Why It’s Time To Focus On Skills (Not Just Cool Tools)

list of skillsWe have all seen list upon list of “cool tools,” “web 2.0 websites,” “educational apps.” They are a great source for the latest and greatest websites/tools in education. The problem is that they all fall short when it comes to talking about technology skills. Identifying and teaching transferable technology skills are crucial for students to not only be college and career ready, but also to prepare them to lead productive lives in an increasingly global and digital world. Ultimately these types of lists are a detriment to teachers and the effective integration of technology into the classroom.

Any one of these web tools that a freshman in high school learns today will most likely not exist or will be replaced by something better in 8-10 years when that freshman graduates from college.

However, if teachers change their approach to focus on transferable technology skills (i.e. the NETS-S) it will make the integration of technology more meaningful and prepare our students with skills they can take with them in the future.

Common Questions and Concerns

  • “I want my students to use more technology but I don’t know where to start.”
  • “That (insert a program, website, “tool” here) is really cool, can you show me how to use it in my class?”
  • “There is not enough time to teach my students how to use technology AND everything in the curriculum.”
  • “I want to my students to use Prezi because PowerPoint is just so boring and out of date.”
  • “How can I teach my students how to use technology if I don’t know how to use it myself?”

These are some common questions and concerns that we regularly hear that can all be addressed by simply changing our approach to integrating technology in the classroom. The key to making this happen is a shift in perspective from focusing on “tools” we can teach our students how to use, to identifying transferable technology skills that students can use for the rest of their life.

This was one of the main themes of the second January institute day this year at JTHS. Based on research that we have done, we feel confident that teaching our students a set transferable technology skills will best prepare them for life in a modern society.

Transferable Technology Skills

iste standardsThe International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has developed a set of “standards for learning, teaching, and leading in the digital age that are widely recognized and adopted worldwide.” Those standards, known as the National Education Technology Standards (NETS), have several benefits including:

  • Improving higher-order thinking skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity
  • Preparing students for their future in a competitive global job market
  • Designing student-centered, project-based, and online learning environments
  • Guiding systemic change in our schools to create digital places of learning
  • Inspiring digital age professional models for working, collaborating, and decision making.

ISTE has a family of technology skills for students, teachers, administrators, technology coaches, and computer science educators. The set of standards that we will primarily use are the NETS for students or NETS-S. The six technology skill categories are listed in the image above.

One key point to make about the NETS is how they have evolved over time. In 2006, ISTE undertook an effort at both the national and international level to update the standards. Thousands of people around the world participated in this process and the result was released in 2007. The NETS for students “reflected changes in instruction, learning environments, and technology.” More importantly, the focus also changed from learning how to use technology to using technology to learn.

The NETS standards will serve several purposes in our district going forward. As mentioned in the January institute day, we have identified relationships between the NETS-S and the Common Core ELA Standards. An awareness of those relationships helps to deepen our understanding that technology skills are embedded within the curriculum. The NETS-S skill categories will also provide common terminology for the district when discussing instructional technology, help us to create a resource guide for teachers that categorize websites/tools according to the NETS-S, and serve as a criteria for professional development opportunities.

Benefits of Skills Based Approach

ways students learnToday I want to address one reason why it is beneficial to focus on skills before tools, and then we will revisit this topic again in future post with additional considerations. Let’s examine the topic of student presentations.

Think for a moment about the blistering the pace at which technology is rapidly changing and advancing. How do we as teachers determine what are the best programs for students to learn when those programs are constantly evolving? This is where taking a skills based approach helps teachers decide what websites/tools to use in their classroom.

For example, Prezi is the trendy presentation tool that many teachers want their students to use. There are definitely pros and cons to using Prezi. It can deliver certain types of messages in a way that PowerPoint can’t. But what if we only teach our students how to push the right buttons and where to click to add video and text?

Furthermore, there are best practices for what makes a good presentation. None of them include reading a paragraph off of the screen with the student’s back turned to their audience. If this is how your students present in your class, it won’t matter what program they are using.

Ask yourself this question, would you ever consider a grading scale on a presentation that gave your students two options?

  • Present with Prezi and the maximum possible grade is an A
  • Present with PowerPoint and the maximum possible grade is a B

Why? Where does your answer place the emphasis of the assignment? Is the goal for the student to learn the content or the technology? The only exception would be if you are teaching a class that only teaches students how to use technological software, programs, and tools. For the vast majority of teachers, this is not the case. More importantly, we have examined the Common Core ELA standards to use as a model and no where will you find a mention of tools that students should learn. Conversely, technology skills are embedded throughout the standards.

Let’s look at this example form a different perspective. First, teaching students how to evaluate websites/tools to choose which one is best for the message they want to convey does two things. It targets higher order thinking and it prepares students with a skill they will undoubtedly utilize in the future. Next, students who know what it takes to make an effective presentation can be successful using any medium.

As technologies change, those presentation skills will remain constant and ensure the likelihood of a successful outcome. Teachers will still need to introduce students to websites/tools, but focusing on transferable skills makes that process much more meaningful.

- http://jthsinstructionaltechnology.blogspot.com/
- “NETS for Students.” International Society for Technology in Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013. http://www.iste.org/standards/nets-for-students


  1. Emil

    January 31, 2013 at 3:30 am

    Kudos to the author for finally speaking out the truth about all this hype with the coolest and trendiest apps. I’m not a teacher but I’m a highly tech savvy business professional who has hired a lot of young college graduates to work with me on strategic consulting and analytic jobs over the past 10 years. First off, I completely agree that what matters in real life is skills and understanding of the underlying principles, not mindless pressing of buttons or swiping on the screen. Understanding concepts and underlying principles, as well as problem solving, have kept me up to speed with technological gadgets throughout the years, even though when I was a kid, I learned how to program on a tiny Apple II that could not show text and graphics together. But, precisely because the Apple II could not show text and graphics together, I learned how to build my own fonts using bitmaps and later vectors. Imagine the advantages of learning these concepts at an early age, even in a rudimentary form. Secondly, regarding Prezio vs. PowerPoint, as a consultant I’ve mastered making presentations that are captivating and at the same time easy to read and understand. None of what Prezio offers really allows you to do any of these things automatically. PowerPoint does not allow you to do that automatically, either. But you can accomplish it, if you know how to connect the dots between facts, create insights, stitch the insights into a coherent story, and then tell this story in a well-written and engaging way. Additionally, I have a word of caution to all the overly enthusiastic teachers who ding students for using PowerPoint or Excel — when your students enter the real world, they’ll be required to know how to use PowerPoint and Excel at work. They will not advance in their careers if they do not know how to use these tools. Please do not forget that most jobs are still offered by mid-sized and large companies — and that the people who currently run these companies and will most likely run them in the next 20 years are very much used to PowerPoint and Excel. They don’t care about Prezio. Board directors will not expect (or accept for that matter) you to bring your presentation in Prezio style. So, please, please, for the sake of your students, listen to the ideas put forward in this article, and also take a look at what is really required in real life vs. what is currently pushed as cool by startups that may or may not exist 3-5 years down the road.

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  4. Olive

    January 31, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    I keep hearing how skills are definitely all what employers are looking for. Most people can get a college degree, but not every college graduate can get the skills needed to be successful at your job.

  5. Pete Laberge

    January 31, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    That is the problem with schools.

    They teach little that business (the employers) need or want. Business uses Office with Powerpoint. Schools teach Open Office and Prezi. Business uses the “W-Intel-IBM” world, schools use Apple. Many businesses (and government agencies) are wary of, and do not allow smart phones or tablets for good security reasons. Schools? That’s all they know. B!Y!O!D! Or, of course, Apple. Schools teach art, music, history (The trio of useless subjects!) quite well. Business wants Marketing, Bookkeeping, Management. Schools try teach “Creativity”. Why? Are not human naturally creative? And besides the form they teach…. is not the form business uses. Schools teach Critical Thinking. Business just wants you to THINK! Go, criticize your boss and the company! That’ll get you FAR!

    No wonder the economy is in the toilet, and there are no jobs. I know a business locally that needs: 1 Jack of All trades Journeyman, 1 competent Delivery Scheduler, 2 Tinsmiths, 4 HVAC Leads, 1 Electrician, 1 Plumber, 2 Sales people, and a good Office Clerk. They are impossible to find.

    I know another company that needs a couple of IT people, and several techs. As well as some CSRs . They have to custom train anybody they want to hire. Yikes!

    Another company needs some construction people. Hard. To. Find.

    I know that Schools all want kids to graduate and get good jobs. So they train their students to work at Apple, Google, Yahoo, and Prezi. COUGH! Those jobs are very limited. And society needs way more than that. And when I say “schools” I mean Grade, High, College, and University. No wonder the “1 or 2 year Diploma” Private Industry schools are thriving!

    Schools are isolated from society, hung up with cute theories, and out of touch with business. A number of local hotels, motels, restaurants, and others asked 2 local colleges to come out with simple courses that could help them get staff. The result? A 3 year program (also available crammed into some 15 months), that taught Cordon Bleu Cooking and Restaurant Management! FAIL! Who wants to spend 15 to 36 months, and spend $10,000 or more, for a $15/hour job? (Oh, yes, it is not a high income job, but it is socially needed work, and can be rewarding.) I know one graduate, who tried to open his own place, failed before he wasted too much time and money, and then went into life, health, and other insurance sales. He knew nothing, but had talent. So the company trained him for a year! COUGH! And after that, he still had to go take a course in basic Income Tax Preparation, for some know-how the company could not afford to give him.

    A college or university graduate, 28 years old, who cannot do his own T1 Personal Return? FAIL! He’ll be doing a tax return the rest of his life, till he dies… possibly for 60 years.

    I know I seem critical, and down. I am not, really. I see signs that improvement may be coming. But, at least now you know some of the things you should improve on! And could you at least teach kids to read simple instructions, write more than 140 characters at a time, count (basic math), and be able to make change for a $20? We ALL still need that! Whether you plan on working as a Janitor, or President.

  6. Stacey Gonzales

    February 1, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Might I first apologize Eric, I didn’t realize my reply would turn into its own blog post :)

    Which came first the tool or the skill? As a teacher, I was interested in providing engaging learning experiences which would allow my students choices and the development of their own learning. As an administrator, I am concerned with those same things. I do this through a variety of ways, an online “tool” is just one of many.
    As a teacher, I became interested in technology because it provided options for my students, especially my high-achieving students who always finished assignments before the rest of the class. Instead of allowing them to “zone out” for the remainder of the class period, I gave them options: build a website, contribute to a wiki, and write a blog post about the paper you just wrote and why others should care about it. It was an extension of their learning. They had just completed a paper using Microsoft word, added comments, and imported the bibliography using the reference feature. They could use Microsoft Word for one person: the teacher. But could they express their thoughts to a global audience? The technology tools simply opened the audience and provided students with authentic, real-world opportunities. Opportunities that, prior to the digital age, were limited by the walls of the classroom.
    For assignments, I was well-aware of the skills I wanted students to develop: critical thinking, the ability to articulate an opposition to an argument, an online exploration of a non-profit they want to learn more about and may one day be able to financially support. For these learning experiences, I didn’t have to teach them a tool. If the tool was created and developed appropriately, it would easily allow students to develop the collaboration and communication experiences which would prepare them for life after high-school (one aspect of the NETS-S standards). I didn’t know the NETS-S standards even existed, but I unknowingly taught them because I wanted my students to be prepared for life after high-school. I wanted them to be good people who would learn that there were service and learning opportunities beyond my classroom and not dictated by me. I wanted them to explore different online opportunities. I wanted them to be aware that applying for a job would require them to go to the computer, not to the McDonald’s down the street. I wanted them to find out what interested them, and then find places where others in the field would share their experiences with them—on a personal level. We emailed authors, we added responded to blogs, we created websites, and we grew together. And none of it was quick and easy—for either party.
    The argument about tools vs. skills is futile. The argument should be about teachers who are unwilling to change, grow and explore new ideas. Teachers who refuse to change their teaching because they believe students should come in, sit down and passively receive all of their expert knowledge. Teachers who are so rigid and inflexible that believe learning happens for all students in the same way. Nobody ever argued over whether a teacher should wait to start reading a novel until the students understood the theme, tone, and all the other important literary elements PRIOR to reading it. A good teacher will tell you, she learned many things from the students along the way while working through the text. Things she NEVER realized, even though she read the book 10 times over the past 10 years with 10 different classes. Good teachers know how to reflect, adapt and instruct. They know how to build students’ strengths, challenge their weaknesses and develop opportunities for learning (whether technological or not). A book is only as useful as the teacher’s ability to utilize the content in a meaningful way. The same is true for the technology tool; however, unless I have an understanding of what books to choose from, I can’t make an educated decision or allow my students the empowerment to explore a few that may be beneficial. Teachers should use online tools in the same way they would use a book, worksheet, lab activity, demonstration, or any other instructional resource—to provide learning experiences that students can rely on in new contexts, experiences and situations both now and in the future.

    • Eric Patnoudes

      February 3, 2013 at 8:24 pm

      @Stacey- I truly appreciate your insightful feedback on this article and I think you raise some interesting points worth exploring further in the following blog post ;) I could not agree more about teachers who are unwilling to change, grow and explore new ideas as the bigger issue at hand. The state of education would be much better off if all teachers demonstrated the same passionate curiosity as you described that led to self-discovery and professional growth. Unfortunately, that is not the case for all and I have yet to find the formula for getting unwilling teachers to change. From my perspective, the next best approach is to support teachers so they understand why they are using a tool/website and how to do it effectively and efficiently. Effectiveness means doing the right things and efficiency means doing things right. In order to help our teachers not become frustrated by endless searching or consistently forcing a tool into their classroom, we need to develop methods to help teachers become effective and efficient when they choose to employ technology in their teaching and learning.
      As for the skills vs. tools debate, there is no question that skills came first. Communication, collaboration, locating resources, organizing thoughts, applying knowledge to new domains are fundamental skills. In fact, these skills were crucial to student success before technology ever entered the classroom. However, it is not a question of tools vs. skills because teachers clearly need to know and understand both. They are inseparable. However, tools enhance these skills and address one or more of these skills to facilitate the process of application or information seeking.
      Teachers that are resistant to change or do not have a positive attitude towards technology in the classroom, will be no more enticed by the allure of a tool than they would be if they were learning about transferable technology skills. In fact, without having some way to limit the endless number of tools down to a manageable number, these teachers will become equally frustrated by their search. Furthermore, the ineffectiveness those teachers experience with a tool due to the lack of a strategic approach, will only deepen their negative attitudes. What teachers need and want is a way to communicate with each other about effective tools, uses, and approaches. To do this, we need to provide models that offer a guide for their development, a shared set of terminology to facilitate a mutual understanding, and methods of categorizing the vast number of tools available.
      We can see this relationship by comparing technology tools to textbooks since technology is often the reason people give for getting rid of texts. In choosing a text, teachers first think about what they want to teach and perhaps how they wish this information to be organized. They then search for textbooks that best align with their needs. They use categorical information such as publisher, genre, and content to narrow down the perspective texts.
      If you likened the tools first approach to textbook selection, teachers would first search the vast array of textbooks, read them, and then determine what they wish to teach. This would be an enormous waste of time and energy on the part of the teacher because they would have no filter to quickly eliminate a textbook. Likewise, teachers do not read every novel before they know which ones relates to their classes, instead they know what content they are covering, the skills they are targeting and only then do they narrow down the list of novels by genre, author, or fiction/non-fiction.

      Technology tools are no different. They must be organized and categorized. This is where recognizing and focusing on skills helps us accomplish this. The NETS-S skill categories of communication/collaboration, research/information fluency, critical thinking/problem solving, creativity/innovation, digital citizenship, and technology operations are internationally recognized skills that can be enhanced due to technology. They provide a framework to establish a common language necessary for categorizing tools that we believe will also lead to increased collaboration amongst teachers and targeted professional development.

      These skill categories can then be driven deeper into the teacher’s world by targeting the standards found within the curriculum. There is no single answer for this relationship. Every teacher must develop this understanding, see the relationship through their perspective, and own the reason for making the relationships to begin with. There is no right answer when identifying relationships between the Common Core State Standards and the NETS-S. This is simply meant to assist the teacher when they know what they’re addressing (curriculum), understand what skill categories may be applicable (NETS-S), and filter the web or resource guides for the right set of tools.

      Teachers that are early to adapt to change or have been effective and efficient in their technology uses are applying these filters implicitly in the same manner that you did when you described your experiences as a classroom teacher. This is not just in the context of technology, but also in teaching as a whole. They are generally the same teachers that adapt to any change. In order to get critical mass, however, we need to convey to teachers the why and how of integrating technology and equip them with a strategic approach to increase the odds of successful implementation. Teachers must begin to see technology as much more than just a list of “cool tools.” Otherwise, we will end up like this list (http://edudemic.com/2011/11/best-web-tools/) and we will be having teachers start at tool 1, and we will lose them by tool 10.

  7. mathieso

    February 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    There is Much Truth here. Let’s hear it for skills!

    For many students, learning STEM skills is hard. Maybe it doesn’t have to be.

    Learning science research shows we can help students learn STEM skills. Deep learning, formative feedback, … Unfortunately, these practices don’t make it into classrooms. The Dolfinity project aims to change that.

    Dolfinity has three parts:

    1. A guide to designing skill courses based on learning science research. The document improves as we learn more about learning.

    2. Open source software to help anyone create dolfins. Dolfins are Web sites that replace textbooks and lectures. “Dolfin” is an acronym for research-based practices: Deep learning, Outcome-based Learning, Formative feedback, Interaction with experts, and Nudging students.

    3. A community, to (1) promote the use and development of learning science, (2) help people make dolfins, and (3) improve the guide and the software.

    The result? Learning STEM skills is easier. Not by dumbing things down; that hurts everyone in the long run. If skill learning is a journey, dolfins smooth out bumps in the road. The destination is the same, but it’s easier for students to get there.

    If you’re interested, there’s more at http://dolfinity.com. I’d appreciate your ideas on where the project should go.

    Kieran Mathieson

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