The 6 Essential Elements of 21st Century Learning

What we are finally coming to realize in our digital age is that learning belongs to the people. Learning is no longer the property of students or teachers, business or government. It is the property of all of us. Anyone who wants it can access it immediately. As a result of the digital age, today’s conception of learning is shaped by learning networks. Learning is in many instances now free and open. So let’s talk about how learners learn best in this brave new era of learning. Here are the 6 key elements to learning in the digital age:


Connective learning is dependent on learning networks. This makes learning a social enterprise. In 2004 eLearning pioneers Stephen Downes and George Siemens developed the concept of connectivism. Connectivism is a learning theory that is specific to the digital age. In our new age, the 21st century, we must adopt a new understanding of learning because of the complexities of the rapid innovation in the social digital world. Today, learning occurs through connections within networks. That is what connectiveness makes sense of. So it is a self-organizing theory of learning that makes sense of the chaos, as well as, the abundance of sources available for learning in this brave new era of learning.


Learning in the 21st century setting involves the production of learning outcomes. This means that learners need to produce something authentic, which is at the core of generative learning movement. In the absence of generation there is mere consumption. The new models of learning are trying to break free of the consumption model because it is too passive of an approach. Consumption is prehistoric when we consider that knowledge is going through a period of acceleration that is unparalleled. It is widely accepted in educational technology circles that the expansion of knowledge has increased nearly ten-fold since the internet. Evidence of this can be gleaned from the number of new books published in the United States between 1990 and 2016. In 1990 there were 46,738 published books. Fast forward to 2016 when 304,912 new book titles were published in the United States. Let’s not forget the number of blogs, vlogs and wikispaces that are now being created and curated. So, what should we take from this element of 21st century learning? Generation is active and rigorous, as a result, generation requires more effort on the part of the learner, and the best thing about generation is that it is more engaging. If you are not producing content then you are simply not practicing generative learning.


In short, the associative framework of learning applies learners’ existing knowledge and real-world experiences to a new context. Thanks to the new social connectedness of the digital age, we rely more heavily on connections to prior knowledge to gain new knowledge. This is the associative nature of 21st century learning. This element focuses on associations that we make with people and information previously learned. As a result, learners are able to expand knowledge in more meaningful contexts. Often times the learner is responsible for drawing parallels and making new connections because of the wealth of sources and media that exhibit learning opportunities.


Iteration is a fairly simple element. It embodies the practice of repetition to develop understanding. An example of 21st century repetition can be advanced through the use of using multiple mediums to learn and relearn the same concept. For instance, we might learn about the same topic using text, video, images, presentation and games. As a result of efficiency, information can be received and reiterated in a rapid process, and thus learned more readily.


Constructivism is often misunderstood as a learning theory that forces students to “reinvent the wheel.” Rather, the construction of knowledge simply builds on student’s innate curiosity about the world and how things work. This is an intrinsic model for learning, as George Siemens explains it is a model where learners “do not reinvent the wheel but, rather, attempt to understand how it turns, how it functions.” Learners today are engaged by applying their existing knowledge and real-world experience, we hypothesize, test our theories, and then draw conclusions from our findings. In this way learners construct knowledge. The maker movement in education today is a prime example of constructivism. The intention of this method is to produce a deeper understanding of new knowledge.


Metacognition involves thinking about one’s own thinking. Essentially, this is thinking about one’s own learning experience, and this is the practice of reflection. In order for the construction of one’s own learning to be effective there must be frequent and introspective elements in the process. The most effective learning comes from our reflecting on the learning that has occurred.

Bringing it all together

The digital age has reshaped our understanding of learning. Our learning networks now influence our individualized learning experiences more than any other factor. Having a unique learning style is no longer the disadvantage that it once was when learning was linear and controlled by schooling alone. Today, we all have the potential to be lifelong learners, it’s just a matter of understanding these six simple elements that make it possible for us to learn more effectively.

Thanks for reading. I’m an educator, entrepreneur and doctoral student who promotes digital citizenship and progressive learning theory. I hope this article has sparked some curiosity in you so that you too become a part of the inspiring narrative of the digital age!

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