Connected Learning

connected learning COVER With a hat-tip to Jeff Nugent for bringing this new ebook to my attention, I have just finished reading Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom, edited by Antero Garcia.  This book is a collection of narratives from primarily K-12 teachers within the National Writing Project, openly sharing their views of “what education can look like.”  The many authors go to some lengths to note that this book is not meant to be “best practices”…but rather “working examples” that model practices within specific contexts of learning.

It was interesting that this book starts with the premise that “best practice” is a misnomer.  In our GRAD-602 class, our students typically raise their desires for “less theory and more practical”…and when given a choice of five books to read about “teaching”, the majority chose Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do.  They want “the best practices”!

Antero states up front:

“…Typically, publications about or for teachers highlight “best practices.” The buzzword-driven form of highlighting a superior approach, to me, ignores the cultural contexts in which teacher practices are developed. The best practice for my classroom is going to be different both from a classroom anywhere else and from my classroom a year down the road. Context drives practice. As such, this is not a how-to guide for connected learning or a collection of lesson plans. The pages that follow are, instead, meant to spur dialogue about how classroom practice can change and inspire educators to seek new pedagogical pathways forward…”

This idea of context really resonated with me!  It applies equally to teachers and students, and in this book, the authors suggest that every teacher become a “designer-in-context”, engaging students as they help co-design the course.  A very constructionist (and connectivist) approach!

Much of this book flowed from an earlier study by Mizuko Ito and others: Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design.  This study defined “connected learning” as:

“…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.”

The authors frame their approach as one that breaks through an educational process that is “constrained, silenced, and stifled” – moving instead to one that emboldens teachers while meeting the individual needs of students.  Rather than suggesting “how” one might approach teaching, it provides a series of “whys” – a purposeful approach to sparking creativity.

There are six chapters in the book, each with some underlying foundation followed by three cases.

  • Interest-Driven Learning
  • Peer-Supported Learning
  • Academically Oriented Teaching
  • Production-Centered Classrooms
  • Openly Networked
  • Shared Purpose

Nicole Mirra discussed interest-driven learning.   Her premise is that students will gain more knowledge and higher order skills when the learning originates from issues or activities that innately captivate them.  This “power and possibilities of tapping into students’ passions” reminded me of the premise of our freshmen experience here at VCU, in which students develop their writing and research prowess through self-directed exploration.  Mediated through technology as a shared activity, interest-driven learning occurs at multiple, mutually constitutive levels – personal, interpersonal, and institutional.  Interest-driven learning can serve as a gateway to the other opportunities below.

Cindy O’Donnell-Allen then looked at peer-supported learning, sharing this infographic.


Cindy built from a premise that knowledge does not reside with the individual, but is socially constructed.  Her view of 21st Century learning involves the 3 C’s – collaboration, creativity, and communication.  She also notes that simply putting students together in groups does not naturally lead to collaboration.  It requires the mindful guidance of the teacher, intervening as required.  One factor she noted that increased success rates was to have students reflect on their collaboration.  She also suggested that teachers:

  • Pose the right questions and teach students to do the same.
  • Create inclusive environment to facilitate peer-supported learning.
  • Use new media to amplify and push out learning.
  • Make it about the kids, not the standardized tests.

Antero Garcia explored academically oriented teaching.  He noted the disconnect between forms of learning in traditional classes and the social and cultural contexts of today’s students.  Academically prepared youth should be able to “shape-shift” their skill sets to meet an evolving world.  A word he uses is “authentic” – reframe the learning to make it authentic and relevant to our new media students.

Clifford Lee provided examples of production-centered classrooms.  He quoted Ito’s report to suggest that production-centered classrooms facilitate the use of “[d]igital tools [to] provide opportunities for producing and creating a wide variety of media, knowledge, and cultural content in experimental and active ways.”  I loved that the word “tinker” showed up throughout this chapter…though he does note the need to keep it relevant – ensure that students see meaning and purpose behind what they create.  A good example to go with the cases show in this chapter would be David McLeod‘s Project710 class.

My Twitter hero @budtheteacher – also known as Bud Hunt – explained the concept of “openly networked”…finding value in the wealth of open resources he was both consuming and creating via sharing online.  Learning in this environment is cross-institutional, has multiple points of entry and outreach, and has interactions both in and out of school.  Regarding “open,” he noted that “[t]houghtful teachers choose intentionally what, when, and how they share what they are curious about and what demands their students’ attention.”  To do this, teachers need to be purposefully transparent, while practicing “productive eavesdropping” on the posts of others.

Finally, Danielle Filipiak discusses shared purpose.  She suggested that students “…thrive when surrounded by people who support them in pursuing their own interests and passions, which may be very different from what districts, states, or teachers impose.”  Student engagement with the wider web-based community expands their audience and knowledge base, setting up purposeful encounters that can foster civic engagement.

Antero ends by noting that the practices suggested in this book can involve risk.  They break the old rules.  He also suggests those rules need breaking, stating:

“…I remember distinctly thinking “those students are doing it wrong.” … I didn’t understand that I was naturally ascribing my own rules of use on a cultural practice that was not my own…As such “doing it wrong” is culturally constructed and important to remember when we think about how we will roll out sustained connected learning support for teachers nationally and globally.”

In the afterword, Christina Cantrill of the National Writing Project, noted that her website and “…this book start from the argument that, in an increasingly interconnected and networked world, digital is how we write, share, collaborate, publish, and participate today and in the future.”  She goes on to note:

“…This is why, as Antero Garcia tells us, there are more than “best practices” here. There are important practices and effective-in-their-context practices, as well as “there is a kernel of truth here, but maybe we will approach it differently next time” practices. These are active practices, practices that require opportunities to test, to tinker, to innovate, and to dynamically assess and reiterate…

…No longer is the teacher the only conveyor, the library the only holder, or the museum the only curator of knowledge. Instead the ability to convey, to hold, and to curate now is in the hands of many. This also is why the social and participatory framework of connected learning positions all learners, students, and teachers alike not only as consumers, but as makers.”

This is a book worth reading.  The authors hope to spur dialogue about what is possible in teaching…as do I.  I would value hearing your thoughts about connected learning and the contexts in which we find ourselves teaching today.



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One thought on “Connected Learning

  1. Hello Britt!

    Thank you for your thoughtful and, also very thorough!, review here. We a thrilled that you found the collection of interest and would love to learn with you as you engage with it further. In fact, today we are doing a webinar with the editors so they can talk a bit more about the collection they pulled together — I thought you might be interested, so here’s that information:

    Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
    When: March 13, 2014, 2:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m. PST
    Where: Via Google Hangout on Air from this page:

    Also, we would love to have you cross-post this, or other blog posts you think would be of interest, at In order to do that just join – then you can post blogs and comments on others content too.

    All the best,

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