Technology's Role in 21st Century Education

The teenager clad in sweatpants and Ugg boots shuffles in her seat, disinterested, as her teacher drones on about the major themes found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The girl, a senior, started counting down the days to graduation back in December. It’s now March. She only has to endure this state-sponsored "education" for two more months before she’s finally free to move forward with life on her own terms.

Suddenly, she feels a small vibration from the right inside pocket of her sweats. It’s her iPhone signaling that she’s just received a text message. She glances up at the teacher to be sure she’s in the clear, then carefully cradles the phone in the palm of her hand as she begins to read the message from a friend about a road trip they’re taking this weekend to visit her older brother at college. As the girl looks up, she’s startled by the authoritative stance of her teacher staring over her shoulder.

“Jessica, put that phone away now, or it’s mine,” says Mr. Brown. Because Jessica attends Antiquated High School, she is forced to comply with her school’s prohibitive electronic device policy. However, if she attended the forward-thinking Health Sciences High and Middle College high school, she would likely be using her iPhone for academic purposes thanks to a “courtesy policy” that governs the use of electronic devices during school hours (Fisher & Frey, 2008).

Rather than using her phone to solidify weekend plans, Jessica could have been listening to a Podcast on how superstition affects human behavior, or browsing a scholarly text on how blind ambition leads to one’s downfall, another theme prevalent in Macbeth.

Jessica could have been posting a discussion question to her class blog, or using Twitter to respond to a question her teacher posed regarding Macbeth’s most loathsome character. Instead, she’s half-listening to her teacher’s lecture, her body in the classroom, her mind already assembling her outfit for Friday night.

It’s not that Jessica’s ditsy or genuinely disinterested. Her GPA puts her in the top quarter of her class, she regularly does her homework, and she’s generally polite and courteous to her classmates and teachers. Unfortunately for her, Antiquated High School – no different than the majority of American high schools – is failing at its three essential functions, which, according to school technology leader Scott McLeod, are to develop students who are socially functional, economically productive, and able to master the dominate information landscape of their time.

Jessica’s classroom is aligned in rigid rows where students sit isolated, tasked with individual desk work that requires little collaboration or use of resources beyond their text and the teacher’s lecture notes. In this class, Jessica isn’t able to use the latest Web 2.0 tools because her teacher doesn’t know much about technology and has little desire or incentive to learn. And even if he did, her school’s Internet filter blocks blogs, wikis, Ning, Twitter, Facebook, and other social, academic, and compositional Internet resources.

Because Jessica is able to memorize information, she does well on quizzes and tests. Because she sufficiently models her teacher’s writing exemplars (most of which are provided by the state department of education) she scores above-average on her essays. Jessica’s high grades have given her an inflated sense of self as a student. What Jessica lacks is an independent and curious intellect. Rather than break new ground and take chances, Jessica plays it safe while keeping risk-taking at a minimum.

Heidi Jacobs, author of Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, would argue this problem is not entirely Jessica’s fault.

Schools tend to teach, assess, and reward convergent thinking and the acquisition of content with a limited range of acceptable answers. Life in the real world, however, demands multiple ways to do something well. A fundamental shift is required from valuing right answers as the purpose for learning, to knowing how to behave when we don’t know the answers – knowing what to do when confronted with those paradoxical, dichotomous, enigmatic, confusing, ambiguous, discrepant, and sometimes overwhelming situations that plague our lives (Jacobs, 223).

This lack of ingenuity and creativity will hurt Jessica’s chances of employment in the long run. Because she hasn’t learned to tap the power of the Internet for research, self-publishing, or networking, she’s already miles behind the students at Forward Thinking School District who have been cultivating positive electronic personas since elementary school.

Even if Jessica is able to land a good internship during college, she is going to require extensive training before she’s well-versed in the electronic networking and publishing software used by her company. Rather than coming into this new work environment as a leader and a source of innovation, Jessica is seen as unprepared and burdensome.

Some say schools are responsible for preparing students for the “real world.” Others take this a step further and say school should be the real world. Antiquated High School and others like it are stuck in the past, preparing students for jobs that no longer exist. Their true responsibility is to prepare students for jobs that have yet to be created, and they are failing, miserably. It is time for today’s educators to get serious about giving students a malleable set of skills they can apply five, ten, and even twenty years down the road.

This means that students can work effectively in groups. It means they can analyze, criticize, create, deconstruct, and synthesize. It means they know how to use technology for serious, academic research and investigation, not just social networking and gaming. Students will not learn these skills unless, we, their teachers, undergo a focused, constructive, cumulative initiative that challenges the current educational paradigm and reshapes it for the 21st century.

This cannot happen unless the federal and state governments renew their commitment to education, moving away from drill-and-kill instruction and toward constructivist, open classroom environments where teachers facilitate learning though technology, collaboration, and exploration. The days of the teacher as the “sage on the stage” are gone. Our new roles are to serve as guides through an increasingly complex and ever changing digital maze of information.

We can’t lead our charges into this new horizon with the tools of the previous century. To remain relevant, school districts must acquire the digital hardware of today’s workplace, train teachers on its use in the classroom, and then give students the freedom to explore, experiment, and harness their skills as navigators, evaluators, and creators of tomorrow’s world.

Bonk, C. (2009). The world is open: How Web technology is revolutionizing education (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Frey, H. & Fisher, D. (2008). Doing the right thing with technology. English Journal. 38-42. Retrieved from

Jacobs, H. (2010). Curriculum 21: Essential education for a changing world. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Herrington, A., Hodgson, K., & Moran, C (Eds.). (2009). Teaching the new writing: Technology, change, and assessment. Berkeley, CA: Teachers College Press.

McLeod, Scott. (2010, March 16). Notes from India – My TEDx talk [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Metiri Group. Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says. (2008). Retrieved from

National Council of Teachers of English. Writing in the 21st century. (2009). Retrieved from

State Educational Technology Directors Association. Maximizing the impact: The pivotal role of technology in a 21st century education system. (2007). Retrieved from

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