The 21st century meme has been appearing regularly throughout the edublogosphere. John Connell has posted some excellent contributions to the conversation on 21st century skills and 'literacies' here and here, whilst Doug Belshaw has been developing his thesis on the concepts. I highly recommend subscribing to their blogs.
The first thing that strikes me is that the 21st century is a very long time, certainly in a technological context if not an evolutionary one. If you consider the technological developments in the 20th century, never mind the 21st, It seems ridiculous to offer predictions for more than next 5-10 years.
I am convinced that our obsession with 21st century is holding back the debate on skill and literacies. It sets up an artificial construct between the traditional and the emergent. As John Connell says:
"I just don’t understand the mindset,... ...that assumes that, the moment you start to promote one idea, all other ideas are to be demoted or discarded. I see it so often today. We must be free to isolate an aspect of education so that we can discuss it in detail without everyone falling into the trap of believing we are advocating that aspect to the exclusion of all others."
It is unlikely that great innovators of the 20th century were concerned about creating something for the "20th century" It seems more likely that extreme dedication to work in their respective fields, is more probable.
Secondly, it may be impossible to completely disentangle the shifting elements that make up the skills and literacies we currently need, because some are cognitive and others functional. I am sure some will make a good stab at this, but I think this is probably the province of an academic paper.
As Doug suggests, we need a new term, and he's still looking. By far, the best I have come across recently , was from Prof. Sue Thomas at a recent conference at DeMontfort University: "transliteracy" - to be literate across the literacies - this definition probably allows us a bit more breathing space in our definitions, because it allows for the multi-layered capabilities we need to develop, in order to derive real benefit from technology.
"The ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks."
What is important is to distinguish cognitive from functional or practical skills, (whether those are an using interactive whiteboard or cursive handwriting). The need and relevance of these can change quickly and dramatically.
Having said that I feel it is completely wrong to dismiss the discussion on 21st Century skills as a "fad", using that reasoning one might as well say same about the internet. It is a fallacy to say that nothing has changed, (even in this century), and that we can operate using the same models. A good example is video; it is only 6 years since Becta launched the first Digital Video project for schools. It was no coincidence that this happened at the time when the kit first became practical and affordable in schools, unfortunately there was, at the time no real outlet for the work produced, and the real benefits never saw the light of day. All that has changed, the tools are low cost, easy to use and widespread. So now more than ever we need to consider the visual literacies such as the language of film, visual grammar, etc otherwise we will have kids not grasping the potential " as Dai Barnes noted in his blog:
"They know they can upload stuff but not many of them actually do. In fact, very few of them have actually signed up for an account to subscribe to their favourites or connect to friends. The way they communicate videos with each other (have you seen this? bare funny!)"
The technologies have changed the way we operate, the way we learn, or could learn. We can learn from each other in a technologically enhanced way and as Steve Wheeler points out
"You and I no longer need to occupy the same location to converse. We can use text, audio or video in a number of modes and through a mind dazzling range of technologies. And there is a record - an archive - of our conversation if we want one."
On a technological timescale writing, appeared quite recently, and printing with the attendant mass publishing and increased literacy, only a few moments ago. I agree with John that it is unlikely text will disappear completely, but its presentation, use and context may change significantly.
The technologies are there, the conversations are global and instantaneous, so lets use them and not worry too much about which century we are in.