Teaching and learning for the 21st Century

Mike Nelson

In the final workshop of our 2digi project in Helsinki in April this year, Juha Jalkanen gave an inspiring presentation entitled Beyond 2digi (you can see Juha’s talk by using the link below). In his talk, Juha mentioned research by Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2017) in a book called Machine, Platform, Crowd – harnessing our digital future. Juha’s talk got me thinking about the challenges society faces in the digital revolution, and how this can affect teaching and learning.

In an earlier work, The Second Machine Age (2016), Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggested that we are now entering the ‘second machine age’ where an industrial revolution is being powered by digital technologies. Following on from this, in a recent presentation, Brynjolfsson and McAfee showed a picture of a typical 19th century factory that was powered by steam engine. They noted that with the onset of electricity, the first factories powered by this new technology resembled the old, until it was realised that things could be done in a completely different way by making full use of the diversity that electricity made possible. This analogy can, perhaps, be applied to some current teaching practices whereby old materials are scanned and used in pdf format – digital in name, but not in nature.

In their latest book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee look at three key dichotomies that are shaping and will continue to shape the workplace: mind vs machine, product vs platform, and core vs crowd. Simply put, they state that businesses have traditionally relied on the minds of people for creativity, now they are beginning to rely more and more on machines and artificial intelligence. In terms of value creation, traditional physical products are being replaced by platforms that attract customers (Facebook, Instagram), or platforms that act as an interface between customers and products (Uber). Finally, they state that crowds of contributors online are often more capable than the traditional small core of experts in solving bigger problems (Netflix for content choice). Thus, the whole face of working life is radically changing and we must change with it. On the news just recently was a further cautionary tale in the form of the closure of Thomas Cook. This was Britain’s oldest travel agency has closed with the  loss of 22, 000 jobs worldwide. Failure to adopt to the online business model and competition from budget airlines spelled the end for it: to use the earlier analogy, it was like a factory powered by electricity but still set up as if powered by steam.

So what does this mean in terms of the skills that students will need in the future workplace?  In 2015, the World Economic Forum predicted three main areas of skills would be needed: foundational literacies including ICT literacy; competencies, including critical thinking, communication and collaboration; and character qualities such as curiosity, adaptability and social and cultural awareness. This echoed an earlier definition of 21st century skills by ATC21S (Assessment of teaching and 21st century skills) that were grouped under ways of thinking (critical thinking, metacognition); ways of working (communication, collaboration); tools for working (information and ICT literacy); and ways of living in the world (cultural awareness and competence).

In both these predictions, it is very clear that the language and communication teaching that we do can play a central role in preparing students for this world. Face-to-face teaching must still play a key role in teaching, but in his presentation, Juha pointed to the need to re-think what the core competencies are. As digitalization changes not only the way we communicate, but forms of communication, we need to re-assess everything we do.

One starting point for teachers is the 2digi website where help is given in all aspects of the digitalization of teaching. The same site also offers insight to students, who can measure their ability to learn in a digital environment. Here, the skills needed by students are divided into seven key areas.

ICT SKILLS: Using ICT-based devices, apps, software, and web services;

INFORMATION AND DATA LITERACY: Finding, evaluating, managing and organizing digital content for learning;

DIGITAL IDENTITY: Managing digital profiles and reputation online;

DIGITAL WELLBEING AND SECURITY: Being safe and secure online;

DIGITAL COMMUNICATION: How we communicate using a variety of digital media;

WORKING IN TEAMS DIGITALLY: Connecting and working with others using digital media and

 DIGITAL TOOLS FOR RESEARCH: Using digital applications and services in research.

You will notice that these skills reflect the 21st century skills noted earlier, and our quick-to- use questionnaire can help students to orient their thoughts on precisely the skills they need to develop as their academic career move unfolds.

So finally, here’s a question for us all, where I would like to again return to the factory analogy.  If in our current state, we are sitting in a factory set up to be powered by steam engines, how can we best make use of the opportunities that electricity can give us?


Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016) The Second Machine Age

Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2017) Machine, Platform, Cloud.

Juha Jalkanen: Beyond 2digi Juha’s talk at 1h 41m 50 secs.

2digi student evaluation:

2digi website: