Teachers are 21st-century knowledge workers, and students are 21st-century knowledge-workers-in-training. As such, they both need to use appropriate 21st-century tools to pursue their professional goals.
Yes, 21st-century knowledge workers (and knowledge-workers-in-training) need to use computers, but what is really important for them is the layer of software that rides on top of the hardware that creates a 21st-century work environment designed specifically for each of the 21st-century professions. For example, an accountant “lives in” a Quickbooks-like environment while a salesperson “lives in” a CR M— Customer Relationship Management—environment.
What 21st-century software, then, do K12 teachers and students use? Windows 7 or Mac OS X? While identifying the strengths and weaknesses in each of those operating systems might well make for entertaining TV commercials, the truth is that both provide the same core functionality. Accountants to zoologists—with teachers, students, superintendents and principals in between—all use one or both of those software tools. Neither of those tools is profession specific. And the same argument can be made for Internet browsers and office productivity suites; by and large, every professional uses them, no matter what the profession.
What about the concept-mapping tool (aka graphic organizer, mind mapper) Inspiration? One could well argue that concept mapping is an important 21stcentury skill supported by this application made by Inspiration Software. But one application isn’t enough to create a 21st-century work environment.
Where are the learning management systems that help teachers and students with their core activities, such as composing complete and comprehensive lessons that are consistent with state standards? And, where are the applications that take advantage of the affordances of having a one-to-one rollout, such as the ability to create differentiated lessons to address the needs both of talented and gifted students and of struggling students? Where are the applications that support student collaboration and teamwork?
The Same Mistake
Now, K12 schools are issuing netbooks to students, the latest 21st-century tool. But we see schools making the same mistake with netbooks that they made with laptop computers. Schools issued the laptops with minimal software, so the laptops were used primarily as add-ons to the curriculum— as typewriters for reports and search engines for WebQuests.
The result? School district administrators across the nation didn’t see any particular gains in achievement from all those laptop rollouts.
It’s All About the App
School leaders today say they want to teach 21st-century skills and content. Schools administrators today say they are going one-to-one with netbooks.
So why aren’t the companies who develop learning management systems dancing a jig? Schools are issuing the low-priced netbooks without adding a layer of educationally appropriate software to create a 21st-century teaching and learning environment and schools are not loading up the netbooks with educationally-appropriate applications either.
Prediction? The netbook rollouts will achieve what the laptop rollouts achieved.
When teachers and students are working 24/7 in a software-based teaching and learning environment loaded with educationally-appropriate software-based applications, then school districts will be educating our children in 21st-century skills and content.
Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow Learning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of GoKnow.