Friday, January 28, 2011

10 Ways Technology Supports 21st Century Learners in Being Self Directed

Life in the 21st century provides a whole-new world of opportunities for self-directed, passion-driven, personalized learning.  Educators who are ready to move on from teaching the way they were taught, and administrators who will let them, can begin supporting students using tools and strategies available to the 21st century learner. 

  1. Personal Learning Networks
    Perhaps the core of passion driven, self-directed learning is the development of personal learning networks which can be developed through blogs, social networks like Facebook, Ning, or, Twitter, and discussion boards.  Read
    5 Things You Can Do to Begin Developing Your Personal Learning Network, The PLN Matures. The Progression of the 21st Century Personal Learning Network and 5 Ways to Build Your 1.0 and 2.0 Personal Learning Network to learn how to get started.
  2. Tweet to Connect with Experts
    If you have an interest, Twitter is the place to connect with others who share that interest.  Simply do a search on Twitter for the topic and you’ll be connected to a many others interested in the same topic. Follow them. Reply to them. Use the search term in your Tweets and others interested in that topic will see your Tweet.  Students can even have their own newspapers created instantly about their topic of interest using a service called   
  3. Skype an Expert
    You can
    make your classroom a global communication center for free with Skype by connecting with anyone around the world about topics of interests.  These experts may be people you have conversations with or perhaps they are people you learn from.  Author, blogevangelist, teacher, thought leader and father, Will Richarson uses Skype to supplement his children’s learning. Paul Bogush, an 8th grade social studies teacher not only supports his students in doing this, they take it up a notch with a program they produce called Lunchtime Leaders.  Students interview leaders from around the world on their opinions about what they should do to be prepared for the future. Paul and his students do most of their interviews using Skype and they turn the interviews into Podcast. You can listen to their podcasts at  where students choose to interview experts in topics they are interested in and then turn their interview into a podcast.  
  4. Free Online Educational Resources
    Learn about whatever you want with
    free online education resources (OER).  The purpose of this coordinated movement is to move toward a common goal of providing quality courses for learning for free. “At the heart of the movement toward Open Educational Resources is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general, and the Worldwide Web in particular, provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and re-use knowledge.” – The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Many of these resources do not require a teacher for students to learn.  
  5. Online Learning
    When given the choice,
    students often say they LOVE learning online and not just because it lets them sleep in.  They find that they are exposed to many more possible courses in alignment with areas of interest and moving at their own pace without distractions of classmates enables them to learn more effectively.  Many public schools, universities, and colleges are starting to jump on board and companies like are popping up which offer High-interest online courses students can’t find at their high school. Access to unique subjects they’re passionate about makes Zulama a place teenagers want to go to learn. With Zulama, students connect, teachers simplify, parents stay involved, and schools get ahead.
  6. Authentic Publishing In the 21st century, irrelevant hand-it-in teaching should be a thing of the past.  If a student’s work has no authentic audience beyond the teacher, it shouldn’t be assigned.  A student who is self-motivated to do something, counts, btw.  A teacher directing him/her to do it does not.  Most 21st century kids love to share with real audiences and are doing it outside school already.  Inside school, work should not sit lifeless on a computer, or even just the school website.  Support students in finding real audiences for their work in their Global Community.  If you’re not sure how find out by reading, “21st Century Educators Don’t Say, “Hand It In.” They say, “Publish It!”
  7. Use YouTube and iTunes to Learn Anything It’s rather outrageous that many schools still block one of the most powerful tools for learning available for students today. YouTube.  While iTunes is a powerful option for learners on the go, YouTube adds the visual element, making learning even more powerful and FREE!  With YouTube Education and iTunes University, more and more colleges, universities, and their professors are sharing content for free.  While some schools are paying for pre-packaged online learning options, they’re really all already out there for free.  Empower teachers and/or students to design their own learning and learn about whatever they want with these free resources.  Not only are these good resources to go to learn from others, they’re also a smart place to ask for help like this student did who needed help with his bowdrill set.  
  8. Passion (or talent) Profiles
    When we start collecting
    profiles of students passions, talents, interests, abilities and learning styles, suddenly students and teachers have an awareness that they may never have considered previously. A passion (or talent) profile is not only value for teachers and student self-awareness, it is also a helpful tool for students to connect with others who might share a passion.  These students could connect on a topic of interest, collaborate, and share ideas.  These profiles can be purchased using a company like Renzulli learning or they can be made for free with Google Forms and Spreadsheets.  Either way, it’s much easier to differentiate instruction when teachers and students can quickly and easily see where they stand and sort by interest, learning style, talents, or abilities.  
  9. Develop Authentic Learning Portfolios
    When done write ePortfolios can be a powerful tool that not only helps remind students of all their accomplishments, but it also enables them to share these with the world.  In the 21st century, creating an ePortfolio is free and easy.  Student simply select a container (blog, wiki, website, Google site), decide how they’d like to organize it, and then post their work.  I strongly advise against using any paid for portfolio site.  It is important that students have ownership of their own work and that it can travel with them wherever they are.  When it comes to ePortfolios, Helen Barrett is the go-to person.  To learn more, visit her blog where she shares fantastic ideas.  
  10. Empower Students to Assess and Learn Themselves
    The days of teacher as gatekeeper of the answer key or teacher edition are gone!  Educators need to stop hiding and start sharing information with students including enabling them to learn how to assess themselves.  If a student wants to know their reading level, show them how with resources like those you can find
    here.  If a student creates a video, honor the built in authentic assessment like number of views and comments and the child’s ability to find audience.  Show him/her how to share with appropriate audiences and get feedback for improvement.  If a student wants to know how well they might do on a test let them find a test prep review site where they can take practice tests and see how they’ve done.  Empower students to develop their own learning plans and assessments so they can learn and assess independently.  After all, they are the ones who own the learning.  
In our globally connected world, it is no longer acceptable for teachers to teach the way they were taught nor is it okay for administrators to allow it.  It is also no longer acceptable for administrators to take the easy way out and require connected kids to learn in a disconnected environment where they are banned from accessing sites or bringing to school the tools and technologies they love and need to succeed in the world.  In the 21st century, if we truly care about student success we will lift the bans, unblock the filters and connect our students to the world so they can learn effectively. 


  1. I should have my youngest daughter write a post about being self-directed and coming home (or staying home) from school so she could watch and replicate science experiments from utube, create electicity after watching on her ipod, writing up what worked and recreating again, making recycled flipflops and sharing/selling them on facebook, etc. School is not her learning time, home is (on her own time) because its better and it means something to her.

  2. @willynwebb, I would love that! It's a shame that in places like NYC students need to leave school to learn because of political BANdates, and filtering. In NYC your daughter would be banned from using any of her digital devices and at most schools she would be unable to access the sites she needs to learn and connect.

  3. Another outstanding posting! Thank you Lisa.

    I agree with all of your statements. We are fortunate in our school (independent K-12 in Dallas, TX) about being able to empower our students with open access to educational resources and social networks.

    I have never heard of the Passion Profiles and I am ready to explore. I always learn something from your postings!

    I'm very grateful and looking forward to seeing you at #educon

  4. This is soooo extremely helpful! I work in an alternative education setting where self-directed learning has been the norm for more than a decade. Last year we finally got high speed internet in our classroom. I have been trying to update our self-directed learning model to the 21st century, but it is a struggle because we don't have enough computers and most students don't have access to technology at home. Just last week we all started blogging together and now and I am trying to introduce them to more skills--but there is so much out there! I am their guide on this technological journey, and you've just given me a map!


  5. Lisa,
    Your post helps teachers understand the importance and ease of removing themselves from the front of the classroom, to the side, guiding their students to become independent learners.
    Another important skill we can help our learners develop is that of their own PLN, by connecting our students to others around the world. This week my gr. 7/8 students finished a shared writing activity with partners who lived almost 3 000 km. away. After the project was completed, students realized the skills they developed reached far beyond what the initial activity focused on. Communicating and creating with other students in this global world are skills that any 21st employer will value. Let's make sure we give our kids the chance to develop these skills as well.

  6. The e-portfolio really piques my interest. I am in a classroom situation where students quickly drop their graded assignments and projects into the wastebasket. It would be wonderful to be able to store their work as a reference for me--to have at hand, their strengths and areas for improvement. As well, students would benefit from assessing their complete journey from trimester beginning to end--it really would drive home the overall point of the class, and, maybe, they would be proud of their accomplishments. This is something I would really like to try.

    One technology source that I am skeptical about is the discussion forum. While it definitely extends classroom conversations, I think that posts can be forced and artificial, especially if students are mandated to make them. Who really learns from inauthentic material?

  7. @Jess-GVSU, glad to hear the e-portfolio idea resonates with you. One word of caution if you take this path is don't mandate the container. Give students choice. Give them ownership. Ensure it is a platform owned by the student, not the school or district. Something that they can take with them even after they leave your school. Helen Barrett suggests Google Sites. Wikispaces is another option. Wordpress is yet another as is something like Blogger. Give students options. Be open to ideas you have not thought of. There's always new and undiscovered options.

    You are right about the discussion board. Absolutely. I can tell comments on my blog that were forced by a professor. They're so boring/forced and have no passion. I don't know the answer there. Something to think about.

  8. I love the idea of using Skype in the classroom to connect with people from other parts of the world. This could be a great way for world language teachers to bring their target languages home to their students in a really authentic way, as opposed to showing students outdated videos of characters having stilted conversations with one another based on the week's vocabulary from the textbook, as I have seen done in world language classrooms.


  9. this is very helpful information! I love the idea of using technology that students are already familiar with and love and channeling those skills/passions to the classroom. Thanks for the post!

  10. Yes!!! Thank you so much for this post. This needs to be widespread. I get frustrated when learning that digital tools and resources are blocked for student use at school. Makes me think school is jail. Why not marry technologies students use during out of school time into the school day? We have to be 21st century adults and 21st century systems open to the endless possibilities these forms of technologies allow our students to experience.

  11. It will take a long time to cycle out the dinosaur administrators and reluctant teachers.
    There are so many tools out there for challenging students to think critically and problem solve instead of being storage containers for information they don't want. There is a reason why schools have had to block sites (YouTube) and it's usually because kids will see what they can get away with and there is a lot of nasty stuff out there. And it's usually because they don't have access anywhere except at school. It is getting better. For now we may have to rely of sites like

  12. While I can attest to the speed online learning provides, my experience gave me a nagging feeling that the course could be quickly completed because it did not have the same amount of content as an in-person class. I was thorough with my notes, yet I wound up taking less overall than in my normal classes. Some of my fellow students have also shared similar experiences, making me feel as if I am not alone in these concerns. Online learning can be effective, but, much like with normal schooling, where a student learns could be a major factor.

  13. Your blog is very helpful and insightful to teachers who are trying to keep up with 21st century learners. You are absolutely right that educators should collaborate with students rather than be "the gatekeeper to the answer key". The relationship between students and teachers should not be mutually exclusive but mutually inclusive. If student’s feel that they have control of their education they will be motivated to get the most out of it. They will no longer feel confined to a room for eight hours. I agree with Larry’s comment that the transition won’t be easy. Many teachers find it hard to meet the individual needs of students especially those who are experimenting with new technologies every day.
    However, as you pointed out, the transition is very much needed. There is not an easy way out. Teachers of all grade levels need to take the leap of faith and supply students with the best resources. Teachers should provide the resources and guidance. In return, the students discover the effectiveness of these resources through independent practice. The issue you raised about the restriction on YouTube is very prevalent in our educational system. YouTube has such a vast amount of knowledge that it would be a shame to deprive students of this free resource. Nevertheless, Larry brings up a good point. In that vast amount of knowledge, there is the opportunity for “a lot of nasty stuff”.
    Perhaps, a solution to this issue may be holding supervised computer lab sessions where teachers guide students to specific video clips. Also, teachers could access the clips through their private computers and share them with the class. One issue to keep in mind is that the availability of new technological resources in schools is limited because of budget cuts being made on education. Also, Teachers cannot always count on students having access to computers at home. As long as we keep our focus on the individual growth of students, we will all be able to find a happy medium.
    I appreciate your input on this issue and I hope to incorporate more student-driven lesson plans into my teaching career.