While the thread meanders over a large amount of ground, it starts with the core question: Is knowing how to format a [column/paragraph/footnote/presentation/etc] in [Word/Excel/Keynote/OpenOffice/etc] an essential skill for a 21st Century Learner. At times, the conversation has veered into the usefulness/worthlessness of "computer" classes that teach typing, how to format docs in word processors, how to manipulate data in spreadsheets, or how to do function X in tool Y. Much of the conversation here has been fairly chicken/egg, with some people saying that students should be taught these skills in context (ie, In English/History/Math/Science/Art), and others saying that they aren't taught these things in context, and therefore won't know them without being taught them in a computer basics course.
This is an old conversation, and one that has been going on in schools for almost as long as technology has been in schools. However, this conversation is only part of the puzzle. In another response, a person describes the following scenario with Teacher 1 and Teacher 2.
Teacher 1: Assigns her class to submit an 8 page essay on "Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation".
In the strand, it has been argued that simply blogging or creating a wiki entry on such a topic is not the same as crafting a well formed essay using a word processor. Then there has been discussion about open source word processor or Pages or MSWord is best. To my mind, this misses the point.
Teacher 2: Assign her class:
a. Use whatever tools at your disposal to learn about:
- Abraham Lincoln, the man and the president and the conditions that led him to write "The Emancipation Proclamation"
- The civil rights movement of the 50/60's
- The election of Barack Obama
b. Present in a form that you choose, a synthesis of how the struggle for freedom by one people, is a model and symbol of struggle for your particular race, nationality, or religion.
Teacher 2 can allow her students to use Mac, Ubuntu or Windows computers to search the internet for articles, video clips, essays, blogs, podcasts, scholarly material, songs, poems or whatever.
Teacher 2 can allow her students to create podcasts of interviews with their own relatives, blog with/about interesting members of their faith, nationality or race, write a formal essay on a word processor, create a music video, assemble a photo montage, or anything else...
Scenarios like this are part of the problem with understanding what technology can or can't do within education. Creating a good paper on anything requires a solid grounding in process, aka, the basics. To create a good paper, a person will need to know/do:
- How to do preliminary research to gain any needed background knowledge
- How to differentiate between common knowledge (which does not need to be cited) and original thoughts/ideas/interpretations (which do need to be cited)
- Proper citation format as required by the context of the assignments (as these can be discipline-specific)
- Craft and articulate a clear thesis that will serve as the driving and organizing force behind the work -- and this step is an essential part of much academic work
- Edit for style
- Edit for content
- Edit for verb choice
- How to format/present the paper and any research
- Etc, etc, etc
These elements are key to doing good work, in any subject, from high school (and possibly earlier) on into a ripe old age. With these elements in place, a paper is a great learning tool.
Teacher 2 in the above example provides a more "21st Century" type of assignment. We will merely note in passing that the final result of this assignment ("Present in a form that you choose, a synthesis of how the struggle for freedom by one people, is a model and symbol of struggle for your particular race, nationality, or religion.") veers perilously close to requiring a student to speak for their race; instead, we will focus on some of the shortcomings behind this assignment.
First, this assignment doesn't require core skills that are any different than the paper assigned by Teacher 1. While this assignment is more active (ie, potentially involving first person interviews), and will likely take more time to complete, the core skills are very comparable. Interview questions will need to be written and planned, and material will be prepared in response to a clearly articulated thesis.
But more importantly, this assignment fails to ask one essential question: why is one medium a better choice than another? When should a podcast be used? When should video be used? When should a paper be used? When, and how, should a blog or a wiki be used?
Different mediums have different strengths, and until we can articulate why a specific medium makes sense for a given message, technology will be viewed as an unneeded bolt-on to existing curriculum. With the assignment for Teacher 2, technology can be seen as a bolt-on; while it might be useful, it isn't essential. Until technology advocates can explain how different mediums can be used to support the process of learning, they should return to basics.
One of the core issues that I have encountered is that people have an incomplete understanding of how different tools can be used as part of the process. A wiki or a blog can be used to store notes, impromptu podcasts can be used as ways of storing ideas when on the run, and these various components can be used as part of a working portfolio while developing a project. The notion that we need one tool for a project -- or that each student will use the same tool in the same way -- is as quaint as the idea that schools need to dedicate an entire semester to formatting cells in Excel.
And with that said, a blog post or wiki page can be used to share and distribute polished writing as well as notes. A podcast or video can be rough, or something that is scripted, edited, and crafted into a coherent work. In short, any medium, from writing on up, can be as rough or polished as we make it.
But until technology advocates can make a coherent argument that demonstrates how different online tools can be part of a more efficient learning process, the conversation will remain stalled as we discuss whether we should teach students how to create 1.25 inch margins. I hesitate to call this a skill, and I certainly hesitate to attach it to a particular century. The essential skills needed for any learner in any century will always be dictated by the task at hand, and the tools available to solve it.