What’s All the Fuss About Connected Learning?

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation released a significant new report, Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, which should warrant the close attention of my regular readers, especially those of you who are strongly invested in thinking about the nature of education within a networked era. The report comes more than six years after the launch of the Digital Media and Learning initiative and represents an important re-assessment of what’s working and what’s not as institutions at all levels have responded to the changes which are impacting our information environment. The authors of the report include some of the most important American and British thinkers about youth, new media, and education:

Mizuko Ito…Kris Gutiérrez…Sonia Livingstone… Bill Penuel…Jean Rhodes…Katie Salen..Juliet Schor…Julian Sefton-Green….S. Craig Watkins 

The report is sobering in its acknowledgment of some of the real challenges confronting us, especially in its focus on the growing inequalities in terms of access not simply to the technological infrastructure but to the skills and opportunities required to meaningfully participate in the new media environment:

Despite its power to advance learning, many parents, educators, and policymakers perceive new media as a distraction from academic learning, civic engagement,and future opportunity. Digital media also threaten to exacerbate growing inequities in education. Progressive digital media users … are a privileged minority. There is also a growing gap between the progressive use of digital media outside of the classroom, and the no-frills offerings of most public schools that educate our most vulnerable populations. This gap contributes to widespread alienation from educa- tional institutions, particularly among non-dominant youth. 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 offer for learning, we risk a growth in educational alienation by our most vulnerable populations….

This report is skeptical and hard-nosed, challenging some of the optimism which has fueled previous work in the Digital Media and Literacy tradition, raising concerns about what is happening to those who are being excluded from meaningful participation. The authors raise alarms about how all young people are impacted by an educational process which gives them few chances to pursue their own passions and interests within a regime of standardized testing and a fragmented media environment where children have much greater access to highly commercial sites than to those which speak to them as citizens and learners.

The report raises these issues while also recognizing the very real educational opportunities DML scholars have identified when we look at those communities which have proven rewarding for a growing number of young participants, communities which have a shared ethical commitment to encouraging and scaffolding their participation. The authors believe something valuable is taking place in many corners of the web (and in the context of young people’s everyday engagements with media.):

Young people can have diverse pathways into connected learning. Schools, homes, afterschool clubs, religious institutions, and community centers and the parents, teachers, friends, mentors and coaches that young people find at these diverse locales, all potentially have a role to play in guiding young people to connected learning. Connected learning takes root when young people find peers who share interests, when academic institutions recognize and make interest-driven learning relevant to school, and when community institutions provide resources and safe spaces for more peer- driven forms of learning.

Examples of learning environments that are currently integrating the spheres of peers, interests, and academic pursuits include athletics programs that are tied to in-school recognition, certain arts and civic learning programs, and interest-driven academic programs such as math, chess, or robotics competitions. These connected learning environments ideally embody values of equity, social belonging, and participation. Further, connected learning environments are generally characterized by a sense of shared purpose, a focus on production, and openly networked infrastructures.

The report is skeptical, not cynical. It asks hard questions precisely so we can empower meaningful change. The authors do not fall prey to the paralysis which consumes so much academic writing, but rather they offer a number of concrete recommendations about what new kinds of educational structures and practices need to emerge. What I admire most about this report is this movement between critique and advocacy, between analysis of existing problems and the willingness to find concrete solutions. I have admired these pragmatic qualities in many of these authors individually in the past. See, for example, my previous interviews with Mimi Ito, Craig Watkins, and Sonia Livingstone, about their research.  

The report includes rich case studies, demonstrating the kinds of experiences some youth have enjoyed through joining the Harry Potter Alliance, enrolling in New York City’s Quest to Learn School, or participating in the after school offerings of the Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia Center. Such projects illustrate what happens when everything comes together. Here, for example, is a bit from a sidebar written by Sangita Shresthova and Neta  Kliger-Vilenchik, two researchers from my Civic Paths team at USC’s Annenberg School, dealing with the learning culture which has grown up around the Harry Potter Alliance:

Although fun and social in nature, involvement in HPA pushes young people to connect their recre- ational interests to social and political issues that they might not otherwise be familiar with. Because HPA turns its attention to many issues, ranging from net neutrality to fair trade and voter registra- tion, this forces participants to study up in a range of new areas. Almost every campaign is accompa- nied by a period of learning about the new issue and making sense of it. Chapter leaders will often educate the group on a new issue. Participants also talk about how involvement in HPA helped them see the political messages within Harry Potter. One chapter has gone as far as opening a 6-week study group on “Harry Potter as a tool for social change,” discussing links between the narratives and real-world issues. In other words, HPA is a site of hybridization and translation between political and fantasy-centered frames of reference.

Coincidentally, Andrew Slack, HPA’s Founder and Leader, also released a new TED talks video last week, which is a wonderful illustration of the HPA approach at work.

Here, Slack is very much in his element, speaking to a room of youth, giving himself over to his inner fan boy, and at the same time, encouraging critical media literacies and informed engagement with social issues. You also get a sense here of how Slack and others in his organization are moving beyond a focus on Harry Potter fandom and seeking to demonstrate how we might learn from a range of popular media and literary texts.

Such educational opportunities are exciting — they have sustained my own enthusiasm over the better part of a decade now — but they are not in and of themselves enough, not as long as many young people lack the kind of adult mentorship which might help them to identify meaningful online experiences or make connections between what they are learning in these communities and the demands of more formalized education.

The heart of the report seeks to identify design principles which might address these concerns:

Our hypothesis is that in order to develop these cross-cutting repertoires of practice, young people need concrete and sustained social networks, relationships, institutional linkages, shared activities and communication infrastructures that connect their social, academic, and interest-driven learning. It is not enough for young people to have knowledge “in their head” and expect that they can apply it appropriately and effectively in varied settings on their own. They need caring adults, supportive peers, shared cultural references, and authentic ways of contributing to shared practices in order to mobilize their skills and knowledge. In contrast to the voluminous literature and research on cognitive and individual models of transfer, there has been very little work that looks more ecologically at the relational, infrastructural, and institutional settings that undergird effective translation and transfer between formal instruction and varied practices.

I can’t begin to do justice to this report. You need to read it yourself, and then, we need to launch some serious conversations about its implications for our own practices.



  1. James says:

    New York City’s Quest to Learn School is very prominent one. Especially its “After School Programs” attracts youth very well.
    D-Lish Pita