Lauded as the 21st century’s “critical skills”, communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity have become buzzwords among educators, and it is quite easy to see why.

Rote learning, memorization, mnemonics are aspects of what what I call one-directional learning. Students absorb information from the teacher (one direction) and then are required to regurgitate that information back to the teacher in the form of tests, essays and homework (also one direction). The focus in this type of learning is on retention and comprehension.

However, the 4Cs are also nothing new. Despite the above described stagnant educational style, great minds have nonetheless flourished, and constructed the edifice of knowledge as we know it today. There is no doubt that Newton, Einstein, Turing, Tesla, Freud and the rest of our societies scientific and intellectual giants needed to exercise tremendous amounts of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication, which was perhaps a part of their natural genius, or encouraged by enlightened mentors.

One can, however, only imagine how many more individuals we would have in this pantheon of great minds if these critical intellectual skills were taught in what passed for their K-12 environments also.

So, today’s educators have turned their focus not only to imparting facts to their students, but also to developing the critical intellectual skills that denote and also inspire deeper more productive learning, self-motivation, curiosity, social awareness, respect for opposing ideas, problem solving, debate and doubt that hallmark breakout intellectual advances.

The 4Cs have also been mooted as essential skills of the future workforce — not everyone is destined to be an academic giant after all — and the skills required by the average individual in the course of providing for themselves, their families, and society as a whole are also being increasingly identified with the 4Cs.

How can online learning facilitate the 4Cs of education

Entire doctoral thesis are written on even the smallest aspects of the 4Cs, so I have made a dipstick review of them below with the implicit promise to explore them in more detail in future posts.

  • Communication

    An online learning environment requires students to communicate effectively and clearly. Online, they are more responsible for clarifying the expectations a course has of them. The interactivity of online systems, means that communication can be more fluid, flexible and swift.

    Communicating clearly online is necessarily a critical skill especially with regard to technology, as we move into an AI driven environment, clear data and clear instruction via technological platforms is increasingly essential.

  • Critical thinking

    This is defined as high order thinking or the capacity to come to a yes/no conclusion based on one’s own interrogation of the facts. I particularly like’s definition: “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.”

    Cultivating students that think in this way is arguably the culmination and desired outcome of reinforcing the other Cs. Nonetheless, exploring ways to stimulate critical thinking, specifically in an online environment, is valuable.

    Essential to critical thinking is impartiality and a lack of prejudice. Teachers can actively require students to adopt a viewpoint different from their original thesis in order to teach them the function of bias in how they think about the world. Discussion, and the requirement to motivate one’s conclusions within a debate, is another important factor essential to promoting critical thinking.

    Online forums and discussions need to be carefully moderated by educators with an eye to keeping online discussions flowing, yet still demanding rigorous motivation and explanation from participants.

  • Creativity

    Creativity, from a pure learning perspective, is essentially the ability to explore and investigate new knowledge, combined with the ability to then apply this in new or different contexts.

    So it is a two-step process. Step 1: discover, uncover and explore — an intrinsically rambling process driven by curiosity and humility — what some academics call divergent thinking. Step 2: apply the outcomes of one’s explorations to fashioning new ideas.

    The internet is a wide, rich and rambling space, enabling extraordinary exploration of ideas (step 1), it is also a hotbed of mimicry, imitation and viral content (not to mention good old-fashioned plagiarism), originality of thought is inherently hard to come by. It is the second step that requires teachers to apply firm guidance. Pushing your students to achieve true intellectual creativity described in step two requires a firm hand by teachers when designing lessons plans and expectations. Focus not only what your students can find out, but mine for how they can apply that knowledge to solve old problems with new solutions.

  • Collaboration

    One critique often espoused of online learning is that is magnifies structure and decreases debate. Interaction and the capacity to immediately challenge assumptions is said to be minimized in online learning. It is naturally true that the cut and thrust of classroom discussions is missing from many online learning environments. They instead focus on fostering focus, responsible time management and self motivation.

    However, online learning environments, by dint of their ability to teach across distances, are rich with cultural diversity. It goes without saying that as technology shortens the distances between us, our ability to collaborate with, understand, and accept other cultures in an academic environment is increased as we collaborate in online learning environments.

The 4Cs are undoubtedly critical for any teacher contemplating the effectiveness of their methods, and the future use their students will have for the knowledge they gain. Online learning environments need to contemplate this both in their design and in their adoption.

Author: Susannah Holz

Susannah has years of writing experience. She would have liked to be forever a student, but life had other things in mind. So NEO is the perfect place for her to address topics about e-learning and ed-tech for schools.