Connected Learning

Yesterday at the Center for Civic Media, our lunch guest was S. Craig Watkins, a professor at UT Austin working on a variety of projects under the heading of “Connected Learning”.  In his blog post about the idea, Dr. Watkins defines this as:

the increasingly complex ways in which young people’s learning ecologies are evolving.  It is the notion that, in addition to happening anytime and anywhere, learning happens across the many different networks that teens’ navigate.  School is an obvious node in a young learner’s network.  But school represents only one node among many others, which includes after school sites, extracurricular activities, online communities, libraries, family, and peer communities just to name a few.

In his visit, he pointed out a few really important points, namely:

  • the “learning & civic opportunity gap” we see in poor/marginalized communities is largely a result of what happens OUTSIDE of school, so there is perhaps the greatest opportunity to make a difference there;
  • these “informal learning environments” don’t have the rigidities of the formal education system, allowing for greater creativity and innovation;
  • In “extreme” locations, such as the poorest parts of the world with the least formal infrastructure, traditional school simply isn’t possibly, so we must take a more real-world, connected approach.

This resonates with so much of what I’ve been thinking about, regarding networks, and how they’re creating new, connected opportunities across all sectors.  The idea that school is “only one node among many others” is the key idea.  This is such a huge opportunity — to think about learning as something that can and should happen everywhere, and that can be facilitated and guided by many actors in the network. And of course, this also represents a disruptive force in the world of traditional education, which no doubt cause friction within the establishment (more on that in a minute).

The idea of “connected learning” dovetails with another idea I’ve been following recently, which is “natural learning”.

The term natural learning comes from the Unschooling movement (a variant on home-schooling) which I got to thinking about this week via this article on  Unschooling is founded on the idea that humans are natural learners, and that the way that we learn in early childhood and adult life — by exploring, wondering, asking questions, and doing — is in line w/ our nature.  The unschooling philosophy puts learners in the drivers seat, letting them follow their own curiosity, and using that as the driving force for learning.  Adults (parents and others) act as facilitators, guides, and learning partners.  Rather than pursuing a pre-defined body of knowledge, unschooling is more about learning how to learn, and turning people into life-long learners.  From my personal experience with the unschooled (in the name of Nick Bergson-Shilcock, a life-long unschooler, fantastic human and blogger at, it works.

By contrast, unschooling argues that the “structured learning period” that we enter in grade school actually stifles real learning more than it supports it. Quoting from the father of Unschooling, John Holt, via the wikipedia article:

 …the anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know.”

I am sure this resonates with nearly everyone who has attended school.

It seems that we’re entering a period where the values of natural learning and the technologically-enabled methods of connected learning will join together to produce awesome and exciting opportunities.  And seriously important outcomes, such as better access to learning opportunities and communities and deeper civic engagement.

And of course, as with most disruptive innovations, we can expect to see three things happen, likely in sequence:

  1. Innovations in connected learning will be written off as “toys” — irrelevant to the “real” learning in schools.
  2. Institutions that are threatened by connected learning will resist and fight back (countries, school districts, teachers unions, etc.)
  3. Connected learning will prove to be more powerful and significant than anything we’ve seen before, and the role of formal learning institutions will change dramatically.

This is perhaps one of the most exciting and important areas where networks can make a difference.  I’ll be following closely.

6 comments on “Connected Learning”

Great three-step prediction, Nick! I have a feeling it will be eerily accurate.

As part of the effort to grow awareness of the connected learning model and its principles, the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub has launched and a weekly webinar series. If you’d like to participate in any upcoming webinars, just let me know.

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