Connected Learning

“Connect” is one of our most overused words. We’re in the flow of the digital world and in the river of instant images, text fragments and postings – like this one. The same goes for learning, from the toddler’s digital toy through all levels of schooling to every university classroom. In 2010 YouGov found that 53% of Britons suffer from nomophobia – the fear of being out of phone contact – and that one in two nomophobes never turn their cell phones off.

The Connected Learning Alliance is determined to turn this syndrome on its head and restore appropriate depth and humanity to being connected. Seen in this way, connections start with valued relations with others and with communities and the principles of social justice. Their approach reaches back to the progressive ideals of Paulo Freire and John Dewey. They are opposed to the prevalent assumption that education is a wholly private benefit, to be sold and bought as a service industry. These long established priorities for “being connected” are now augmented by the liberation of new digital technologies. In a nice twist, a nomophile is defined as any creature that thrives in a pasture; a comforting metaphor for an educational ideal.

I’ve found it useful to think of Connected Learning in three dimensions: firstly, the inner subjective world that defines and directs our sense of self; secondly, the network of those with whom we interact as “familiars”; and thirdly the collective outcomes that we achieve as “knowledge communities” and which are an important public good.

Let’s start with the second dimension of Connected Learning – the value in the web of interrelationships between people drawn together by common interests and objectives, whether their passion is for nursing, marine biology or history. The intangible asset of this web of mutuality has always been at the core of good learning and teaching, whatever the setting and technical paraphernalia. New digital technologies, designed applied and used to enable and augment these interconnections, offer wonderful opportunities that we are still discovering. Our universities are full of imaginative people experimenting with hashtags, microblogs, smart phones and any new app. This is a grassroots revolution in enabling learning, with all the advantages of open innovation and crowd sourcing. Administrators, strategy wonks and IT directors should be kept away from this; their job is to keep the virtual pastures open, and stand back.

Whatever the ways in which groups of learners convene, their connections with one another are as individual sentients with unique combinations of competences, experiential histories, objectives and ambitions. Here, in this first dimension of Connected Learning, new digital technologies can, and do, augment and extend individual direction. This is what sociologist Margaret Archer calls the “contextual continuity” that shapes the inner voices that we all have and which drives us to seek our “ultimate concerns”. There’s been a lot of attention to the negative side of this virtual world – harassment, trolls, cyber-bullying, loss of privacy. But digital connectivity has also allowed a myriad forms of self-expression and continuity. The technology’s neutral; it’s how its used that matters.

Successful and productive networks of learners produce an aggregate value that is in addition to the benefits they gain as individuals. This aggregate value is an essential public good, and the third dimension of Connected Learning. Good nurses have a vocation for achieving their inner ultimate concerns and forming a community of practice with their peers, bring to their wider world all the benefits of a health care system. The expertise of marine biologists, enhanced by continuing professional networks, is key to global ecosystems, sustainability and food security. Together, historians produce the temporal perspective that anchors our sense of ourselves and our social life in time. Again, new digital technologies augment this aggregate value in transformative ways, in particular though the massive and expanding availability of open resources available to everyone, anywhere, who has an Internet connection.

At the heart of the idea of Connected Learning is the interdependency of all three of its dimensions. The public good of education as a system is vested in its collective outcomes; the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, the reproduction of expertise, the generation of new levels and kinds of competences for an ever-changing world. These collective outcomes depend on effective networks of learners, however they are convened. And without people who, as their inner sense of self, can articulate their ambitions and realize their potential, there are no learning networks and no collective outcomes. New digital technologies spiral through these three dimensions, as enablers rather than as ends in themselves.

This piece was inspired by participation in last year’s Higher Education for Democratic Innovation Global Forum, held in Belfast:

Some sources:

Archer, Margaret 2007. Making our Way through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Connected Learning Alliance 2015. Make learning relevant. Accessed 10 March 2015

Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutierrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green and S. Craig Watkins. 2013. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA, Digital Media and Research Hub

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