Living in a Digital World We Don’t Understand

Teaching 21st-century skills for 21st-century jobs

GUEST COLUMN | by Cat McManus

PennGSE EBPC imageThe term “21st century skills” gets thrown around a lot in educational circles. Some use this term to mean “computer literacy.” Others expand the concept to include a “range of skills and competencies that go beyond what has traditionally been taught in the classroom, [including] critical thinking and problem solving; communication, collaboration; and creativity and innovation.” Still others—most significantly the advocacy organization Partnership for 21st Century Skills—include “information literacy, media literacy, and information, communication and technology literacy.”

What’s clear is that the basic requirements for success in the 21st century are no longer just the “three Rs,” nor even the three Rs with a dash of basic ability to manipulate a computer. The digital revolution has already happened, and at every level, students demand—and their future success requires—that their educational experiences reflect the world they already live in: a largely digital world.

Why teach 21st century skills, if students are already living in a digital world? The answer is that just because they live in a digital world doesn’t mean they fully understand it, nor can we assume that they have the skills to respond to the huge amounts of information and stimuli constantly bombarding them. Students are able to quickly find information using a variety of online sources like Wikipedia or the Google, and they can easily crowd-source information or correspond with experts on the other side of the world. Many, however, lack information or digital literacy: the ability to tell what makes a source reliable versus questionable at best. Few understand that what they post about themselves and others on Facebook is essentially a permanent record. Fewer still understand the implications of that company’s (or any others) privacy policies. Most fail to understand when they are being advertised to versus when they are receiving unbiased information.

In short, while students often know how to “work” the Internet and various applications, mining them for entertainment potential or the basic information needed for a report or project, few understand the building blocks of our digital world and how to manipulate them and avoid, in turn, being manipulated. Teaching 21st century skills includes not only critical thinking (“How reliable is this source and why do I think this way?” “Is this advertorial content or an opinion piece?”) but also the ability to operate this digital environment through the logic of programming languages, web-design, and the like. Our continued inability to teach widespread competency and literacy with regard to the digital world has major implications for the lives of nearly all students currently in the P-16 system.

This brings us to the other reason that teaching these skills is crucial: we now have 21st century jobs requiring 21st century skills, and yet we have a dearth of ability. A recent report by McKinsey & Co. looked at school-to-job initiatives around the world and found a serious disconnect between the attitudes of youths, employers, and education providers as to students’ readiness to work. One study had 30 percent of employers lamenting a notable lack of “adaptability and critical thinking” amongst fresh-out-of-college applicants. On the technical skills side, Douglas Rushkoff, a longtime advocate of teaching computer programming in schools, put it this way:

“[F]ailure to teach computer science isn’t just impeding kids’ understanding of the digital world, but also crippling our nation’s competitiveness in business. We outsource programming not because we can’t afford American programmers, but because we can’t find American programmers.”

Even jobs once considered vocational are now high tech, and may require specialized knowledge that includes not only a robust science background, but also familiarity with the computerized machinery that keeps heavy industry humming. Efforts to meet the need to teach these skills are underway, notably initiatives like the free or MIT’s (equally free) Open Courseware compendium. The sticking point is that there are persistent gaps that we haven’t yet figured out how to bridge.

Those watching the field of education innovation often observe that the players don’t speak the same language or, worse, work at cross-purposes. Researchers produce powerful work on students’ learning processes and needs, but rarely get the opportunity to interface with those with the business savvy or technology skills to marry research to action. Classroom teachers may only grudgingly employ technologies or curriculum handed to them by school or district leaders who buy software before road-testing it. On the other hand, teachers with a hunger for technology-based learning have few forums to learn about, share, and replicate their successes with those holding the purse strings. Finally, those with interest and ability to fund ventures are forced to make leaps of faith rather than careful choices vetted by researchers, students and practitioners.

This illustrates a need to bring together the relevant constituents in a community that aims to drive positive change in education. In 2009 the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) began work towards this goal with an initiative called “Networking Entrepreneurs for Social Transformation” (NEST). Led by Dr. Bobbi Kurshan, NEST’s mission is to catalyze innovation in education by creating an ecosystem that builds bridges between players in the education market, emphasizes grounding ideas in research, and incentivizes entrepreneurs to enter the education sphere. NEST’s signature initiative—the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition (EBPC)—facilitates the entry of 21st century skills into the marketplace by adopting a crowdsourcing approach to answer the question: “what works?” It serves as a forum where constituents and experts from overlapping spheres of influence can gather not just to share ideas, but also to evaluate them from the standpoints of research, practice, and profitability before they enter the market.

Marrying the teaching of 21st century skills to the job market is not about just flinging more ideas or more tablets or more smartboards at schools, then crossing our fingers and hoping. It’s about bringing more better ideas to market. And the way to get better ideas is not to ask one set of stakeholders their opinion about what might work well, but to engage the many stakeholders in an ongoing conversation about our fast-changing world and what skills and competencies American students—all American students—will need to stake their claim to a place in that world.

PennGSE Milken-Penn EBPC logoThe Milken-PennGSE Educational Business Plan awards over $120,000 each year in a variety of areas of education; executive summaries of ideas for the 2012-13 competition are due by January 6, 2013. For more on rules and timeline visit


Cat McManus is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania. A former college admissions officer, her interests include community colleges, professional development and mentorship, innovation, and college access generally. Write to:


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