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21st Century Workplace Literacy: What Does that Mean and How Do We Engage More People in the Discussion?

Literacy_2 I find that when it comes to learning and instruction, I tend to run in two different circles, as evidenced by the "Learning" tab in my feed reader. Here, I'm following both bloggers from the world of workplace learning (i.e. corporate and organizational trainers and instructional designers) and edubloggers--people who are working in the k-12 and university systems. I do this in part because I tend to be working with both constituencies, so I need to keep an eye on developments in each area. I also do this because it's interesting to see the cross-over (or lack of cross-over) that occurs.

One of the areas that is generates a fair amount of discussion in the edublogosphere is how to define 21st century literacy. What are the skills that students will need in order to be successful in a constantly changing work world? David Warlick, for example, has some ideas here.  Last year, Stephen Downes had some some thoughts on what you really need to learn here.

In a global economy, these are conversations all nations should be having if they hope to remain competitive, and you would think that this would be an area where there would be considerable discussion going on between workplace learning professionals and edubloggers. Interestingly, this does not seem to be the case.  

From what I've observed, edubloggers are weighing in with their ideas about the key skills young people will need to be successful in the world of work, but it's educators talking to other educators without a lot of input from people who are operating in the work world for which students are supposedly being prepared.

This is nothing new of course--education and the so-called "real world" have long been disconnected (at least according to most businesses). However, given our new-found ability to connect the two groups through technology and the high stakes involved, it's unfortunate that we aren't doing more to have joint discussions. And I mean on the ground floor, practitioner to practitioner--not these high level "partnerships" that supposedly bring together business and education but never seem to really mean anything at work or in the classroom.

I see a few issues and implications with this . . .

First, if educators are basically talking to other educators, attending conferences together, running in the same blogging circles, etc., how do they truly get an appreciation for the needs of the workplace? Certainly they can make certain inferences about what constitutes "workplace literacy," but it seems to me that if you're talking about skills that people need to be successful in a particular environment, it would be more productive to reach outside of your educator circle and connect to the people who will be hiring the workers you're preparing.  Shouldn't there be more discussions happening between the two groups?

I don't say this as a criticism as much as an observation. I suspect it has to do with the fact that online we still tend to connect to the people we know and feel comfortable with, but then are we getting the most from the technology if we end up having the same conversations with the same kinds of people? (Amy Gahran has an excellent blog post on this tendency, by the way, and some suggestions for how to reach out to people who are outside of our normal circles).Literacy_2_2

I'm also wondering why workplace learning professionals aren't talking more about the issue of changing workplace literacy and 21st century foundational success skills. We know, for example, that people need to have what we've always called "basic literacy," (reading, writing, math skills) and it's understood that for people to be successful at work they need some minimal level of skills in these areas. They are the scaffolding that allow people to develop more technical skills.

It seems to me that technology and dramatically different ways of doing business (virtual teams, etc.) are drastically impacting our definitions of basic workplace literacy. If we haven't really re-defined workplace literacy, how can we be sure that staff have those underlying skills? I think, for example, that being able to learn new materials and skills quickly is a fundamental workplace literacy. Yet what has been done or is being done to ensure that people who are in the workplace now have those skills? And if they don't, how can they realistically operate in such a fast-paced economy?

Personally what I'd like to see is more conversations happening between edubloggers and workplace learning professionals on the issue of 21s century workplace literacy. The same technology that is impacting our definitions also provides us with the means to have the discussions, although it will mean we have to step outside of our silos.   I know it's too much to hope that we'd start attending each other's conferences (limited dollars, limited time), but at a minimum, it would be nice if we did something virtual to share ideas and generate discussion. I think we'd actually have a lot to learn from each other.

How could we start better connecting the two worlds to further the conversations and define how we could all proceed together to ensure that people have the foundational workplace skills they need to be successful? Is this even an issue?

Photo via Julie Lindsay


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I think you've made some really interesting observation here. Disconnected groups are always a problem, but the problem gets more obvious when change is happening fast (as is with technology) so that the few shared communication channels have far too low bandwidth.

I suggest that YOU try to connect those groups. You're following both, and you probably know the leading people in both. Some may be afraid to talk to someone outside their normal circle, but not all.

How to connect: I think strategic commenting on blogs of both sides, with one or more references to the other side. The daring people will follow.

I really hope to see more on this subject!

One of the activities my university (and I'm sure hosts of others) engage in each year is surveying industry on their expectations of graduate attributes in the workplace. In other words, what does industry want from the fresh-faced graduates who enter the workforce each year?

The outcome based on the results is an attempt to embed these attributes and skill up students in the various programs of study.

Over the past 10 years (on the cusp of pre e-literacy) I recall these attributes coming
on top of the list year after year:

1. The ability to work in teams;
2. The ability to write reports;
3. The ability to communicate well.

And this is of course, in addition to their particular discipline or professional knowledge.

So it seems communication skills are paramount. How then are these skills best served in the 21st century e-environment which extends and fast-tracks communication, and demands literacy in particular skill-sets: writing and creating online as an individual, and/or engaging in collaborative work?

Doesn't answer your question, I know Michele, and there's no doubt that some discipline fields are inherently biased towards prepping their graduates in this way.

My own approach is to get students' familiar with and using the e-tools of communication as often as possible and in different ways. This way, their skills will hopefully translate when they get into the 'real world.'

I don't think industry (the so-called real world) and the higher ed behemoths have ever talked much or in a meaningful way. I suspect the problem will persist.

Right on target as usual, Michele. One place were you might see the conversation occurring is in two-year colleges, where most programs have discipline specific advisory boards from their businesses providing input.

Michele: You've framed this issue superbly. As I reflected on the two silos, I realized that both may be "sensing their obsolescence". Blacksmiths failed to become fluent in automotive literacy and passenger railroads missed out on aviation literacy at times when both could have kept up with changing times. Perhaps there is a new literacy emerging that both silos will miss out on and mistake as insignificant as it evolves on its own. It's possible they are not learning from each other because both are out of step and both see no value in the other's approach to staying current. Likewise they are circling their wagons and huddling among themselves because of the danger they sense they are in.

Marshall McLuhan did a great job of explaining how old technologies are spell binding and blind us to what's coming. If we are in the amidst of an invisible changeover to networks, both workplace and formal education places will:
- be seen as too centralized,
- not 24/7 enough, too physical/insufficiently digitized - to search for useful content on our own,
- pretentious about delivering what we can do for ourselves,
- maintaining obese carbon footprints, and
- regarding us as "individuals with needs" while we function "inter-dependently within communities.

It may soon appear that "it's no wonder" there's so little crosstalk between edubloggers and workplace learning voices -- if both are becoming a "thing of the past" now that we've taken this network thing to the next level.

Tom, I understand where you're coming from. Indeed, I think both groups could be deemed old-school if you're very future-minded. However, I think the people in the blogosphere now honestly want to learn about the future. It's institutions and positions that become obsolete, not people. Like you said, they may not using the most effective approach right now (just talking to each other), but people who are actively participating in the blogosphere now have a big head-start in any case. We can better worry about all the people NOT in the blogosphere. But the people who can reach them the best are the leaders (e.g. bloggers) in both groups.

Thank you everyone--these are all really great, helpful comments! This is giving me lots of additional fodder for thinking/blogging and I can see where we need to do more to bridge conversations between the two groups. Thank you!

Thanks for your insightful additions to what I wrote. I agree with what you're saying about bloggers and our desire to learn about the future. We can see the silos because we're not in them or blinded by collusion with insiders. We're functioning in a network mode when we blog, comment, tag, quote, etc. Our work is available 24/7 worldwide, entirely searchable, and done with a negligible carbon footprint. I suspect our efforts to converse together, generate content, share resources, etc -- will appear in hindsight to be in the same league with early automobiles and passenger airlines. Perhaps "the old-school" will get on board the way autos where originally seen as "horseless carriages". The digital networked realm will be entered from silos as "everywhere locations", "miscellaneous filing categories", "amateur expertise", "social capital" and "free revenue". Then once the horses and blacksmiths are understood to be obsolete, the "horseless carriages" will be called "automobiles" . They will speak of how learning and work gets accomplished by communities, networks, linked nodes, virtual teams. collaborative digital documents, etc - as Michele is already doing here.

Thanks for this post, Michele. It has certainly struck some cords with me. As you know, I have a foot in both industry and education camps -(health-midwifery)and I am trying bring the two 'camps' together, but it is not easy. So I have naturally gravitated toward to educators because they 'get' what I am trying to accomplish whereas I barely get a flicker of interest from 'industry'.

I, for one, am really interested in talking to other workplace educators because whilst we may work in different professions/industries, I bet we all face the same issues.

I have learned a very great deal from the edublogsphere but I think that they are the tip of the tip of the tip of (etc.) the iceberg. Most of the post secondary teachers and people in the professions I know have (unconsciously I think/hope) decided that all the web they can manage is email and some static web sites with useful information. Plus Google. Even some of the younger ones just go the one step beyond that to Facebook.

What is needed, I think, is brief self-contained tips that will open their minds to the possibility that expanded web use can be useful and not that difficult, something like what CommonCraft does, but somehow more accessible to the non-explorers of the web. Don't know how to do that ;-> just think it's the way break through the wall of web-obliviousness.

Interesting idea, Joan, to have a sort of "Common Craft" that's accessible to people who aren't traveling all over the web--so is it about showing people that they can more easily do things online than off-line or through email?

I have been a high school teacher and adult educator, though most of my career has been in corporate/organizational training and learning.

Institutions by their nature are conservative, and I think on the whole that the larger the institution the more reluctant it is to adopt new ways of behaving. It's easier to make Six Sigma, globalization, or "boundarylessness" happen if you have CEO on your business card.

I've worked in the DC area for decades and been active in a professional association, but I couldn't name five of my local colleagues who have blogs. (Not that a blog is the be-all or end-all, but it's a relatively basic and easy indicator of openness to informal collaboration.)

The wide range of tools, the many variations, and the way in which they build on or branch off from one another can easily overwhelm the newcomer. The Common Craft clips -- less than three minutes -- are a refreshingly focused, bullet-point-free way to deal with one thing at a time.

Basic learning theory says people need more time to deal with new concepts than to integrate new things into similar ones already known.

One suggestion -- and this from someone who's had three blogs for more than two years -- is to avoid excess use of terms like "blogosphere." If you're trying to show people what tools can do, you're usually better off showing the results than talking about the features.

Sales training 101 says it ain't a benefit if the customer doesn't see it as one.

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