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4 Emerging Principles of Connected Learning

Mimi Ito, professor in residence in the departments of Anthropology and Informatics at UC Irvine, shares ideas for building stronger connections between formal and self-directed learning.

Mimi Ito on stage at CT Forum in Long Beach, CA.
Mimi Ito at CT Forum in Long Beach, CA.

Online peer resources and social media provide today's young students with powerful contexts for learning that are often lacking in formal educational settings. At the same time, academic institutions could be doing more to help those students make the most of their informal pursuits and could also be tapping those resources to address a growing gap in educational opportunities for poorer students.

According to Mimi Ito, professor in residence in the departments of Anthropology and Informatics at University of California, Irvine, today's young students are heavily invested in social media and other peer resources (such as communities of interest, enthusiast forums, tutorial sites and the like) — much more so than older generations, who tend to think of these activities as "at best a fun diversion or at worst a serious distraction from learning."

In her research into connected learning, however, she's discovered that the opposite is true. She cited her experiences with her own daughter: "... [T]hese kinds of communities that she's engaged in online and that she's doing for fun and of her own choice are actually some of the best contexts, some of the best stages for young people to really learn how to make authentic contributions to society and culture, to develop the capacity to manage an online reputation,... to get that sense of real-life connection — relevance — that's often missing in young people's formal educational contexts. Along the way, my daughter is also learning those kinds of skills, dispositions, ways of engaging in self-directed learning that are really, really important for young people to develop in today's digital network age."

She said the critical question we're asking ourselves today, as educators, is: "How can we help young people make the most of today's information environment, which is characterized by an abundance — people might say an overabundance — of information and social connection?"

Ito tackled the subject of connecting informal learning to formal education in her opening keynote presentation Tuesday morning at the 2014 CT Forum, being held this week in Long Beach, CA. She argued that while there are several ways educators and institutions as a whole can address the question, it's important for educators who want to support students and help them thrive "to work on building stronger connections between in-school and out-of-school learning experiences."

The imperative: educational equity.

Ito cited research that showed that more affluent parents not only outspend poorer parents on supports like tutoring, specialty camps, music lessons and the like, but that they are increasing their spending on such activities — with spending levels tripling since the 1970s — while spending by poorer families has remained essentially flat in that time.

Free and open online tools can fill that gap. And, she pointed out, for some, they already do. But right now, that's happening for the minority, particularly for technology-savvy individuals who have a strong drive and the background skills needed to find and utilize the resources that are available. Ito cited the case of a student (Dave) who wanted to produce Web comics but who, lacking formal supports, went out and, through self-directed learning, was able to gain skills in Web development and eventually make a living in his chosen profession — without the help of his university.

But there's no reason, she argued, that only the extremely self-reliant should be able to take advantage of those opportunities.

"Everybody in theory has access to those same resources," she said. "But it's only exceptionally passionate and motivated kids like Dave who are able to not only engage in that form of self-directed learning but also to connect that to opportunity. And that is fairly rare that you find kids who can self-advocate and self-direct in that way. But we believe that the online ecosystem is creating a space that, with a little bit more support, many more young people could reap the kinds of opportunities that somebody like Dave is developing."

And that, she said, is where academic institutions come in. She said through a more connected approach to learning, colleges and universities could help many more students take advantage of the opportunities that they don't know are just at their fingertips.

Connected learning is not a particularly new concept (nor is the concept of blending formal learning with students' personal pursuits, for that matter). But more often than not, a lot of attempts at connected learning have turned out to be little more than the same old thing in a new format. She quoted Justin Reich's headline from his Education Week blog critiquing Khan Academy: "We Were Promised Jetpacks & Got Lectures."

So how do we get to jetpacks from here? How do we provide connected learning in a way this is "tuned to the ways in which kids learn and connect digitally and online rather than the same old stuff we've been doing in an institutionalized basis?"

From her research so far, she said four principles have emerged for designing connected learning. Those include:

  1. Tapping the power of peer to peer learning;
  2. Meeting learners where they are — which goes well beyond Facebook, into specialty communities, such as gaming forums or enthusiast communities;
  3. Building connected maker spaces where fostering persistent relationships; and
  4. Bringing students' work to the wider world for recognition and feedback.

She added that in order to make this happen, education practices don't have to change fundamentally. Incremental changes can make a huge difference in students' lives.

"Even a very incremental change on your part can be life-changing for a student. It feels like sometimes you have to overhaul the whole educational system, but you don't. It can be as simple as starting a blog ... or creating a space where kids can just hang out and mess around with technology. These are not huge changes, but for that one young person who has had that experience of having their interest acknowledged in their school by somebody who opens doors of opportunity, that is life-changing. And that is not what is happening for most young people through the everyday course of their education."

More on Ito's work in connected learning can be found on

CT Forum is Campus Technology's annual West Coast event that provides networking opportunities and educational sessions for college and university CIOs, IT directors, administrators, instructional designers and other education technology pros. It's held each spring in Long Beach, CA. This year's partnering organization is the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative; CDW-G is this year's platinum sponsor. Exhibitors include LiveText, Atomic Learning, Utelogy, Kaspersky Lab, PCMG, Bitdefender, Lenovo, GoPrint Systems, Dell, Laserfiche, Time Warner Cable Business Class, Xirrus, TechSmith, College Scheduler, Primex Wireless, AirWatch, wePresent USA, Triad Technology Partners, CardFlex, Taskstream, Snapwiz, SHI, School Tech Supply, Moofwd Mobile Solutions, ABBYY USA, 7signal, En-Net Services, Campus Labs, Hovercam, Bytespeed and Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology. The event is co-located with the AAEEBL Western United States International ePortfolio Conference.

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