Teaching in the 21st Century

Traci GardnerTraci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.

Can Connected Learning Work at the College Level?

posted: 4.3.12 by Traci Gardner

I was recently invited by the National Writing Project’s “Digital Is” site to attend some weekly Webinar sessions on connected learning. The first question I had to ask, however, was “what is connected learning?”

After attending the first two sessions, I think the best overview of the ideals behind connected learning is this video on The Essence of Connected Learning from DML Research Hub:

I also found this explanation of Connected Learning by Mimi Ito, one of the educators featured in the video, useful:

In a nutshell, connected learning is learning that is socially connected, interest-driven, and oriented towards educational and economic opportunity. 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. (Mimi Ito, “Connected Learning”)

Admittedly, the discussion of connected learning that I’ve read so far focuses on kids and teens, the K–12 crowd, so once I had a grasp on the concept, I was left wondering if connected learning would work in the college composition classroom. For that matter, I wondered, is it already there? Socially constructed, student-centered, digitally based learning? Haven’t we been talking about that in the college classroom for years? Certainly, those of us in the computers and writing field have.

Connected learning does seem different to me, though. It doesn’t have to be found in a classroom. You can find it at the library, in museums, at the zoo, or at the park. The connected learning philosophy is less about pushing out specific kinds of information and more about allowing learners to pursue whatever information they want wherever they want to find it. That’s a harder goal to accomplish in the typical college classroom, where teachers have to create courses that fit within departmental goals and outcomes.

Nonetheless, I know that connected learning spaces exist at the college level. The best example I’ve ever been in was the Center for Computer-Assisted Language Instruction (CCLI, now the HDMZ) at Michigan Tech. Students and teachers alike could enter that space and pursue whatever they wanted. I had access to a dream array of digital software and hardware, and the space was filled with helpful people willing to collaborate, mentor, and inspire one another. It demonstrated the essence of connected learning principles.

How many colleges and universities would be willing to shift all learning to that kind of connected learning space, though? Would schools give up well-defined courses, structured syllabi, and departmental goals? Adopting connected learning models would require quite a revolution in how we think of college education—but it’s a rethinking we may need to consider.

Why? Return to this statement Mimi Ito makes in the video, and think about how your campus struggles with issues like increasing course size and the efficacy of online education:

[Connected Learning asks] how can we use the capacity of these network resources, these social connections, to bring people together who want to learn together, and not [fall back on] the model of how can we deliver content more effectively from a single source to many listeners? And that’s fundamentally reconfiguring what we think of as the problem and goal of education.

As we work for effective writing instruction, we are constantly battling educational models and administrators who want us to “deliver content more effectively from a single source to many listeners.” Think about auditorium classrooms, teacher lectures pushed out on videos, and unforgiving course management software. That kind of unconnected learning is not the best model for teaching writing at any level.

From what I’ve seen so far, the principles of connected learning could support our arguments for effective socially constructed, student-centered, digitally based learning in the writing classroom. I’m certainly interested enough to keep watching the Webinars and learn more. You might say that I feel a connection with the topic.

What do you think about connected learning? Do you think it could work at the college level? Please join me at the next Webinar session, and as always, I’d love you to leave a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

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4 Responses to “Can Connected Learning Work at the College Level?”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    Let’s begin with the “nutshell” definition of “connected learning”:

    “In a nutshell, connected learning is learning that is socially connected, interest-driven, and oriented towards educational and economic opportunity. 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.”

    There are a number of warning signals here that indicate that “connected learning” is yet another buzz word for the corporatization of education. First, while there is nothing wrong with using one’s education for economic purposes (we all do that, of course), what we as instructors are teaching, especially in writing classes, are critical thinking and expository skills. Those skills are not at all equivalent to “pushing out” information. I never see anyone connected with digital learning ever noting the crucial importance of critical thinking skills. Knowing how to find information is not the end-all of education: knowing how to think about the information one has found is.

    Which leads to a second problem. We already have a society—especially with respect to the news media—that tailors information to the listener. FOX News audiences get the news they want, as do audiences for the more liberal news media. Connected learning seems to be a formula for students getting what they already want to find; education is about broadening horizons to discover what is not already known. That is one reason why we have General Education requirements.

    Education should challenge students to learn new things, should stretch the mind. Connected learning, as described here, sounds like just the opposite.

  2. Traci Gardner Says:

    Time for a confession: I’m a perfectionist. People who know me aren’t really surprised to hear that. Because I’m a perfectionist, I’m always hesitant to talk about something I’m just learning. After all, I’m still learning. I don’t know everything yet. I’m bound to make a mistake, and I surely don’t want to make that mistake in public.

    Talking about Connected Learning is risky and uncomfortable for me. I’m still learning about the model. I don’t know everything about it. I tried to soothe my inner perfectionist by pointing out in the first two paragraphs of my post that I’m new to this: “I was recently invited . . . to attend some weekly Webinar sessions on connected learning.” and “After attending the first two sessions . . . .”

    The nutshell definition I found and used apparently wasn’t the best one to choose, based on blog comments. The language of the definition includes some buzzwords that flagged the definition as code for “corporatization of education.” Of course, that’s the exact opposite of the goals of Connected Learning. The most recent Connected Learning webinar, for instance, focused on Peer2Peer University (P2PU). If you’re not familiar with P2PU, this snippet from their About page should demonstrate that corporatization is 180 degrees in the other direction: “ The Peer 2 Peer University is a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements.”

    My post also seemed to leave out the role of critical thinking, which is fundamentally important to Connected Learning. The host for the Connected Learning webinars is Howard Rheingold. His newest book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online is specifically about helping people become critical consumers of the resources they encounter. Connected Learning asks students to explore options and ask questions. It’s not just accepting facts. It’s about creativity. It’s about asking why and how and what more can I do with this. Its very foundation is critical thinking.

    Perhaps a better overview of the Connected Learning materials would have been DML Researchers Introduce "Connected Learning" Model. It’s much longer, but does a better job defining Connected Learning. The Connected Learning infographic also shares a lot of information that can help define the model.

    I hope my incomplete explanation doesn’t stop anyone else from looking at all the resources and exploring the possibilities Connected Learning offers. In addition to the links included in my posts, I’ve set up a Reddit on Connected Learning so you can find even more information. Every day I’m learning more about Connected Learning, and I’ll try to keep sharing what I find out. Please forgive me my imperfections as I journey down the path.

  3. Kelly McClymer Says:

    I am a reading tutor for kids with dyslexia. I am not a teacher (I am married to a university Physics professor and am familiar with his efforts to add some context to his highly conceptual subject matter). I have shepherded three children through school (two with LD).

    I enjoyed listening to the video, and agree with most of it, but I take exception to framing our educational system as broken or wrong. Our system gets the majority of kids out able to read, do basic math, and many with strong enough skills to go on to college. We can do better, but the system itself is not broken or wrong — it works for a majority of kids. It can just work so much better with the advent of digital technology that can bring practice sessions to practical life in the classroom and at home.

    My children had a total of two bad teachers (I do not use the term lightly, I mean highly dysfunctional and dangerous to children’s mental welfare). Between them, they experienced eight exceptional teachers (defined as taking them places they didn’t know they really wanted to go until they got there).

    Speaking of schools as broken is a disservice to what is going right, and puts the very people needed to transition to a better model into defensive mode.

  4. Jack Solomon Says:

    Kelly McClymer makes a very important point. The declaration that a given education system (which, for Americans, means public education) is “broken” is often the rhetorical leading edge to some scheme or other to replace it with something else: eg., a voucher system to encourage private school attendance, a charter school system that abolishes teacher tenure and any modicum of academic freedom or independence, or a for-profit learning management package whose adoption converts teachers into automatons. In short, the rhetoric of educational “failure” is part of a code whose semiotic significance is something that educators should be both aware and wary of.

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