Two prominent foundations have declared that the world needs to set new standards for what it means to be literate in the 21st century.

“For the first time in a long time, we must ask ourselves what it means to be literate, what it takes to achieve this, and how technology will play an essential role,” stated a white paper called “21st Century Literacy in a Convergent Media World.” The Bertelsmann Foundation and the AOL Time Warner Foundation released the paper at the 21st Century Literacy Summit in Berlin March 7 and 8.

The two foundations hosted the summit to start a “transatlantic dialogue” on the topic of digital literacy. The summit attracted more than 300 policy makers, business leaders, media experts, and academics from approximately 35 countries.

“The internet has the power to truly engage people by transforming education from a passive, one-way process to an exciting, interactive learning experience that connects people all over the world,” said Steve Case, chairman of AOL Time Warner Inc. and of the company’s foundation. But “meeting the challenges … to equip individuals with 21st-century literacy skills requires leaders with extraordinary commitment, courage, and a clear vision.”

Case presented the white paper along with Gerd Schulte-Hillen, vice chairman of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s executive board. Other summit attendees included former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and Spanish Prime Minister and European Union Council President Jose Maria Aznar.

According to the paper, “Information and communication technologies are raising the bar on the competencies needed to succeed in the 21st century, and they are compelling us to revisit many of our assumptions and beliefs.”

In today’s society, people need to be able to do more than just read, write, and do math, the paper said. New technologies—like computers and the internet—require different skill sets, such as reading graphs, searching databases, and thinking critically. How do different search engines work? How does one tell good information from bad?

The paper identifies education, the work place, and civic engagement as the major areas that create digital literacy challenges. “Despite an awareness that schools and teachers must change to help students develop the necessary skills, most educational efforts fall short of achieving this goal,” it says about education.

The paper recommends that schools around the world set the following priorities for teaching and learning:

  • Students should learn the basics first—such as reading, writing, math, and science—to create a strong foundation for digital literacy.
  • Once students have mastered reading and writing, they should learn to use all forms of media with ease.
  • Students need to learn how to use new technologies to gather, organize, and evaluate information for problem solving and innovation, not just regurgitating facts.
  • New technologies enable self-directed, at-your-own-pace learning, so students must acquire discipline and be willing to take control of their own learning.
  • Using technology, students can reach beyond their classrooms to engage in collaborative learning experiences and should be encouraged to do so.
  • Students should be taught to use technology responsibly, thoughtfully, and creatively. Students should also know how to protect their safety, security, and privacy online.
  • Schools should monitor how the use of the internet in classrooms makes learning easier.

In regard to education policy, the paper recommends:

  • Schools must find adequate funding to maintain their technology infrastructure, as well as provide equal access to technology for all students.
  • The education community should use only those technologies that make learning more productive and effective. In addition, more “adequate pedagogical concepts, as well as effective learning software,” need to be developed.
  • To help students learn these new literacy skills, teachers must be trained first to integrate technology effectively into the curriculum.

In their charitable contributions, the two foundations have aimed to identify best practices from around the world that effectively address developing 21st-century skills—but their research demonstrates that digital literacy requires an ongoing commitment.

The foundations also noted that rapid technological developments and expanding globalization require people to update their knowledge and skills continually.

“No one should assume that the skills acquired during school and career training will remain adequate to meet tomorrow’s demands,” said Schulte-Hillen. “Lifelong learning must become the new educational standard.”


AOL Time Warner Foundation

Bertelsmann Foundation

21st Century Literacy Summit

“21st Century Literacy in a Convergent Media World”