ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

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

Lisa Nielsen 

This article has been reposted with permission from Lisa Nielsen, creator of The Innovative Educator blog and the Transforming Education for the 21st Century learning network. She is an outspoken and passionate advocate of learning innovatively and has worked for more than a decade in various capacities supporting schools and districts in providing innovative learning opportunities that will prepare students for 21st century success. Connect with Nielsen on Twitter @InnovativeEdu. 

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 have administrators who will let them, can begin supporting students using tools and strategies available to the 21st century learner. 

Here are 10 ideas every teacher should consider when supporting learning for students today. 

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 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 Richardson 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. Bogush and his students do most of their interviews using Skype, and they turn the interviews into podcasts. 

4. Free Online Educational Resources 

Learn about whatever you want with free online education resources. The purpose of this coordinated movement is to move toward a common goal of providing quality courses for learning for free. Many of these resources do not require a teacher for students to learn

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 World Wide Web in particular, provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and re-use knowledge. 

—The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation 

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 that 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. Student who are self-motivated to do something count. A teacher directing them 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. Although some schools are paying for pre-packaged online learning options, they're really all already out there for free. Empower teachers and 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, but 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 of value for teacher 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 well, ePortfolios can be a powerful tool that helps remind students of their accomplishments and enables them to share them with the world. In the 21st century, creating an ePortfolio is free and easy. Students simply select a container, such as a blog, wiki, website, or Google site; decide how they'd like to organize it; and then post their work. I strongly advise against using any paid-for portfolio sites. 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 students want to know their reading level, show them how to determine it with resources like those you can find here. If students create a video, honor the built-in authentic assessment like number of views and comments to evaluate their ability to find an audience. Show examples of how to share with appropriate audiences and get feedback for improvement. If students want 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 the results. Empower students to develop their own learning plans and assessments so that 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 OK 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 students' success, we will lift the bans, unblock the filters, and connect our students to the world so that they can learn effectively.

Comments (3)

Jesse McLean

February 16, 2011

I love this article, now, where do I go to work in an environment like this!?

Ok, so not too many exist, but I guess it should be our goal to help make our buildings resemble this type of learning environment.

It will be a challenge, but an exciting one for all of us. Thanks for the inspiration


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