The aim of this blog

This is one of several blogs that explore the question: is e-learning failing in higher education? (See Is e-learning failing in higher education?, Expectations and goals for e-learning, Has e-learning increased access to learning opportunities?, Does technology really enhance the quality of teaching and learning? for previous blogs on this question.)

e-Learning and 21st century skills and competences

In Expectations and goals for e-learning my third rationale or goal for e-learning was:

3. To develop the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century, and in particular to ensure that learners have the digital literacy skills required in their discipline, profession or career – or, put simply, to get work in the future.

(Note that for search engine purposes, I use the European term ‘competences’ rather than the English term ‘competencies.’ I recognise that there is a whole literature on similarities/differences between skills and competences, but this is beyond the scope of this blog – and my competence!).

I listed this rationale/goal as second in importance as a rationale for e-learning (after ‘to improve the cost-effectiveness of post-secondary education), although this might be seen as a sub-goal of increasing effectiveness. I also said that we are doing poorly on this goal.

Skills and competences for the 21st century

Many commentators have discussed the difference between learning outcomes suitable for industrial and knowledge-based societies (see for instance, Gilbert, 2005; Conference Board of Canada, 1991). Indeed, in the USA The partnership for 21st century skills is an organization set up to promote the development of such skills.

I usually refer to the Conference Board of Canada’s 1991 list, as it seems to have stood the test of time. These include:

  • good communications skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening)
  • ability to learn independently
  • social skills (ethics, positive attitude, responsibility)
  • teamwork skills, collaborative learning, networking
  • ability to adapt to changing circumstances
  • thinking skills (problem-solving; critical, logical, numerical skills)
  • knowledge navigation
  • entrepreneurship (taking initiative, seeing opportunities)
  • digital literacy.

These skills can be classified as being ‘process-oriented’ rather than ‘subject-oriented’. However, I believe it is a mistake to see these skills as being independent of the subject or topic domains in which they need to be used. For instance, problem-solving in engineering requires knowledge of physics, maths and structural qualities of materials, for instance, whereas problem-solving in medicine requires knowledge of other content areas, such as anatomy, physiology, etc. (There is substantial research that shows that skills do not automatically transfer from one content domain to another). The important issue here for education is that skills need to be embedded within a subject or knowledge domain. Thus there are implications for setting curricula (what is to be taught), teaching methodology (how it is taught or learned), and assessment (what is examined). If any one of these areas is not adequately addressed in terms of skills and competences, then teaching is likely to fail in terms of meeting 21st century learning goals.

e-learning and digital literacy competences

Where does e-learning fit into this? One of the core competences now required in nearly all subject domains, and more specifically in different occupations and professions, is ’embedded’ digital literacy, by which I mean the ability to use information and communications technologies in ways that are specific to a particular knowledge or occupational domain.

I have argued elsewhere that:

information technology is no longer just a useful tool that supports university and college administration and to a lesser extent teaching and learning; rather it is now an integral and essential component of almost all core higher education activities, and as such needs to be used, managed and organised accordingly…

Because digital technology is now so pervasive, and affects the creation, storage, access, analysis and dissemination of knowledge, all areas of human activity are increasingly being touched by it. Academic knowledge is no different. To be a scholar now means knowing how to find, analyse, organise and apply digital information. Studying without the use of technology is increasingly like learning to dive without water. This is not an argument for teaching generic computer literacy skills, such as how to keyboard or use a word-processor, but for using computers for digital imaging in medicine, for graphical information systems in geology, for using wikis to teach writing skills, for knowing what databases hold information relevant to solving a particular problem.

Thus e-learning is essential for developing these skills. Without using ICTs in teaching and learning, it will not be possible to develop core digital literacy within a particular subject domain.

Failing in teaching, not technology

So what’s the problem, then? When we use technology to enhance the traditional forms of classroom teaching we are not linking it to curriculum change, changes in teaching methodology and new forms of assessment that facilitate and improve the core skills and competences needed in the 21st century.

How do I know that this is not in fact happening on a large scale? Last week, I went to a very interesting conference in Vancouver, the 2009 Canadian e-Learning Conference. One of the best sessions was moderated by Cindy Underhill of the University of British Columbia, the major research university in the region. She moderated a student panel addressing the question ‘Personal Learning Environments: What do Students Think?’ The panel consisted of three extremely articulate and thoughtful recent graduates from different subject areas at UBC. The most telling moment for me was when Cindy put up a slide listing many of the core competences listed above, and she asked them: ‘How does technology help you with these learning activities?’ The answer was stunning (for me). ‘We only focus on these activities to the extent to which they help us get through the exams…We just want to know what we need to do to get good grades, and if these activities don’t help, we don’t do them.’ In other words, assessment is still being ‘content’ rather than ‘process’ driven – or at least, this is how assessment is being perceived by our students.

If we are setting exams (or other forms of assessment) that do not explicitly assess problem-solving, critical thinking, digital literacy and communications skills, then students will not focus on developing these skills. And as well as assessing such skills, we also need to design our teaching to give students the opportunity to develop and practice such skills.


Using technology for teaching is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for developing the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century. It has to be accompanied by curriculum reform (the content), by changes in teaching methods that facilitate the development of skills in a particular subject domain, and by changes in assessment. Obviously many instructors are successfully working in this way, but there is still a great deal of resistance to such radical change.

I also recognise that organizations such as the Conference Board of Canada and the Partnership for 21st century skills are primarily focused on the needs of employers, and that education has a wider purpose. Nevertheless, I may be naive in thinking that the types of skills and competences identified by these organizations are in fact fully in line with the core values and principles of a liberal education.

In my next blog, I will look at the needs and learning styles of millenial students, and whether we are meeting their needs through e-learning.

In the meantime, if you have any comments about the validity of the ’21st century’ skills listed, the extent to which the current system is indeed developing such skills, and the role of e-learning within this context, I will be delighted to hear from you.

Other reading

For a particularly good discussion of 21st century skills, and why they are important see Stephen Downes’ blog: An operating system for the mind


Conference Board of Canada (1991) Employability Skill Profile: The Critical Skills Required of the Canadian Workforce Ottawa, Ont.: Conference Board of Canada

Gilbert, J. (2005) Catching the Knowledge Wave: the Knowledge Society and the Future of Education Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Not available online. To order, go to:


  1. Tony;
    Excellent point about the conjoining of content and process skills (and maybe context too!).
    I would say that the assessments you mention are not valid in that the assessment structure does not match the structure of the process skill sets that are said to be needed today. It is questionable whether there is consequential validity either (producing students with process skill sets). Teachers want their assessments to be “objective” (beyond argument?) but only have a narrow view of objectivity. They fail to capture the object of value.

  2. I am a student at Athabasca University in the MDE program.
    I teach adult literacy to mostly First Nations learners at Northwest Community College in BC. My area of interest is edublogging.

    You wrote:
    “…assessment is still being ‘content’ rather than ‘process’ driven – or at least, this is how assessment is being perceived by our students.”

    I absolutely agree. There is a need to shift the thinking of learners so that they become intrinsicly motivated to learn, rather than be animated to learn entirely by the carrots and sticks of testing.

    Assessment is so dependent on context – who the learners are, where they are, their anticipated roles, and the degree to which technology plays a role in their lives.

    E-learning should start with an assessment of what motivates the learners to begin blogging in the first place, and what keeps them motivated to continue sustained activity well past the duration of a course or program.

    For any sustained learning activity to work, it needs to involve a combination of learner self-assesment and expert assessment. In future, however, learners will not have to settle for the one assessor/teacher – when what really matters to them is gaining validation from peers or others considered trusted experts.

    How can institutions control the outflow, the overflowing of student and faculty learning and teaching activity beyond the walls of the classroom/LMS/learning community? This is the wrong question to be asking.

    The questions should instead be: how do we assess these outlying learning activities for entry into programs?
    How do we define our roles as educators to maintain firmly established boundaries, protecting the learners with a safe space, while also providing them with the required skills to venture out confidently as future netizens?

    Requiring learners to use blogs within a conventional assessment model will not work. It does not address the future skills/values/knowledge these learners will require to fulfill their roles. I strongly disagree that learning activities should be set entirely in terms of vocational objectives – technology is used for much more than just work. First Nations learners, for example, might not choose to be academics, so why expect to only test them based on essay writing? This is not just about First Nations learners, but for all learner, struggling to learn to write and put ideas down. Why not expand the assessment to include , storytelling, journaling, and creative projects, as well as a PLE, in which these projects are stored as digitized content? I think that testing and evaluating the individual posts is far to simplistic-it is the connections, the processes, the development over time, which needs to be captured, not the individual posts or “units of analysis” . If learners were offered choice, allowed to own their learning content and own the process of learning, and be offered choices about how they want to blog (as a private blogger, working on private thoughts, or as an autonomous blogger (using blog posts as a linklog and sandbox to draft ideas, in full view of others, or as a social, or embedded blogger, working with others to discuss and debate and share ideas, o,r as an anonymous blogger, one whose personal identity needs to be shielded, so that they feel protected while engaging in heated discussions and debates with others in an arena of ideas).

    Assessment needs to encompass the different ways learners might choose to blog, so that they can confidently take on their future roles, years or decades into the future. This involves a portfolio, a capture of learning processes. With a combination of pencasting, screencasting, podcasting, and edublogging, and with a personal information management network in place such as pageflakes (compiles delicious bookmarks, and offers learners a choice over hundreds of flakes) and posterous (allows learners to post their podcasts, videos, and other documents), the emphasis of assessment shifts and incorporates process.

    I think that before learners tackle higher-level content creation skills, they require an apprenticeship, and this is where the teachers play a vital role. They require safety, privacy, and yet also an oppprtunity to choose the means of assessment and the validators.

  3. e-Learning and 21st century skills and competences.

    I am a student at North West University. I also teach Second Language English to grade nines and Mathematics to grade eights at Goudveld-Hoërskool.

    I agree with the statement.

    Learners are controlled by assessment. Assessment gives an indication to where learners are, what they know, who they are and their roles. It can also be seen out of assessment what their needs for technology are.

    I believe that technology is not there to take the teacher’s role in teaching. Instead, it’s making it easier, comfortable and interesting. Technology can be used for more than just work.

    Learners should be included in the lessons and lessons should be broad enough for every learner’s needs. The learners who are not interested in writing should be involved to debating or interviewing, etc.

    I am all for the use of technology in e-learning. Learners get stimulated visually. I hope that soon all of the educators will start to feel comfortable with using technology in teaching. We have interactive white boards at our school and the learners enjoy it very much.

  4. Nice post Tony. I was stunned for quite a while when you mentioned about Cindy’s question at the conference. I found your blog from google a while ago and will turn myself to one of your regular readers. Keep up a good work!

  5. It is encouraging to note that many developing nations are now embrassing internet and ICT in general as part of their set millenium goals. The information super highway as the web is known is now a must have. Educators are therefore not left behind in formulating curricular for the ever increasing learners.


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