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Research: Education Could Use More 'Connected Learning'

The possibilities inherent in digital learning won't in and of themselves flatten the global playing field for students, according to new research, unless we first give attention to the idea of creating "connected learning environments." These are learning environments in which everyone can participate, learning happens by doing, cultivation of interests is paramount, and everything is interconnected. What gets in the way is a down economy with a struggling labor market, a growing gap in access to educational opportunities based on how much a family is able to spend on its children for "out-of-school enrichment activities," and the impact that a rapidly evolving and highly commercialized media separated from academic purpose is having on young people.

A group of American and British researchers have put together a report that advocates for a design for learning that is "peer supported," "interest-powered," and "academically oriented." The point is to help young people link personal interests, often pursued online, to academic and career endeavors and civic engagement with the help of friends and "caring" adults.

"Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design," published by the Connected Learning Research Network, is designed to give educators, policy makers, parents, and others a framework for rethinking how education might be molded to connect individual interests with academic and work achievement in order to help young people overcome adversity and attain the kind of recognition that can make a difference in their lives.

Among the recommendations offered by the report's authors: "Close the gap between the no-frills learning that too often happens in-school and the interactive, hands-on learning that usually takes place out of school. Take advantage of the Internet's ability to help youth develop knowledge, expertise, skills and important new literacies. [And] use digital technology to combat the increasing reality of the haves and have-nots in education."

The stakes are high, suggested Mimi Ito, chair of the Research Network and a professor in residence at the University of California, Irvine. "Without a proactive educational reform agenda that begins with questions of equity, leverages both in-school and out-of-school learning, and embraces the opportunities new media offers for learning, we risk a growth in educational alienation among our most vulnerable populations."

Although new media offers "tremendous potential" for advancing learning, she added, "Right now, it's only the most activated and well-supported learners who are using connected learning to boost their learning and opportunity."

What does connected learning look like? As an example, the report offers the story of "Clarissa," a 17-year-old who grew up in a "working class" suburb of San Francisco. Along with a couple of friends, she was heavily involved in an online role playing Web site, Faraway Lands, where she spent a lot of time developing lengthy written descriptions of characters, including their history and location. "It's something I can do in my spare time, be creative and write and not have to be graded," because, "you know how in school you're creative, but you're doing it for a grade so it doesn't really count?" Clarissa told her researcher. Encouraged by peers on the site, the teenager converted some of the results of her writing into a screenplay for a school assignment and then used samples from her work as part of college applications. She ended up being accepted to two private colleges, one in Boston and the other in Orange, CA.

Other examples profile:

  • A self-employed Web comics artist who found his passion online and taught himself how to create his own comics through a variety of online tutorials, reporting that he learned "few of his current skills in the formal educational context";
  • A Manhattan public school that dedicates two weeks at the end of each trimester to putting student teams in charge of learning activities, which may include building Rube Goldberg machines, writing and performing short plays, putting on outdoor games, and building sculptures from recycled materials; and
  • A sixth grade fan of online video game Minecraft, who was encouraged by teachers to help set up a school Minecraft club and do creative writing in class about it.

In most of the profiles, the young people have cobbled together a learning environment that combines their online interests with peer feedback and academic activities.

The report's authors state that the design of connected learning environments follows three principles: They're production-centered with access to digital tools for producing and creating content in a myriad of ways; they have a "shared purpose," that brings together people of all ages and cultures around "common goals and interests"; and they're "openly networked," using online platforms and digital tools to make learning resources available to everybody.

"Connected learning is about progress and it's about something everyone in education agrees is urgent and important--the unprecedented opportunity we're seeing to rethink an approach to education where all young people can realize their learning potential and their right to thrive," said Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation, which supports the Research Network. "In today's networked world that is so rich in social connection, we have been handed the ability to suddenly be able to make hands-on, real-world, inquiry-based learning far more accessible. It's not a question of how we can achieve this--we have that in our sights now--it's a question of will."

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