Report Calls on Educators to Create Spaces for “Connected Learning”

January 23, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Research & Studies, Students, Technology Integration

You may remember having the desire as a student to be something that seemed “outlandish” to the adults around you. Maybe a paleontologist, or an astronomer, or maybe you just wanted to take classes in a subject that your high school or local community center didn’t offer. But where to start? And how to connect what you learn in various settings, whether a library or an online community, back to school or a future job? A new theory called “connected learning” is designed to help youth tap into their specific interests and provide access to resources that will help them pursue these interests.

The Connected Learning Research Network recently released “Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design” [PDF]. The detailed report is to be one in a series of 10, designed to help school officials and educators organize their own spaces to foster connected learning.

Connected learning is based on peer-supported, interest-powered, and academically oriented learning contexts. The researchers behind the study, led by cultural anthropologist and media expert Mimi Ito, defined the concept as such:

Connected learning is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward expanding educational, economic or political opportunity. It 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.

The connected learning model encourage linking personal interests that excite students with more formal academic settings, and it also places the same emphasis on collective and individual achievement. Many classroom cultures focus on individual grades and foster environments reliant on competitiveness, but these researchers argue that the success of both the whole class and the individual student are intrinsically linked to one another and should be valued equally.

 Their approach is based on three key findings that emerged from their body of research:

  • There is a disconnect between learning that takes place in formal education settings and learning that occurs outside of the classroom every day.
  • Learning is meaningful when it occurs through valued relationships and communal practices, and when it is related to culture and identity.
  • In-school and out-of-school learning and activity need to be connected.

The researchers included several case studies to illustrate connected learning, including the story of a student named Tal, a sixth-grader at the progressive game-based school Quest to Learn. Tal enjoyed playing the game Minecraft, which requires that players collaborate to build their own “online world.” Her school let her start a special Minecraft club server that allowed her and her classmates to write plays to be produced in the online world they had built together, and eventually share their stories from the game inside the classroom. Through this exercise, Tal realized she had an interest in creative writing, and later enrolled in a summer program for writers so she could continue exploring her passion.

“The case of Tal illustrates the ways in which a school can provide the key scaffolds to connect a gaming interest to academic achievement,” the report stated.

One of those scaffolds, for example, is YOUMedia at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, a space that provides teens with access to new digital technologies and trained mentors to aid their exploration. The space had become a great success, and other YOUMedias have been cropping up across the country. The researchers used these environments, and the way teens were reacting to them, as the backbone of the connected learning theory.

The success of YOUMedia spaces has proved that a key aspect of the connected learning concept is  technology. In providing a space for youths to access new digital media outside of the classroom, connected learning takes advantage of the relative ease of linking separate spheres of learning through these technologies. The practice also uses digital platforms to support intergenerational connections based on shared interests and to diversify youth’s communities.

Through this synergistic approach to education, researchers like Ito and others hope to broaden our perceptions about where and when the excitement to learn is first sparked – and how these often less traditional interests can lend themselves back to academia. We are looking forward to reading their future findings.