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EDU 807 - Spring 2019 - Week 13 - Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design

Selections from Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design by M. Ito et al.

Clarissa is a 17-year-old aspiring screenwriter, growing up in a working-class household in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her passion is fantasy fiction. When friends introduced her to an online role-playing site that involved writing fiction interactively, she jumped at the chance to connect with others who shared her interest. Online, she found a community of like-minded peers who shared her interests, and who collaboratively wrote stories and critiqued each other’s work. Clarissa made great strides in her writing, engaging with it in ways that felt more authentic, and more motivating than her writing classes at school. In the end, she was proud enough of her work to use it in class assignments and in her college applications. She was admitted to two competitive liberal arts colleges, Emerson and Chapman, and attributes her success to the writing skills she developed in the role-playing world (see Case Study 1).

Clarissa’s out-of-school engagement in creative writing is an example of what we have dubbed connected learning—learning that is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. Connected learning is realized when a young person pursues 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 possibilities, or civic engagement. Digital and networked media offer new ways of expanding the reach and accessibility of connected learning so it is not just privileged youth who have these opportunities. Connected learning looks to digital media and communications to: 1) offer engaging formats for interactivity and self-expression, 2) lower barriers to access for knowledge and information, 3) provide social supports for learning through social media and online affinity groups, and 4) link a broader and more diverse range of culture, knowledge, and expertise to educational opportunity.

Young people today have the world at their fingertips in ways that were unimaginable just a generation ago. Clarissa connected with like minds and immersed herself in a collaborative effort to develop characters and stories through an online forum. Worldrenowned lectures, a symphony of voices and opinions, and peer-to-peer learning opportunities are all a click away. Through digital media, youth today have countless accessible opportunities to share, create, and expand their horizons. They can access a wealth of knowledge as well as be participants, makers, and doers engaged in active and self-directed inquiry. The most activated and well-supported learners are using today’s social, interactive, and online media to boost their learning and opportunity, attesting to the tremendous potential of new media for advancing learning. 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 like Clarissa 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 educational institutions, particularly among non-dominant youth.1 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 frames an approach to learning, research, and design that seeks to address these current conditions of opportunity and risk. Part 1 of the report explores the challenges facing education today and the risks associated with technological change. Part 2 presents our model of connected learning, including discussion of its learning, design, and technology framework. In broken-out sections interspersed throughout the report, we provide illustrative cases of learners and learning environments that we reference throughout the main text. This report represents a collaborative synthesis of existing research by the Connected Learning Research Network members, in order to inform ongoing research, design, and program development.

What is Connected Learning?

Clarissa’s case illustrates how a highly resourceful and interest-driven young person can find social and informational supports for a specialized interest. Although she did not have learning supports or many friends who shared her interest, the online world opened up a new site for learning and specialization. Not only was Clarissa able to reach out to form a new peer group that was knowledge and expertise-driven, but she was able to take what she learned from the online context and connect it to her school achievement. She was acquiring individual skills and knowledge, as well as adding value to a community by sharing her own knowledge and creating high-quality work. In Clarissa’s case, she built her own connected learning environment by tying together her interests, her peer networks, and her school accomplishments. With a bit more support, invitations, and infrastructure for connection, we believe many more young people can experience the kind of learning that Clarissa enjoyed. In this report, we explore a framework for connected learning, which identifies contexts, properties, supports, and design principles that we hypothesize can enable connected learning (see Table 1). Connected learning represents a framework for understanding and supporting learning, as well as a theory of intervention that grows out of our analysis of today’s changing social, economic, technological, and cultural context.

Connected learning centers on an equity agenda of deploying new media to reach and enable youth who otherwise lack access to opportunity. It is not simply a “technique” for improving individual educational outcomes, but rather seeks to build communities and collective capacities for learning and opportunity like those Clarissa found in her online group. Without this focus on equity and collective outcomes, any educational approach or technical capacity risks becoming yet another way to reinforce the advantage that privileged individuals already have. 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 peerdriven forms of learning.

These spaces are not confined to online worlds. 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. We explain each of these elements in Part 2 of the report.

Although connected learning can apply to any age group, we focus here on adolescents and, secondarily, on young adults. The period from around 12 to 18 years old is a critical time when individuals form interests and social identities that are key to the connected learning model. We also see adolescence and early adulthood as periods when young people establish an orientation to schooling and learning that can carry into adulthood, and begin to make decisions that will lead them to certain job and career opportunities. As an approach to learning and design, connected learning is not bounded by a particular national or cultural context. We discuss our approaches to learning and media engagement in general terms, but because our research centers on the U.S. and Great Britain, our frameworks will likely be most relevant in places that share similar social, cultural, and economic conditions with these two countries. Before discussing connected learning in depth in the second half of the report, we first turn to a discussion of some broader economic, social, and technological conditions that frame the problems we are addressing. To focus the discussion and to capitalize on the expertise of this report’s authors, we center our discussion on the United States. We acknowledge that these conditions vary considerably in different parts of the world, although much of what we discuss applies across the Global North, perhaps more widely. Emerging economies and countries that have not fully embraced digital and networked media confront different challenges in addressing questions of social equity and educational reform.

Principles of Connected Learning Image

Today’s economic, social, and technological trends pose a host of challenges for those seeking to transform educational systems to create opportunities for more youth. While these challenges are daunting, particularly given the economic and demographic outlook, we do see unique opportunities for change that accompany the shift to digital and networked media. The trends we are seeing in today’s new media environment present new risks, but also unprecedented opportunities in making interest-driven, engaging, and meaningful learning accessible to more young people. In considering the role of technology in social change, we draw from longstanding efforts to mobilize technology in the service of education.

Unlike many approaches to educational technology, however, connected learning is defined not by particular technologies, techniques, or institutional context but by a set of values, an orientation to social change, and a philosophy of learning. Although we do not focus primarily on the formal educational system in our work, we see our agenda as complementary with many progressive and equity-oriented reform efforts in school and policy arenas. In many ways, the connected learning approach is part of a longstanding tradition in progressive education and research on informal learning that has stressed the importance of civic engagement, connecting schools with the wider world, and the value of hands-on and social learning. Today’s technologies offer us the ability to pursue these progressive goals in new ways through purposeful integration of tools for social connection, creation, and linking the classroom, community and home.

Connected learning also draws from educational efforts that value and elevate the culture and identity of non-dominant children and youth. These include youth development and media programs, culturally relevant education, and civic and participatory learning that draws from and supports the interests and voices of diverse youth and their communities. Rather than cater exclusively to the existing standards and norms of a dominant society and culture, these approaches seek to build new forms of value and capacity that come from diverse cultures and communities. Our approach differs, however, from many approaches in educational technology and reform in some important ways. The dominant focus in educational technology is lowering the costs of content delivery, improving instruction, and optimizing assessment for existing metrics, standards, and accountabilities. These are laudable and important goals that we believe need to be accompanied by approaches that expand and diversify the targets and pathways of education. We recognize the importance of foundational skills and knowledge, but we also see the challenges of education as broader than meeting uniform content standards. In an environment where good jobs are scarce and traditional career pathways serve a shrinking and privileged minority, optimizing existing educational pathways, assessments, and accountability systems will not serve an equity agenda on its own.

“Leveling the playing field” or offering more traditional pathways to less advantaged children may help a few lucky individuals. It fails to address inequity at a systemic level, however, upping the ante in an arms race where more privileged families look for advantage outside of the public school system. Rather than frame our task as improving individual competitiveness, we feel it is important to address the overall health of communities and learning writ large, centering our values on equity, full participation and collective contribution. To achieve such a vision we believe education must continue to deliver on foundational literacies and knowledge, while also diversifying and multiplying entry points and pathways to opportunity and meaningful participation in society. This becomes particularly important as young people enter adolescence and begin to specialize in their interests and seek ways of contributing to the adult world. By meaningful participation, we mean more than preparing young people for competition in the formal labor market. Rather, as progressives have argued for generations, the functions of schooling should be to prepare young people for contributing and participating in social life, which includes economic activity but also civil society, family, and community.

As we have described in the previous section, this approach towards building opportunity and capacity is particularly critical given the current economic and job realities that young people face. Our connected learning agenda involves building more diverse entry points and pathways to opportunity as an avenue to this broader reform and equity agenda, by leveraging the affordances of new media. We see new media, particularly as it is linked to youth-centered interests and community contribution, as providing new entry points into learning, opportunity, achievement, and civic participation. As a society we are clearly early in exploring these new pathways. Learners like Clarissa and Snafu-Dave are early indicators of the potential to see learning and education as a much more flexible and networked enterprise that happens as part of participation in diverse forms of culture and community. We believe that the time is ripe for targeted research, design, policies, and program development that seek to better understand and amplify this potential. Connected learning is guided and defined by this broader social vision, where the functions of education are better integrated and serve the interests and needs of nondominant young people and their communities. It is less a “new” approach to learning than it is an ongoing effort to draw linkages between existing approaches that share a set of core values and goals. We will describe particular technologies, learning, design and research approaches that we believe align with these values, and could be supported and amplified in ways that support this broader vision of educational reform. Because of this focus on connecting and amplifying the existing capacity of diverse networks, connected learning will necessarily always be a work in progress.

An Ecological and Networked Approach to Social Change

How do we approach these ambitious goals? We begin from the understanding that social change is not simply technologically or market led. The Internet is not by itself undermining privacy or family life, nor is television responsible for the supposed drop in hours spent by children reading. We must give up on the beguiling idea that technological changes either cause or resolve social problems. Redesigning or regulating particular media cannot on its own revitalize education or youth participation or resolve the difficulties of modern family life. Instead, it is important to recognize that the media are themselves a product of society, and thus are shaped by fundamental processes of social change. The same technologies can be taken up for progressive or more traditional educational goals.

In examining the role of new media in young people’s lives, we use the metaphor of an “ecology” to stress these broader contexts and their interconnection. The notion of ecology refers to the complex character of the spaces in which children develop. It also positions the child in meanings, practices, structures, and institutions contextualized by family, neighborhood, culture, and global contexts (Barron, 2006; Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Horst, Herr-Stephenson and Robinson, 2010). Importantly, the concept of ecology captures the interdependence and co-constituted nature of actor and context. The ecological metaphor is tied to our approach to young people, which recognizes how they are embedded in what Weisner (2002) has described as “ecological-cultural” context and everyday routines organized by the interrelated contexts of peer relations, family, and school.

Our view also aligns with work in the sociology of childhood that examines how young people shape and are shaped within broader social and cultural dynamics (Corsaro, 1997; Fass, 2006; James, Jenks and Prout, 1998). This focuses on children and young people’s agency, but recognizes also how this is constrained by structures of family, school, community, religion, commerce and so forth (Sefton-Green, 2004). Lawrence Cremin (1977) applies an ecological viewpoint to the history of education in the U.S.: Individual institutions and individual variables are important, to be sure; but it is the ways in which they pattern themselves and relate to one another that give them their educational significance, and in ways in which their outcomes confirm, complement, or contradict one another that determine their educational effects (128). Building from this ecological perspective, Cremin describes how historically the process of learning in the United States was “owned” by a whole host of institutions that made up the world of a young person, from home to church, school, and community. Today, while these institutions are all, to differing degrees, still involved in the education of youth, the learning happening in school and other contexts is often disconnected. All of these sites of learning are increasingly underpinned by digital media technologies.

For today’s youth, life without the Internet or cell phones is already unimaginable. In their terms, and for many adults also, the media ecology does not just describe the world of leisure and entertainment, but it has become infrastructural, to use Star and Ruhleder’s (1996) term. Like the distribution of water or electricity, the media and communication system underpins the spheres of work, education and commerce in ways that we increasingly take for granted. The ecological metaphor illuminates our understanding of the digital media landscape by focusing not on the learning potential of individual media, but, instead, on how young people’s actions, individually and collectively, intersect with key institutions in their lives and a wider array of media and communication possibilities open to them. Educational technology and reform efforts are situated within this ecology of institutional constraints and possibilities. Just as in the eras of educational video, computer assisted instruction, and edutainment, today’s technologies and techniques have been met with much hope and optimism. Open educational content, personalized learning systems, game-like learning, massively open online courses, and blended learning offers us important and accessible new tools and techniques to reinvigorate learning. Without a broader vision of social change however, new technologies will only serve to reinforce existing institutional goals and forms of social inequity.

Many prior attempts to mobilize technology in the service of educational reform have failed because interventions have focused narrowly on the deployment of particular media or technologies, without considering broader social, political, or economic conditions (Ito, 2009; Tyack and Cuban, 1995; Cuban, 2003). Unlike efforts at educational change that focus on technology deployment or institutional reform, connected learning takes a networked approach to social change that aligns with our ecological perspective. We believe that systemic shift requires linked efforts across different sites of learning, and that our best hope for educational change lies in connecting like-minded reform efforts across sectors of home, popular culture, technology, and education. Diverse youth, educators, parents, and technology makers coming together around a shared vision of learning can achieve “network effects” where more value is created when the number and diversity of participants are increased (Liebowitz and Margolis, 1994). Today’s networked technologies offer us a unique opportunity to build these open and scalable networks in the service of educational reform in ways that can complement institutionally driven change.

Our connected learning approach is an effort to contribute to these emerging change efforts by looking ecologically across all sites of learning—including homes, schools, neighborhoods, popular culture, online communities, and diverse learning institutions—by articulating an evolving set of learning and design principles and pursuing a research and reform agenda guided by these principles. We draw from and build on a large body of efforts in learning research, technology innovation, and the design of educational environments. We turn now to describing these approaches to learning, technology, and design that inform and define connected learning. Our Learning Approach 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.

Take the story of Tal from her sixth grade year at the Quest to Learn (Q2L) middle school (see Case Studies 4 and 5). Tal was a player of the game, Minecraft, where players can build together in a networked online world. She found support for expanding her interest in Minecraft at Q2L, an innovative new school that builds on young people’s interest in games through a quest and inquiry-based pedagogy. Together with her cousin, another Minecraft player who attends Q2L, and with support of adults, Tal was able to start a Minecraft club server at school, and soon they were producing plays in the Minecraft world they built and sharing their Minecraft-inspired stories in class and in their online newspaper. Tal’s contributions have in turn shaped the collective contexts of the afterschool club, the school culture, as well as enriching the online communities surrounding Minecraft. We have observed processes of connected learning among engaged learners like Tal when they are supported by progressive educational institutions like Q2L, engaged families, and rich online resources and communities. By drawing on the emerging interests of youth and the capacities of a high functioning interest community and platform like Minecraft, Q2L provides key adult-driven and institutional supports for connecting interests to academic subjects.

Public schools like Q2L have an important role to play in broadening access to connected learning, providing opportunities and guidance for young people to connect their social and recreational learning to academic subjects and prospects. The focus of our research and design agenda is to understand how, guided by a strong educational reform approach, new media can scale, diversify, and expand the reach of these connected learning experiences and environments in order to advance the cause of educational and social equity. We draw from approaches to learning—often called sociocultural, cultural historical, social constructivist, or situated approaches—that stress how learning and development is embedded within social relationships and cultural contexts. This body of work is grounded in an understanding of people’s everyday activities rather than focusing exclusively on formal educational contexts and academic subjects. The emphasis is on the ways psychological processes emerge through practical activities that are mediated by culture and are part of longer histories (Cole 1998; Vygotsky 1978). This orientation contrasts with approaches to learning, most notably behaviorism, that focus on external and often standardized inputs and rewards. It also contrasts with many forms of constructivism, which locate the primary driver of learning as internal to the developing child, rather than in the social (and technological) environment.

We build on sociocultural learning theory and empirical research that has documented learning in varied social and cultural settings, both within school and out of school. Our learning approach is guided by three key findings that have emerged from this body of learning research: 1) a disconnect between classroom and everyday learning, 2) the meaningful nature of learning that is embedded in valued relationships, practice, and culture, and 3) the need for learning contexts that bring together in-school and out-of-school learning and activity.

1. Formal education is often disconnected and lacking in relevance

Classroom ethnographers have documented how school learning is often disconnected from the contexts where young people find meaning and social connection. School subjects are often thought to impart knowledge and skills that will be useful, or will “transfer to” everyday life and future work, but these connections have proven elusive to learning researchers and students alike. In fact, a recent report by the National Academies concluded that “Over a century of research on transfer has yielded little evidence that teaching can develop general cognitive competencies that are transferable to any new discipline, problem or context, in or out of school” (National Research Council, 2012). Even as classroom learning lacks utility and relevance for many young people, schooling continues to be strongly tied to future life opportunity. As we have noted in the first half of this report, we are seeing an escalating arms race in educational attainment because of the competitive nature of the market for high-quality jobs. In fact, the same National Research Council (2012) report that notes the lack of transferability of school-based knowledge advocates for a continued focus on educational attainment because it is the one factor that strongly influences future opportunity. As noted earlier, young people in more privileged families are spending growing amounts of time in school-related as well as extra-curricular activities carefully and strategically organized by their parents (Gutiérrez, Izquierdo, Kramer-Sadlik, 2010, Levine, 2006, Pope, 2001). Although structured, competitive, and specialized learning activities are tied to future life opportunity, they can crowd out time for other kinds of meaningful learning and social development. Some evidence is emerging that “overscheduled” young people are suffering disproportionately from psychological distress and lack of motivation (Pope, 2001). Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi (1976) noted several decades ago, participation in tightly organized and managed activities leaves little room for problem-finding and creativity. The Digital Youth study likewise found that young people required a certain amount of autonomy and unstructured time to “mess around” online in order to explore knowledge and become self-directed learners (Ito et al., 2009). In other words, an over-emphasis on structured education and individual competitiveness can rob young people of meaningful social participation and the capacity for self-directed and open-ended learning and inquiry

2. Learning is meaningful when it is part of valued relationships, shared practice, culture, and identity

By contrast, research in settings where formal schooling has not been prevalent has documented learning that happens as part of work, social interaction, and the ongoing life of communities (Greenfield, 2004; Lave, 1988; Rogoff, 2003; Scribner & Cole, 1973). The findings from this body of work parallel research on lifelong learning, examining how adults reconceptualize and reflect on earlier educational experiences (Edwards, Biesta and Thorpe, 2009; Holland et al., 1998; Levinson et al., 1996). The knowledge and skills people acquire in these settings have a highly positive value to participants because they are linked to practices and valued relationships in which learning is not the primary reason for engagement. In other words, learning is highly relational and tied to shared purpose and activity. Here learning can be understood as changing participation in cultural activity rather than an endeavor sequestered from everyday social life (Rogoff, 2003; Lave, 1988).

This cross-cultural work on informal learning has helped us recognize learning that happens within the flow of everyday social life, work, and other kinds of purposeful activity. We understand from this body of work that when young people are learning with peers and adults, pursuing shared interests and goals, the learning is both meaningful and resilient. What we seek to investigate is the specific supports and mechanisms that make these forms of learning effective, and how we can tie these insights to an agenda for educational design and reform. What are the entryways and pathways that young people need to access to arrive at connected learning? What are key supports along the way that young people need in order to continue along these pathways? How can we measure the outcomes of these connected learning experiences? Which outcomes are tied to opportunity and achievement in other contexts and later in life? The connected learning framework is an effort to get more specific on the supports and outcomes of learning embedded in joint activity and shared purpose in order to inform a design and reform agenda.

3. Young people need connection and translation between in-school and out-ofschool learning

Based on the prior research in both in-school and out-of-school settings, we have arrived at a starting hypothesis for design and intervention that centers on building stronger connections between different spheres of learning. Connected learning posits that by connecting and translating between in-school and out-of-school learning, we can guide more young people to engaging, resilient, and useful learning that will help them become effective contributors and participants in adult society. We also believe that networked and digital technologies have an important role to play in building these sites of connection and translation.

In line with ongoing critiques of the concept of “transfer,” we do not believe that the goal of educational environments is to impart “generalized” skills and knowledge that will be subsequently applied to work or further education (Beach, 1999; Bransford & Schwartz, 2001; Dyson, 1999; Lave, 2011). As Vygotsky (1978) has noted, concepts form when everyday and scientific knowledge grow into one another. An ecological approach to learning means that we don’t believe knowledge can be easily uprooted and transplanted between contexts and practices. Instead, we emphasize horizontal knowledge and the connections across domains of experience in and out of school (Pacheco, 2012). Within this approach, learning is oriented toward shared practices that emerge from youths’ repertoire of practices developed in the horizontal movement and flow as youth move across everyday settings. We understand development as the acquisition and expansion of a cultural toolkit based on involvement in a range of specific cultural communities. 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. The connected learning approach is an effort to propose a proactive research and design agenda that addresses this gap

DMU Timestamp: February 21, 2017 15:38

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