M. Cristina Escobar
21st century skills: What has been accomplished, why should we care?

We live in a hyper-connected society where most opportunities are just a click away. Social relationships and job markets have suffered a profound transformation because of technology ubiquity, but what has happened within our schools? Are students prepared to face a labor market that values what people can produce with technology rather than technology use?

In general, worldwide information and communications technology (ICT) integration policies in the school system have been focused on providing hardware and ensuring equal access to technology. This view set aside the educational purpose and aim of bringing this new resource into the classroom.

It’s still quite common to hear things like, “Why should we bother promoting the development of 21st century skills among our students when they are always connected? They chat, upload and download photographs, record videos, tweet. They are ‘digital natives.’”

Underlying these kinds of comments is the assumption that merely spending a great deal of time connected prepares a student for the challenges of working in a digitally driven world.

Today, youngsters lack advanced skills like selecting, evaluating, synthesizing, making an inference or analyzing information while they interact on the web. Extracting information from many sources or selecting and presenting relevant information to a specific audience is not part of their repertoire of competencies.

Why? We have not been able to change teaching practices. In other words, we haven´t integrated technology effectively in order to get closer to our students’ approach to technology in their everyday life. We have not dared to innovate.

We generally ask students to research, produce or search without understanding the context has changed significantly. Therefore, the traditional schoolwork request will end up in a web search that will tempt them to provide a “copy-pasted” answer. This approach will not result in positive learning outcomes.

Developing good, challenging questions takes time, no doubt, but in today’s digital context it’s a must! It becomes quite relevant to explicitly teach how to research and to help students identify which criteria should be applied when selecting, evaluating and producing high-quality information.

Research shows that even though students use technology frequently and massively, they do not possess the skills needed to take full advantage of technology’s potential. The results of the 2013 Chilean ICT National Evaluation showed that students have developed the skills required to communicate with their peers and to search information on digital media. However, more complex cognitive skills involving processing and elaborating information are at an initial level of development.

The challenge today is to develop digital skills that will allow our students to appropriate and derive benefits from the use of technology. With this approach, we will also make progress in closing the digital skills gap and the unequal use of media. 

It’s crucial to incorporate these skills into each country’s curriculum so they become a part of teachers’ quotidian practice and part of everyday life in schools.

Digital skills are the key variable in the entire process of access and information inequality, as only after developing these skills can people benefit from digital media.

We need to develop these skills in our students in order for them to have the best opportunities to participate in all the spheres of our present and future society. This is our challenge.

M. Cristina Escobar is an information technology specialist with more than 26 years of experience. Most recently, she served as the director of Enlaces, the Chilean Center of Education and Technology for the Ministry of Education. She’s dedicated to developing educational projects that integrate and evaluate ICT skills in the learning and teaching process.

Ximena Álvarez, a contributor to this column, is chief of the Department of Definition and Evaluation of ICT Skills at the Center of Education and Technology, Ministry of Education, Chile. Her professional experience includes coordinating the national standardized evaluation of ICT student skills.

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