Learning in a Digital Age

21st Century skills focus on developing competencies in technology, collaboration, problem solving, and networking, etc. that “…build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom…” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 19).  Educators as well as students need to acquire these proficiencies to compete in the digital age.  Educators need to now design curriculum that seamlessly integrates technology and fosters interdisciplinary inquiry that requires a new way of thinking about teaching.

Knowledge building has shifted from “knowing” or the ability to remember details to being able to develop the intellectual tools to use knowledge (Simon, 1996).  This requires educators and schools to restructure so that students learn with understanding of content rather than through the repetition of information.  In this digital age, technology has given learners heightened access to information, ideas and people where knowledge can be shared using Web 2.0 tools.  Educators need to keep up with this knowledge and be digitally resilient when learning to implement new technologies into the classroom.

I believe that a new learning theory for the digital age needs to be established.  Past learning theories such as Constructivism focus on the individual assembling information from past knowledge conveyed by the instructor.  A more recent learning theory, Connectivism, is concerned with community knowledge building where information is exponentially increased through new connections that create new learning opportunities.  Teachers transform existing knowledge, yet connections are made by students rather than the teacher; resulting in more engaging and memorable learning experiences.  This learning theory encourages the teacher to not be the source of information, but rather he/she is the learning expert that guides students through knowledge building (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000).  Connectivism is an exciting learning theory in that it utilizes new technologies to boost learner collaboration and to better manage this explosion of knowledge (Starkey, 2010).

I gravitate to Connectivism because of its focus on student-lead exercises instead of teacher controlled learning.  My experiences teaching new Canadians have taught me to allow students time in class to practice content, which is referred to as the ‘silent’ teaching method.  It implies that students spend approximately 80% of class time activating previous knowledge and making connections to newly learnt material rather than listening to instructional lectures.  In this environment, educators act as facilitators and should spend approximately 20% of class time guiding and setting the parameters for learning.

This type of instruction requires much out of class preparation because educators need to first locate relevant information, divide material into manageable lessons, determine the technology to use to enhance learning, and finally connect the technology to the learning outcomes of the lesson.  Teacher are not able to walk into class ill prepared because there are too many decisions that must be made prior to the face-to-face exchange.  Furthermore, this type of teaching allows the facilitator to observe classroom interactions and to make note of lesson changes.  It also offers students ‘in the moment’ and real world learning opportunities.

I encourage teachers to research Connectivism and to become digitally resilient in their attempt to establish consistent technology usage in the classroom to meet 21st Century skills development.


Bransford, J., Brown, A. & Cocking, R. (2000).  How experts differ from novices.  How People Learn:  Brain, mind, experience and school (pp. 31-50).  Washington, D.C.:  National Academy Press.  (Chapter 2)

Jenkins, H. (2006).  Confronting the challenges of participatory culture:  Media education for the 21st century.  John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Retrieved from http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.pdf

Simon, H.A. (1996).  Observations on the Sciences of Science Learning. Paper prepared for the Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning for the Sciences of Science Learning: An Interdisciplinary Discussion. Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University.

Starkey, L. (2010).  Teachers’ pedagogical reasoning and action in the digital age.  Teachers & Teaching, 16(2), 233-244.


Integrated technology-not just an adjunct

Creating improved curriculum where technology is integrated rather than an adjunct is required if education is to move to discovery-based, personalized learning.  How can this be best accomplished?  Often, educators implement technology into their curriculum where they can fit it in, which unintentionally becomes an adjunct.  For example, many educators ask students to complete a PowerPoint slide show for a presentation, which adds a technology component to a project.  However, is this application of technology authentic and connected to previous lessons or does it seem disconnected?   Why is technology not better integrated into curriculum?

One reason for this lack of integration is the amount of time new technologies take to implement into lessons.  Wikis, blogs, websites, etc. are great tools to encourage collaborative measures into lessons, but the challenge is the time it takes to monitor them.  Another problem is that teachers usually fall back into old habits; asking students to use technology that they know such as using the Internet for searching and exploration, using PowerPoint to present information, etc.  Teachers need to be aware of the knowledge differences in their classes and realize that when the technology tool changes so to does other aspects of teaching including content and pedagogical approaches (Harris & Koehler, 2009).

There are many benefits of integrating technology into curriculum-especially in adult educational settings.  For example, technology allows students to practice skill development in a safe environment.  Medical students, astronauts, pilots, etc. are involved in computer-generated simulations that test their abilities to perform.  Without this technology it would be much harder for these professionals to become competent.  Also, 21st Century ways of thinking is more creative and innovative where people are required to collaborate with others (Friesen & Lock, 2010).

Knowledge building is moving beyond information so as to build an intellectual partnership between humans and technology; however, I don’t believe that this implies that educators shouldn’t teach students skills necessary for survival since technology may not always be available to students.  Information is changing so rapidly, and young people do need to know how to access it, but first educators need to ensure that students know what sources of information are credible (Friesen & Lock, 2010).  Technology is entering schools through the back door, which concerns me because young people do devalue their educators when they know more technology than their instructors.  Therefore, educators do have a responsibility to learn new technologies to keep teacher/student relations in balance even when faced with the challenges of increased class sizes, lack of effective professional development within organizations and other administrative decisions that may not support teachers.


Friesen, S. & Lock, J.V. (2010).  High Performing Districts in the Application of 21st Century Learning Technologies:  Review of the Research.  Prepared for the College of Alberta School Superintendents.  Retrieved from http://o.b5z.net/i/u/10063916/h/Communications/CASS_Research _Paper_2_Friesen_Lock_Characteristics_of_High_Performing_Districts_in_the_Application_of_Technologies.pdf

Harris, J., Mishra, P., & Keohler, M. (2009).  Teachers’ technological pedagogical content knowledge and learning activities types:  Curriculum-based technology integrated reframed.  Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41(4), 393-416.  Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=afh&AN=41563959&site=ehost-live

Inquiry Learning: Misunderstandings Resolved

Inquiry starts from a central point where learners with various abilities and intelligence, background, cultures, and previous knowledge, etc. come together to learn and build possibly something new from collaborative efforts (Gardner, 2000).   This vision of inquiry taken from “On the Nature of Inquiry:  Choosing a Topic” by David W. Jardine PhD, encourages instructors to focus on selecting topics that entice learners to ask real questions and participate in “live” curriculum designing where active learning strives.

Unfortunately, many educators are overwhelmed by the vast differences or diversity in schools today, so many teachers are resistant to discovering new ways of implementing inquiry into the classroom because of time constraints.   Time constraints make it difficult for educators to not view diversity as a problem.  I admit that when I was first asked to teach in our new WorkSkills Program I was resistant because of the extreme diversity of the students.  At first, I didn’t see the potential to challenge myself to create a curriculum that was rich and complex and that embraced student differences, for I was concerned about creating a viable curriculum given the time constraints.

After reading “Testing the Waters:  Three Elements of Classroom Inquiry” by Pat Clifford and Susan J. Marinucci, I realized that to create a truly inquiry based curriculum that challenges students to ask questions, has academic rigor and meets the needs of curriculum, educators should encourage students to ask questions (Clifford & Marinucci, 2008).  It doesn’t have to be “big questions” to spark a series of more questions that lead to genuine curiosity about content.  This is the starting point for authentic learning.  Thus, to create a feasible curriculum for the WorkSkills Program, I needed to start by asking my students questions about their expectations for the program.

Many educators are not strong believers in inquiry learning because of the many misconceptions.  A misconception about inquiry is that it is too loose, doesn’t contain structure, and that teachers shouldn’t guide students when they get off topic because learning may transpire during these ‘teachable’ moments.  Many educators also believe that Constructivism is required for inquiry based learning.  In the past, I have had a difficult time accepting Constructivism since it seems that too much content knowledge is left up to the student to obtain through his/her own experiences.  Through my teaching experiences, I have noticed many students feel lost, disorganized and uncertain of the outcome when using Constructivist teaching methods.  However, now I realize that I have also misunderstood this learning theory.  When designing lessons using this approach, I have often not had clear learning outcomes, which led to student uncertainty.

Teachers need to ensure that lessons have specific outcomes when using Constructivist teaching methods or inquiry, but students also need to become comfortable with this self-directed style of learning.  I have witnessed negative results from implementing inquiry lessons in classes where students were not comfortable with this style.  For example, when I worked at Educere International College/Educere Learning Centre-an adult ESL school, I experienced resistance to using the inquiry method of teaching.  Luckily, my former principal, Barbara Grant, had experience with this form of resistance and was a seasoned teacher.  She recommended that I initially use a traditional style of teaching and then implement an inquiry style after trust and a community of learning has been built.  This advice went against everything I had learnt in the U of C M.T. program.  Eventually, students became comfortable with more control over their learning and grew to expect it.

Teachers need to better understand Constructivism and inquiry.  In addition, students need to trust their instructors and play along when asked to participate in activities that they may not fully understand at first.  Both teachers and students must work together to create communities of learning that lead to authentic learning.


Clifford, P. & Marinucci, S. (2008).  Testing the waters:  Three elements of classroom inquiry.  Harvard Educational Review, 78(4), 675-688.  Retrieved from http://library1.ucalgary.ca/u.php?id=3209

Gardner, H. (2000).  Frames of Mind:  The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  New York:  Basic Books.

Authentic Learning-Relevance Must Be Visible

Creating authentic learning environments is something I strive to do as I have learnt that students in ELT, Enhanced Language Training, programs demand that lessons be connected to their real world goals.  For example, in my pharmacy communication class, most classroom exercises consist of patient/pharmacists role plays to help students perform in authentic pharmacy settings.

In one pharmacy communication class, I attempted to help students improve their reading and memory skills through speed reading techniques and categorizing exercises.  The exercises were meant to assist students on their Canadian Pharmacy Evaluating Exams, which foreign trained professionals need to pass to be practicing pharmacists in Canada.  These reading and memory exercises would have greatly helped students perform by increasing their reading speed and understanding of how to function on timed, multiple choice exams.  However, many students could not visualize the relevance of such inquiry teaching, so this lesson failed.  I realized after a few activities in this area that students only wanted to apply their pharmacology knowledge and learn how to interpret data.

My program coordinator informed me that this particular class was lacking in their pharmacology knowledge; therefore, learning about reading and memory techniques were not on their radar at the time.  Jonassen (1991) explains that students need to be involved in real world relevant activities.  Lessons need to have real world relevance, allow students to define the tasks for themselves and have complex tasks to be examined over a period of time.  The activities must have felt irrelevant and not important, so students should have been allowed to define more tasks.

The Newmann and Wehlage (1993) article “Five Standards of Authentic Instruction” and the Herrington, Oliver and Reeves (2003) article “Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environment” really resonated with me because of my experiences teaching this pharmacy communication class.  My students were not “…suspending disbelief before engaging in the task” (Herrington, Oliver & Reeves, 2003 p. 59 ).  When I first read this article, I wasn’t sure if I believed that students needed to suspend disbelief because I wasn’t sure if such a practice was possible; however, now after reading the article again, I think that the authors’ analysis is correct since many students in my pharmacy class shut my activity down without giving it a chance.  They were not willing to play along to see if these techniques could help them, so they weren’t fully engaging in the scenarios.

I reviewed my lesson to determine if it had met the standards for authentic instruction.  I thought that maybe students weren’t engaged because they didn’t view this lesson or series of lessons as authentic to their pharmacy preparation.  I thought that the lessons involved higher-order thinking skills since students were asked to manipulate information and ideas or to transform information about the techniques they used for reading.  Knowledge was deep as students were asked to make distinctions between material and their skill level, and material was covered in a systematic and connected way from initial reading speed analysis to technique learning and then applying the new techniques to practice.  Students worked in small groups and discussed problems they had with the techniques, and I felt that support was offered to aid them in their implementation.

Students were not solving problems rather they were self -assessing their reading techniques.  Maybe this was the problem?  According to Young (1993), students need to be involved in real life problem solving.  Another problem may have been that I made an incorrect assumption that students would be interested in improving their reading techniques.   I had heard them vocalize many times that they were frustrated with their reading because they felt that it was slowing them down on their qualifying exams, so I thought that the activities had connectedness to the World.  Why then were students not engaged?  Why did this attempt to provide students with authentic learning opportunities fall flat?

After reading the second article on authentic learning activities, I realized that the pharmacy students did not act as ‘moviegoers’ and didn’t suspend their disbeliefs.  If students had done this, they would have been immersed and engaged in the simulated world I had attempted to create where students were in the licensing exams applying the reading techniques resulting in improved outcomes.  However, I created this fictitious world; students should have been consulted for the scenario to be more authentic (Petraglia 1998a).

Maybe students were afraid to change their reading strategies since it seemed to be too difficult, so they were resistant because they were frustrated with the intensity of the skill development.  Thus, they didn’t want to change their learning habits.  Taplin (2000) states that problems can occur if students are not self-motivated or are accustomed to teacher-centred modes of instruction.  Students may have felt fear or discomfort with the amount of freedom they experienced during these activities (Hoffman and Ritchie, 1997).  Also, there wasn’t a polished product for students to visualize.  Obviously, students didn’t see the relevance of the activities to their own lives.

If I decide to introduce this lesson in the next pharmacy communication class, I will encourage students to participate more in the lesson design.  I also think that with time my pharmacy students will get used to a less traditional learning environment, and they will adapt to new inquiry based teaching practices.


Herrington, J., Oliver, R., & Reeves, T.C. (2003).  Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments.  Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(1), 59-71.  Retrieved from http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet19/herrington.html

Hoffman, B., and Ritchie, D. (1997).  Using multimedia to overcome the problems with problem based learning.  Instructional Science, 25, 97-115.

Jonassen, D. (1991).  Evaluating constructivistic learning.  Educational Technology, 31(9), 28-33.

Newmann, F. M., and Wehlage, G.G. (1993).  Five Standards of Authentic Instruction.  Educational Leadership, 50(7), 8-12.  Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr93/vol50/num07/Five-Standards-of-Authentic-Instruction.aspx

Petraglia, J. (1998a).  The real world on a short leash:  The (mis)application of constructivism to the design of educational technology.  Educational Technology Research and Development, 46(3), 53-65.

Taplin, M. (2000).  Problem-based learning in distance education:  Practitioners’ beliefs about an action learning project.  Distance Education, 21(2), 284-307.

Young, M.F. (1993).  Instructional design for situated learning.  Educational Technology Research and Development, 41(1), 43-58.