21st Century Learners

Below is the answer I gave to a discussion board post this evening for one of the classes in my masters degree program. Feel free to pick apart my thinking or let me know if there are any holes in my logic!

The writing prompt was as follows:
Post your own definition of a 21st century learner and what it means for them to be literate in the 21st century. What does this mean to you as you consider NETS-T, Standard Two, designing and developing digital-age learning experiences and assessments?
I would define a 21st century learner as someone who knows how to utilize ALL of the tools available to him/her in the learning process, regardless of what the tool is. Most likely the resources will be digital, but it is a wise and learned pupil who can differentiate the correct resource for the task at hand. More importantly, I see a 21st century learner not learning in isolation, but rather learning as part of a community or network.

I get my broad rationale for this definition based on the directions I have seen my own personal learning take. Nearly all of my learning, with regards to technology use in education for example, have come from a learning network or a personal relationship within a socially connected environment (Both traditional F2F connections and online). I frequently meet new teachers, consultants, vendors, or experts based on previous connections with other teachers, consultants, etc. In the past 12 years I've been teaching, "school" has not been a variable in my learning experience. It is the connections I have made that have created the learning and none of these connections would have been possible without the digital tools of the 21st century.

In his explanation paper on the learning theory of connectivism, George Siemens concludes his ideas about 21st century learning in this way:

The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized. The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

If learning in the 21st century is a matter of connecting, then it is up to teachers to help students create those and/or evaluate, critique, and filter those connections. In his February 2010 Blog article entitled "Teaching in Social and Technological Networks" Siemens lists what he believes are the essential roles of a teacher with regards to student learning:

1. Amplifying
2. Curating
3. Way-finding and socially-driven sense-making
4. Aggregating
5. Filtering
6. Modeling
7. Persistent presence

Not ironically, these ideas dove-tail nicely with the technology standards for teachers. Teachers are to create the environment within which learning can take place, but they are not the ones responsible FOR the learning. Teachers also assess whether learning has taken place and it is up to them to adjust the learning environment when connections aren't being made by the learner. This is a markedly different approach to the teaching/learning relationship we saw and experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries. Technology and personal access to information has fundamentally changed education in the 21st century.

Now, without got go back too much to our previous discussion about literacy (the term I'm sure we flogged pretty well), being literate in the 21st century is more than just reading and writing. Yes, one needs to know HOW to read and write, but those skills are a far cry from the ONLY skills necessary to learn in the 21st century (which it sounds like we mostly agreed upon). The more I think about it, the more I want to define literacy in the 21st century as the ability to learn.

You may have already heard this quote from Alvin Toeffler before, but I think it's worth repeating in this conversation:
"The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write. They are those that can not learn, unlearn, relearn."

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