology on a daily basis and use it in teacher professional development whenever I can. They are excellent technologies for teaching and learning. Unfortunately and far too often, students never get to touch one. If you find a teacher that relinquishes control of his or her interactive whiteboard to students on a regular basis, you may just find a teacher ready for, or starting to embrace, 21st century learning.
This I know for certain... until teachers are willing to provide flexibility to their students as it pertains to their learning, and until administrators have a clear understanding and vision of what the 21st learning environment is, the move there will take a long time.