Teaching 21st Century Skills in 20th Century Schools: Impact of Digital Learning

Posted By dmcevoy on Jun 2, 2019 | 2 comments

By Dan McEvoy, Kymberleigh Richards & Sherry Ruth


This article, Teaching 21st-century Skills in 20th Century Schools: Impact of Digital Learning was a collaborative effort by my MALAT team for: Unit 4 – Activity 1 | Discussing Impacts of Digital Learning



With the advent of digital learning, educational policies and pedagogies of the past century have become obsolete. Formal education has shifted from the 20th-century 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) to today’s 4Cs: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration (Keane, Keane & Blicblau, 2014). In today’s hyper-connected and digitized society, we need to empower students with these higher-order thinking skills to adapt to a rapid-changing world and an unknown future. There has been a definite shift from why we are teaching the content to how we are teaching the skills. To date, however,
schools and education systems are, on average, not ready to leverage the potential of technology. Gaps in the digital skills of both teachers and students, difficulties in locating high-quality digital learning resources from among a plethora of poor-quality ones, a lack of clarity on the learning goals, and insufficient pedagogical preparation for blending technology meaningfully into lessons and curricula, [have created] a wedge between expectations and reality (Cuban, 1992, p.190).
The impacts of digital learning on this topic may be described and summarized as follows:

Role of Administrators

• Administrators and educators continue to face significant challenges due to the open-ended and dynamic nature of 21st-century skills and the conformity of the traditional structure and organization of the formal education system. “Systems of education need to establish structures that are amenable to more active and dynamic teaching and learning and assessment paradigms” (Care, Kim & Scoular, 2017, p. 33).

Role of Teachers

• Many teachers recognize the value of teaching these skills and are open and enthusiastic, but find they are not adequately prepared to do so. 21st-century skills are “more demanding to teach and learn than rote skills” (Saavedra & Opfer, 2012, p. 8) and teachers require training and support to effectively teach them.
• Teachers (and students) now have access to a wide variety of tools and materials with little time and space constraints, thus providing learning resources that are exceptionally relevant and current.
• In the classroom, teachers now have more complex roles. They used to be the all-knowing ‘sage on the stage’, but now teachers serve as a mentor to their students. Teachers are expected to tap into students’ knowledge and curiosity, to empower and motivate their students, facilitate their learning, and help them connect their learning to authentic, real-life challenges.
• Teachers are now learners themselves. In addition to being professionals in their field of knowledge, they must now learn new ways of teaching, often learning along with (or from) their students. Teachers must be forward-thinking, curious and flexible.
• New technologies have led to increased use of inquiry-based, project-based, problem-based or co-operative pedagogies which provide greater learning opportunities than teacher-centered pedagogies such as lecturing.
• Teachers are also now expected to educate students to become critical consumers of Internet services and electronic media, to make informed choices and avoid harmful online behavior such as cyberbullying, fraud and privacy violation.

Role of Students

• Students can now follow their natural curiosity and play a more active role in their learning, acquiring new knowledge, personalizing their learning, monitoring their progress, collaborating with others and practicing their skills in a variety of innovative ways, such as computer programming, maintaining a webpage, or using multimedia. “ICT [information and communications technology] devices bring together traditionally separated education media (books, writing, audio recordings, video recordings, databases, games, etc.), thus extending or integrating the range of time and places where learning can take place (Livingstone, 2011)”. (OECD, 2015, p. 50)
• Access to, and effective use of, ICT remains inequitable among students, however. The term ‘digital divide’ originally referred to students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds who may be unaware of how technology can help raise one’s social status. Research has now identified gaps in proficiency and opportunity as being more relevant, referring to the disparity between what people can do and actually do when using digital tools (Stern, Adams & Elsasser, 2009)

Physical Environment

• The physical landscape of the classroom has shifted from a traditional classroom to accommodate more movement, freedom and creativity.

o Students (and teachers) generally sit in chairs and at desks – regardless of research that indicates that this is not healthy for the body (Branigan-Pipe, 2016).
o More students are now working on couches, on the floor, or using the counter for a stand-up workstation (Branigan-Pipe, 2016).
o Educators have realized their classrooms must mimic the workforce, which has inspired them to create collaborative-friendly spaces to facilitate student learning (Newman, 2017).
o The impact of this shift is a more collaborative environment where students learn to work as a team and share ideas. The 21st-century classroom also allows students to explore what they are learning, as opposed to merely read about it.
o According to Newman (2107), with the implementation of SMARTboards and other ICT tools, students are going on virtual field trips instead of merely reading from a text; they are creating media instead of just looking at it.

Paradigm Shifts

• Increased collaborative approach to teaching across subjects and age groups, including peer mentoring
• Greater focus on learner-centered classrooms than the old model of one teacher at the front of a room telling students what they need to remember for test day
o Students are more likely to be inspired by a digital learning environment.

•Traditional rigid modes of classroom instruction are unlikely to inspire students whose online life outside the classroom is dynamic and evolutionary (Patton, 2018, para. 3)

It’s now easier for students to engage on their own terms – whether online, hybrid, or flipped (Patton, 2018, para. 11)

• 21st Century skills help prepare students for today’s workplace
o As a minimum, employers want graduates who are adept at using technology to connect, communicate and collaborate with workplace technology (Patton, 2018, para. 6)
• No longer having to physically meet makes it easier for educational leaders and educators to collaborate. (Patton, 2018, para. 11)
• Research shows improved motivation and better learning outcomes
o Digital learning presents more positive effects on learning motivation and learning outcomes (for example, greater learning autonomy) than traditional teaching (Lin, Chen & Liu, 2017)
• A greater emphasis on collaborative learning which allows students to be more engaged in their learning
• The ways in which these digital tools are used is a key factor in achieving successful outcomes
o The design of teaching activities and the flexible application of digital tools become the primary issues for current information technology integrated education (Lin et al, 2017)


Many sources believe that we have yet to realize the full potential that ICT can make in teaching and learning and, as such, our 20th-century schools remain suboptimal in teaching 21st-century skills. Some countries, school districts, schools and individual teachers have made greater strides than others and students are learning thanks to, or despite, their formal learning environment. “The remaining work necessary to progress from the transmission model to the 21st-century model . . . will require from educators and policy makers at all levels precisely the sorts of skills that we deem critical for the next generation” (Saavedra & Opfer, 2012, p. 12).




Branigan-Pipe, Z. (2016). 21st century learning, 20th century classroom. EdCan Network. Retrieved from


Care, E., Kim, H., & Scoular, C. (2017). 21st century skills in 20th century classrooms. Ducadores, Octubre-

Diciembre 2017. [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Care-


Cuban, L. (1992). Computers meet classroom; classroom wins. Education Week, 12(10), 27, 36. Retrieved from


Keane, T., Keane, W., & Blicblau, A. (2014) Beyond traditional literacy: Learning and transformative practices using

ICT. Education and Information Technologies. 21(4), 769-781. Retrieved from https://doi-


Lin, M.H., Chen, H.C, Liu, K.S (2017). A study of the effects of digital learning on learning motivation and learning

outcome. EURASIA Journal of Mathematics Science and Technology Education, 13(7), 3553-3564. Retrieved

from http://www.ejmste.com/pdf-69635-11931?filename=A%20Study%20of%20the%20Effects%20of.pdf

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OECD, (2015). Students, computers and learning: Making the connection. OECD iLibrary. Retrieved from


Patton, R. (2018, July 4). Digital evolution: a new approach to learning and teaching in higher education. [Blog post].

Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/digital-evolution-new-approach-learning-and-


Saavedra, A., & Opfer, V. (2012). Learning 21st-century skills requires 21st-century teaching. The Phi Delta Kappan,

94(2), 8-13. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/003172171209400203

Stern, M. J., Adams, A. E., & Elsasser, S. (2009). Digital Inequality and Place: The Effects of Technological Diffusion on

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  1. I enjoyed reading through your post. You brought up many good points such as how “Teachers are now learners themselves”. Also classroom set up. It’s true. I’m also surprised how few schools have modernized their classrooms and changed from traditional modes of instruction!

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Susan,

      Thanks for reading through our post and for commenting!

      It is really eye-opening isn’t it when we see these authors writing about how strange it must be for younger students these days to be asked to sit in a chair all day listening to one teacher after another telling them what they need to memorize for an exam when outside of school they are communicating and collaborating with multiple people on multiple platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to name a few) and they have access to all the answers they need in their hands almost 24/7.

      It feels good to be a part of this MALAT program where those literal old school ways have evolved to what we are doing now.

      Post a Reply

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