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Teaching 21st Century Skills Requires More Than Just Technology

According to a recent New York Times article, almost half of American K-12 public school students use Google, and the data presented by the new EdWeek Market Brief Special Report corroborates this claim. In April 2017, the Education Week Research Center surveyed a national sample of 1,000 K-12 teachers and administrators about their preferences and perceptions of the four major brands dominating educational technology (in alphabetical order): Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft.  When asked, "Which of the following are used for school-related purposes MOST FREQUENTLY in your district or (if you are a teacher) in your classroom?"  68% of respondents indicated Google and/or Chromebooks and 42% of respondents indicated that their school or district purchased Chromebooks more often than other devices.

Given the growing ubiquity of Google products in schools, as well as the increasing numbers of educators advocating for their use, it can seem as though education may have reached a tipping point when it comes to improving students' 21st-century skills.  According to the Partnership for 21st Century skills, these can be categorized as the 4Cs: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration. And yet, I have started to worry about the growing presence of what I would like to call the Fake Cs.

The Fake Cs happen most often with communication and collaboration because technology creates the appearance of their existence. I remember falling prey to this in the early days of Google Docs. To collaborate on a project, I assigned each of my third graders to a designated Google slide and then asked them to fill-in the template that I provided with information about the state that they had studied. For creativity, they could add pictures and "decorate" their slide. Once complete, I had a "collaborative project" to which they had all contributed.

However, none of the students had any understanding of what had happened; they could have been working independently with less technical issues; and they never actually collaborated during this collaborative process. My students had compiled a set of slides without ever collaborating on anything. Because we had used the sharing features of Google Docs, I had falsely assumed that we had achieved one of our 4Cs.

Much like technology can provide a false sense of collaboration, it can do the same for communication. Just because two people talk to each other - in person or online - does not necessarily intimate that those individuals have developed deep communication skills. Real communication implies more than just an exchange of words but also an understanding of context, language, intention, meaning, and the feelings of the other person. While this can certainly happen through online channels, the act of simply using a tool is only the beginning.

Last spring, we were assigned a group project for class and told to collaborate. The professor placed us in teams, assigned a task, and provided a due date. We had no direction for how we should complete the task, who should lead the group, what roles or responsibilities each of us should assume, or what tools might facilitate the process. One of my group members happened to live in India and the other in China. I created a Google Doc and shared it out to start the process. Through email, we each decided to draft a section of the assignment and then pull the final product together. This might sound like a fairly efficient process, but it quickly fell apart. While we had delegated quite nicely, we had not yet started to communicate or collaborate.

After a few days of working in the document, I found myself incredibly frustrated and started to feel as though I would end up just "doing the whole thing myself." However, after I pulled myself out of my American-centric bubble, I recognized the brilliance of my peers. Not only had they started to work on a cognitively demanding task within a relatively unfamiliar virtual environment, but they were doing so in their second language. At that moment, I realized that we needed to communicate in a different way. Once we figured out time zones, we met via Google Hangout to discuss the project. My classmates had amazing insights that they could share verbally but not always in writing.  Instead of dividing up the project, we each assumed a role that played to our strengths and collaborated to not only deepen our collective knowledge and understanding of the topic but also produce the final project.

So, yes, in many ways we are at a tipping point in our capacity for students to develop critical 21st-century skills. Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and others have provided the technological capabilities to facilitate the acquisition of these skills in ways that were previously inconceivable. However, we need to remain conscious of the fact that the use of the tools themselves should not be viewed as synonymous with the skills that they intend to foster. Sure, my classmates and I quickly produced a shared document and sent a few emails, but the real collaboration did not begin until we started to communicate - and that involved valuing each other's contributions, strengths, insights, and ideas.

 

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