A teenager who developed her creative writing skills, in large part by interacting with peers on the Internet, and who was eventually offered admissions to selective colleges on the basis of her strong writing samples. A young man who learned how to make a living as a professional web comics artist by connecting with knowledge and communities of artists on the Internet. A public school in Chicago experimenting with a two-week period each term where students work on complex and collaborative projects where they need to define roles, problem solve together, and share their work with a broader community.
All of these are examples of what my colleagues and I have been calling "connected learning" -- learning that is highly social, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or civic opportunity.
This week, the Connected Learning Research Network, a research group that I chair, released a report (PDF) that outlines how connected learning environments are designed and how they can benefit youth in networked society, especially the underprivileged and vulnerable. The report calls for several core changes in education, including:
• 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;
• Use the benefits of digital technology and social networking to combat the increasing reality of the haves and have-nots in education.
Connected learning is when you're pursuing knowledge and expertise around something you care deeply about, and you're supported by friends and institutions who share and recognize this common passion or purpose. Connected learning is not about any particular platform, technology, or teaching technique, like blended learning or the flipped classroom or Khan Academy or massive open online courses. It's agnostic about the method and content area. Instead, it's about asking what is the optimal experience for each learner and for a high-functioning learning community?
Our research network is seeing tremendous potential in the Internet for advancing learning. But right now, it's only the most activated and well-supported learners who are reaping the benefits of connected learning. In fact, we are at risk of seeing yet another way privileged individuals gain advantage -- even though the Internet and digital technology give us the potential to multiply opportunities for all youth to realize their learning potential and their right to thrive. Left unchecked, this is an inequity that will only worsen.
Our report outlines a number of disturbing socioeconomic trends that promise to further undermine existing inequities and issues in public education:
Broken pathways from education to opportunity: Youth are entering a labor market strikingly different from earlier generations. Education, even a college degree, no longer offers a sure pathway to opportunity. Young people find themselves competing for a scarcer number of good jobs. An "arms race" in educational attainment has broken out, especially among upper income households to gain advantage.
A growing learning divide: The achievement gap in public education disproportionately impacts African American and Latino youth. Inequity is aggravated by the accelerating rate of family investments in out-of-school enrichment and learning activities, many of which leverage the learning advances offered by the Internet and digital technology.
A commercialized and fragmented media ecology: We are living through a dramatic shift in media and technology and this shift is most pronounced among children and youth. Increasingly, there is a disconnect between classroom learning and the everyday lives and interests of many young people -- further alienating many youth from their schooling.
In contrast to other educational reform approaches, connected learning is distinguished by an aggressive social change agenda. It is motivated by a desire to witness a transformation in the educational system that is fundamentally about fairness and possibility. It is both evidence-driven and visionary in its aspirations. We believe this social vision can be realized because connected learning seeks to:
- Address inequity in education;
- Engender 21st century skills and literacies in all youth;
- Attune to the learning possibilities of a networked society;
- Elevate the quality of knowledge and learning for the collective good.
There is a unique opportunity before us with today's technologies to make the entry points and pathways to knowledge, learning and opportunity accessible to many more young people. Learning research has shown us that the most resilient and effective forms of learning happen when there's motivation, engagement, social support, and when the learning is real-world, intergenerational, and connected to young people's lives in a meaningful way.
With today's networked world, we have the capacity to address all young people's right to learn, to thrive, to find a place, and to contribute to our society. It's really no longer a question of how. It's a question of will.
The report by the Connected Learning Research Network, whose work is supported by the MacArthur Foundation as part of its digital media and learning initiative, can be found here.