The skills students needed to do well in the world of work during the industrial age and the way those skills were taught in schools are no longer sufficient to prepare young people for the world of work and civic life in the networked age. Schools need to prepare students to think deeply, contribute actively and collaborate with others. They need to prepare students for the kinds of jobs that don’t even exist yet. Connected learning offers a range of practices towards these ends. As such, there are many reasons why connected learning practices need to be a regular part of teachers’ instructional repertoires. But today, I’ll constrain them to just three — in no particular order. Connected learning offers paths to move teaching as a profession into the networked age, to resolve the alienation faced by many students today, and to provide equity and visibility for non-dominant learners*.
Before looking at why teachers should incorporate connected learning practices, let’s examine two definitions to help frame why connected learning practices are important. In From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity By Design in Learning Technologies (PDF), a report by The Digital Media + Learning Research Hub, Justin Reich and Mizuko Ito write that “powerful learning experiences result when students have the opportunity to connect their interests, identities, and home experiences to school and other learning settings. Many successful efforts also draw on interdisciplinary and cross-sector relationships that bring together expertise from social science, technology, and education” (Reich & Ito, p. 12).
In a research synthesis report by the Connected Learning Research Network, Connected Learning (PDF), Ito et al. define connected learning as “broadened access to learning that is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. Connected learning is realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success or civic engagement. This model is based on evidence that the most resilient, adaptive, and effective learning involves individual interest as well as social support to overcome adversity and provide recognition” (emphasis original) (Ito, et al., p. 4).
Transitioning the Teaching Profession
Leonard Waks, in his book, Education 2.0: The Learningweb Revolution and the Transformation of the School, proposes that one of the problems with education has
been the creation of the professional educator and the concentration of teaching legitimacy in this professional corps. He also posits that the advent of Web 2.0 technologies and Open Educational Resources will help make traditional schools and professional educators obsolete since learning can now be done anytime, anywhere with students in complete control of their learning. The role of teacher, in Waks’s world, becomes just another element of the gig economy, where anyone with expertise and an internet connection can be a teacher. While there is a lot to recommend Waks’s scholarship, his views on the role and composition of the teaching profession are dubious. Besides content knowledge, would-be teachers also need pedagogical knowledge along with sophisticated understandings of human development and learning theory. In the digital age, a modern teacher also needs technological knowledge, with the ability to design instruction that incorporates technology into the learning process in ways that enhance learning and put students at the center of the learning process. The extent to which the profession has let schooling replace teaching and learning is problematic, especially for Gen D students, and leads us to the second problem connected learning could help solve.
Resolving the Alienation Crisis
Where commerce, business, and other professions across the globe have embraced the digital, networked age, American education has resisted the transition to the tools, practices, and ethos of the digital age. This has exacerbated the extent to which young people — particularly adolescents — are not just disengaged, but alienated from school-based learning. Currently, we are facing a crisis of legitimacy in our K-12 schooling. This crisis is rooted in the differences between what young people value as worth learning and how they learn it and what school culture values. Outside of school, young people spend much of their time on their digital devices. However, contrary to the dominant narrative, they are not “addicted” to their devices. As Mizuko Ito and danah boyd have found in much of their research about networked youth, young people are pre-occupied with each other. In an age when teens face significant restrictions on their spending time together in public spaces and free from the adult gaze, their devices provide digital spaces for the kinds of interacting adolescents developmentally need to do. Young people also interact with content that interests them via their devices. Whether connecting with friends, consuming media, or producing it, young people are engaged in highly sophisticated transactions where they produce and contribute to media culture, actively create modern youth culture, support like-minded producers, learn from others with more experience in their interests, and develop aspects of their identities according to and as a result of these sophisticated exchanges and the devices that facilitate them.
So, it should not be surprising that young people find little relevance in schooling characterized by generalized outcomes and test-driven instruction that is so utterly divorced from the kinds of learning they practice outside of school. Thus, connected learning offers hope for making school relevant to youth by leveraging not only their devices for academic learning, but also their network-based behaviors and habits of mind. In using methods for deep learning young people are accustomed to (modes Ito describes as “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out”), young people can (re)connect with academic subjects through peer collaborators and digital media. The tenets of connected learning and its drawing on technological affordances give teachers significant tools for resolving this alienation crisis.
Equity & Visibility
In an era of increasing gaps of all kinds — between the rich and everyone else, natives and immigrants, the dominant and non-dominant cultures — connected learning and the affordances of digital, networked technology also provide paths to equity & visibility for non-dominant students. Connected learning practices incorporate what Paul Gorski describes as “equity literacy” which enables teachers to “recognize, respond to, and redress conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers and, in doing so, sustain equitable learning environments for all students and families” (Reaching and teaching students in poverty: Strategies for erasing the opportunity gap, p. 19). When students who come from families with means are shifting more and more of their learning to “enrichment” opportunities outside of school, non-dominant students and families often cannot afford the same kinds of financial investment in extracurricular “enrichment”. This widens the achievement gap. But connected learning practices can bridge this gap by providing non-dominant learners with such “enriched” learning opportunities. In as much as connected learning places student interests and culture at the center of their learning, non-dominant students can also gain more visibility by accessing the funds of knowledge embedded in their cultural backgrounds — funds that are often ignored by dominant or traditional schooling practices.
Much more than just being about incorporating technology into learning, connected learning leverages the vast learning that takes place outside of school and as a result of interactions between learners and more knowledge others other than their teachers. It is disingenuous to suggest that anyone with knowledge can teach. Still, there is a need for students to learn from other knowledgeable adults who share their interests, who want to share what they know with novices, and from whom young people can learn. Learner interests, collaboration and feedback among their peers, the connections between young people and adults and the creation of knowledge and products are all valid and necessary paths to learning. And while digital, mobile, networked technologies make connected learning possible in ways that were very difficult and expensive to accomplish just a decade ago, there is nothing inherently technological about what makes connected learning so powerful, so vital for young people and schools today. The technology significantly lowers the barriers to connected, relevant learning for 21st century students — ways of learning that were more prevalent and widely accepted as legitimate prior to the industrial age.
Indeed, connected learning as a teaching and learning framework represents a path out of the outmoded industrial paradigm to one that is more aligned with the digital, networked, mobile age in which we now live. Young people learn through different and multiple pathways that include their own interests, their interest-oriented interactions with peers, and mentoring relationships with adults in regard to those interests. That learning should also include elements of the learner’s culture that mediate learning. Each of these factors allow learners to develop their identities through their interests and their developing expertise around those interests. When taken together, connected learning practices make for useful, necessary, and powerful hacks for bringing teaching and learning into the digital age.
*: In Connected Learning, Ito et al. use the term “non-dominant” in place of more common terms like “minority”, “of color” etc. I appreciate their explanation that “‘non-dominant’ explicitly calls attention to issues of power and power relations than do traditions terms to describe members of differing cultural groups.” As such, I am using it as well.