The Importance of 21st Century Skills: “Do you like the idea of being free?”


Throughout the meetings, presentations, and discussions during our week in Portugal, the importance of 21st Century Skills emerged as a common theme. Its importance was highlighted during our visit to the Media Lab at Diario de Noticias, the major newspaper in Portugal. The Media Lab program for schools ( brings students to the newsroom, where journalists and editors act as tutors. Students conduct interviews with invited scientists, historians, and members of parliament. Students then write articles, develop headlines, edit videos, and work on deadline to produce a 4-page newspaper.

The half-day project-based learning activity starts with a question to the students: “Do you like the idea of being free?” In a country where media was censored until the 1974 revolution, the notion of a free press is not taken for granted. The goal of the Media Labs is to foster active, participating, critical-thinking citizens. Through the Media Lab activities, students learn the importance of being informed and to discern what is relevant. In the 21st Century, New Media changes everything. ALL citizens can have a voice. Through the Media Lab experience, students learn the difference between finding facts versus understanding information.

The 20,000 students who participate in the program each year have access to free online tools so that they can continue to create after they leave the Media Lab. The popularity of the Media Lab program and frequency with which critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity were mentioned in other discussions indicate that Portuguese culture has embraced the development of 21st Century Skills. And it is apparent that those skills played a role in the success of Portuguese education technology initiatives. Portugal’s leaders found a way to work across industries, create win-win funding solutions, and transcend political affiliations to ensure that their students would benefit from and participate in our global digital society.


Learning in and out of school: Portugal style Posted by Irene Spero

Our days were filled with policymaker meetings at the Ministry of Education, in Parliament and private sector leaders. But we were also privileged to see how policy translates into practice in both formal and informal settings.

We visited two schools – one private and one public. College Monte Flor ( ), a private school, starts with pre school students and goes up to the age of 10. Organized around their vision of “One Child One Future” we saw three year olds learning English and older students fully engaged in technology enriched instruction. At Escola Básica do Parque das Nações ( ), a public school, we were greeted by a group of 9th graders who served as our guides.  Older students demonstrated and explained their robot project and discussed  anticipated improvements. Very impressive!!.

In terms of informal learning we visited The Pavilion Knowledge, Oceanário of Lisboa and Media Lab. Each provides enriching learning for Portuguese students . Opened in 1998, the Oceanário ( )was the centerpiece of the 1998 World Fair. It is continuously developing new educational activities and impressive displays – and hosts school groups on a regular basis.  The Pavilion of Knowledge – Ciência Viva (  is a dynamic interactive science museum featuring hand- on displays. Its school program brings students to the museum for one week – here they can work alongside scientists, conduct experiments in the lab and use the entire museum to delve into specific questions.  Supported by Controlinveste , one of the largest media groups in Portugal, the Media  Lab ( runs workshops offering students the opportunity to work alongside journalists for a day and publish their own newspaper.

Students in Lisbon are certainly fortunate to have these informal learning opportunities available to them.

1:1 learning initiatives in Europe (and the U.S.)

I just came back from the COSN delegation meeting, where I presented research (quantitative and qualitative data) on 1:1 initiatives in Europe from European Schoolnet (EUN). This was a good opportunity to confront some of the European lessons learnt with the U.S. perspective on 1:1 initiatives.

The number of 1:1 initiatives in the U.S. is high and many initiatives have a long history (e.g. starting in 2000 such as the Maine Learning technology initiative involving a very high number of students and schools (e.g. more than 50 000 devices for around 300 schools in Maine). Experiences are widespread and implementers can draw from long lasting experiences. There seem to be common challenges that concern all of us. The first one is that each ICT initiative should start with a “Why” Why are we doing this in our school? What are the underlying objectives? Once this is clarified it will be easier to plan for the “How” and get every stakeholder involved- a second challenge. In this process of design it is not always easy to align intentions from school leaders, researchers, industry or parents, therefore an ongoing dialogue is needed.
Whilst there was common consensus that it is not about the technology (but the pedagogy), it was also interesting to hear from Stéphan Vincent Lancrin (OECD) that a technology push as it was done with supplying schools with interactive whiteboards in Italy as part of the digital plan for schools aimed to act as a catalyst for innovation. Some school district leaders in the U.S. have also opted to push technology and convince their teachers to use it for the sake of their students’ learning (e.g. for the acquisition of 21st century skills). Technology disruption can be a powerful tool in that sense if combined with leadership and professional development.
A striking issue was that broadband which is provided by school districts, is still a major issue in the U.S. There is a broadband goal of 100Mbps of Internet access per 1,000 students and 43 percent of districts said none of their schools meet the target today. This will not be solved by providing wireless via a local backbone to schools as Keith Krüger highlights. On average in the EU, 9 out of ten students are in schools with broadband, at most commonly between 2 and 30mbps.
Despite connectivity issues, one of the most common issue the U.S. and Europe face is the mainstreaming and upscaling of innovation and successful technology integration. EUN is developing strategies in this area specifically with the iTEC project, which has issued a series of recommendations for mainstreaming the results of innovative ICT rich school pilots across national education systems throughout Europe.
Steve Vosloo, offered a global view on mobile learning and highlighted that UNESCO pursues a long term strategy with mobile learning initiatives and provides policy recommendations in this area but also toolkits for teachers (to be expected next year). There are an estimated 6 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, 3.2 billion mobile phone subscribers. How mobile phones can be used in school education is certainly one of the next waves to watch.
Some links to studies and projects mentioned above from European Schoolnet:
Survey of schools: ICT in education:

Overview and analysis of 1:1 learning initiatives/practical guidelines for schools:

iTEC project:

Future classroom lab:

Creative Classrooms Lab (1:1 tablet initiatives in schools)

OECD’s Findings on ICT Innovation & Pedagogy

Earlier this week Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, OECD Senior Analyst and Project Leader, presented an interesting example from Italy.  The Italian government had designed a strategy to introduce ICT as part of the daily tools of classroom activities and transform teaching and school organization.  Italy wanted to raise their use of technology in schools as it significantly lags other OECD countries (4th lowest of approx 30 industrialized nations).

According to Vincent-Lancrin, the plan was well thought out and might have made a difference. Unfortunately, Italy only devoted limited resources to implement the plan.  OECD concluded that at the proposed 30 million Euro investment, Italy would only be getting a slow pace of equipment, insufficient digital resources and professional development.  Italy has 1.6 million students, so 30 million Euro doesn’t go very far.


We also heard from Darryl LaGace, former CTO for San Diego USD who described their digital investment strategy.  It too was carefully thought out, but it dedicated nearly $500 million US for its 130,000 students over a five year period.


Bottomline: even a great plan that lacks sufficient investment will not scale and have the impact envisioned. 




Vincent-Lancin also presented to the delegation several overarching themes that they have found around innovation with ICT in education:

 • Technology innovation is often a means to trigger pedagogical change

• Pedagogy is often much more challenging than the mastery of ICT

• Professional development works best as peer learning, so that isolated ICT-enhanced pedagogies are not the most effective from a system perspective


Dubbing Khan Academy Videos into Portuguese

Portugal Telecom (PT), one of the corporate partners in the educational initiative here, also wanted to contribute in more than the obvious ways. Their Foundation took on this elegant solution to support math education in school and at home: provide high quality voice dubbing into Portuguese for the Khan Academy math videos. They also worked with Portugal’s Mathematical Society to validate and correlate the videos to the national curriculum. According to Teresa Salema with PT, the next stop: Khan Academy Physics videos! For more information, go to

Portuguese Member of Parliament Outlines Portuguese ICT Successes

Portuguese Member of Parliament Outlines Portuguese ICT Successes

The 2013 CoSN International Delegation to Portugal had the opportunity to meet with Professor Jose Manuel Canavarro, Member of the Portuguese Parliament, President of the Employment Committee and Former Secretary of State for Education to discuss the major educational innovations that are taking place in Portugal.
Portugal is a country of approximately 10 million people. The eSchool project has reached 1.7 million teachers and students by providing laptops, infrastructure upgrades and massive professional development. Forty-two percent of the Portuguese population has directly benefited from this program. Included are 200,000 adults in training programs for literacy and career and technical education, even to the point of reaching out to students who have left school prematurely. However, investment in technology in education has been instituted long before this program. The eSchool program was planned and implemented over three years. The lesson for all of us is…..Just get started and then begin to understand and fix the problems and issues. Truly, we can’t wait until it is all perfect. The Portuguese began with 10th grade students since that is when students can decide if they want to drop out of school. This program became the incentive to keep students in school. Interesting enough, Portugal has leveraged the funding for this program by the state providing 27% of the costs and telecommunication companies contributing approximately 42%.
As the result of this impressive program, Portugal students now rank number one in the European Union in self confidence in using ICT. They also are now ranked number one in use of multimedia presentations. Additionally, Portugal has been recognized with the fastest growth in innovation for five years in Europe. In 2010 they were number one in e-government services and presently, they are number seven in the world in use of mobile broadband. There were so many people saying…we cannot do it, but they had the political will to pull bipartisan groups together and locate the resources to provide the needed support. The public/private partnerships were extremely impressive. Infrastructure upgrades required extensive planning and required them to build much technical expertise. One of the key components was exceptional leadership and extensive political will.

Pillars for a Large Scale ICT Initiative

The CoSN Portugal delegation has heard from many presenters about education ICT initiatives across the world, including detailed discussions of the ambitious nationwide 1:1 rollout in Portugal. While the Portugal experience – or any other we have heard about – is likely not a pure turn-key solution for implementing an equally ambitious 1:1 initiative at home (at the statewide, regional or large district level), we will leave Portugal with useful tools for designing such a program.

We can draw from all our presenters both a consensus list of design pillars for an ambitious ICT initiative, and examples of action options we might consider:

Vision and Purpose:  From the very start, large scale ICT initiative must answer the question “why are we doing this” in a way that all stakeholders can recognize their role and/or benefit. In Portugal and elsewhere, we know that this question was answered in a way that framed the initiative as one that transcends classrooms and students and identifies the opportunities for communities/states to increase their competitiveness in an increasingly competitive digital world economy. The framing must create broad excitement and mobilization in order to build the political will that will ultimately be essential for the initiative’s success.

Technology – mobile devices and connectivity:  21st century learning is characterized not just by the role computers play in learning but that learning occurs beyond the four walls of the classroom. The successful initiatives the CoSN delegation learned about build from this foundational idea and committed to putting mobile devices in the hands of students AND ensuring connectivity at home. Both components – devices and connectivity – demand public/private partnerships that might be new to American public education. Government leaders will need to be creative in leveraging device manufacturers’ and telecommunication companies’ self-interests in order to make them collaborative partners in an initiative that reaches all students, families and communities.

Financing: Answering the “Why” question (Vision and Purpose) is perhaps most important because large scale education ICT initiatives require a huge investment at a time when federal, state and local education budgets are in crisis. The Portugal experience in particular suggests that we must be open to multiple stakeholders sharing in the finance model: the state, districts, private sector and families. San Diego School District’s use of local bond financing approved by voters is an exciting model that generated the necessary dollars and community support. ICT initiative designers will need tools for projecting ROI and potential related public sector savings (Portugal significantly expanded e-government).

Training and Content: We heard from all presenters that a large scale education ICT initiative must include changing the nature of teaching through the involvement of, and support for, school leaders and classroom professionals. Once again, public/private partnerships like Microsoft’s Partners in Learning offer the prospect for rapidly scaling training for a new 21st century pedagogy possible and affordable.