Connected Learning

Connected Learning for New Futures: Going Global: Connecting Cultures, Forging Futures, British Council, London 2 June 2015. Read the full presentation here.

How can effective digital learning communities be set up to bring together people from widely separate locations and divergent political and cultural backgrounds? How can we ensure that such common and synchronous spaces are effectively and appropriately mediated, using the combination of the virtual and natural worlds? How can we design learning processes that contribute to the broader objectives of education as a combination of personal benefit and public good?

These are the focus of today’s symposium at the British Council’s annual Going Global conference, this year in London. My pitch is for “Connected Learning”, a set of principles and practices best articulated by the Connected Learning Alliance ( I’ve also been inspired by Margaret Archer’s critical realism, which enables our considerations of new digital technologies to be extended to the inner dialogues that, for all of us, relate our senses of ourselves to the worlds that we encounter.

The Connected Learning approach advocates for a world in which all learners have access to participatory, interest-driven learning that connects to educational, civic and career opportunities. The significant opportunities offered by new digital technologies follow from these imperatives rather than being seen as determinants. Archer’s critical realism complements Connected Learning in its focus on the subject’s reflexivity; the “inner voices” that we all have and with which we shape our relationship with the objective world and our sense, or absence, of projects that may, or may not, bring about our “ultimate concerns”.

Together, these approaches suggest a concept of Connected Learning that has three dimensions.

The first dimension (which I call C1) is the awareness of the sense of self that is shaped by reflexivity. The second dimension (C2) is the web of relationships that bind people to one another. The third dimension (C3) is the public good that is created within the university.

Each of these dimensions is already enabled, or potentially strengthened, by the rapid application of new, and often disruptive, digital technologies. In particular, the convergence of ubiquitous bandwidth, cheap and distributed data storage and increasingly affordable, location-intelligent mobile devices is creating new opportunities that can break down entrenched barriers.

The first dimension of connected learning – C1, the inner conversations of reflexivity – is based on the recognition that we all, from early in life, have an internal conversation as a normal mental activity. These internal conversations interpret and mediate the interrelationship between the self and social context and form the basis on which we determine our future courses of action, or inaction.

Given the emphasis in the Connected Learning approach on social justice and marginalized individuals and communities, there is a significant interest in what Archer calls “fractured reflexivity”. Just as the inner conversations and ultimate concerns of those benefitting from the stability and continuity of their circumstances can, and do, mediate the structural properties of the societies in which they live, so can fractured reflexivity be superseded by the successful inner articulation of projects that are meaningful in the inner awareness of self.

This relationship between the inner sense of purpose by the subject and the objective outcomes of their projects provides a key link in the development of social relationships with others (C2). Communication with the subject’s “similars and familiars” validates internal, private, dialogue while building various forms of relationships with other individuals.

Building connections with others is of course at the heart of the educational enterprise. There has been consistent focus on how to build meaningful webs of relationships between learners such that they interact with one another to build a shared understanding and improved competences. But what has not been so common has been consideration of the differences between tacit and codified forms of knowledge and the ways that these differences can be deployed against differing educational requirements. The relative balance of tacit and codified knowledge may be particularly useful in using new digital technologies to best advantage, particularly in difficult circumstances where conventional approaches to learning cease to be effective.

Most considerations of the work of universities privilege the transmission of codified forms of knowledge. This is information and interpretation that is presented and communicated in standardized formats that can be reproduced and distributed many times over: books, scientific journals, mathematical formulae, code. Digital technologies have massively amplified the volume and possibilities of codified knowledge, allowing infinite reproduction, almost instantaneous transmission irrespective of distance and ever-increasing accumulation.

But in practice a significant amount of university-level learning depends on less formal practices. Whether in medicine and the health professions, science and engineering or in the laboratories of the natural sciences, the transmission of knowledge is from watching, demonstrating, copying and practicing. Such transmission is often non-verbal, using sight, sound, touch and smell. This is tacit knowledge.

Digital technologies used in the virtual world attenuate this distinction between codified and tacit knowledge. This is because the virtual world has overcome what can be called the “tyranny of space”. It is now reasonable to expect that a group of learners, distributed between New York, Cape Town, Beijing and Sydney, can come together in real time via a video link. It is also a reasonable possibility that students can come together in a virtual classroom that transcends war zones or no-go areas that are too difficult to cross. But despite the considerable advances made in haptic technologies and virtual reality, these forms of communication still tend to be “cold”; formal, structured and heavily codified. This is why there is often a compelling need to augment virtual networks with the meetings in the natural world, placing a premium on the “hot” qualities of tacit interaction.

Understanding the fuller implications of the ways in which new digital technologies have overcome such traditional spatial constructs, coupled with an understanding of the significance of tacit forms of understanding as the doppelganger of codified knowledge, provides significant opportunities for designing and implementing educational models in this second domain of Connected Learning.

In conventional learning and teaching practices, tacit and codified knowledge transmission is intertwined, usually without an explicit awareness of the distinction. But in blended learning course designs the distinction is invariably more distinct because the on-line component of the course will lack the same facilities for tacit communication than face-to-face learning irrespective, at present, of the technical sophistication of the underlying communication technologies.

The third dimension of Connected Learning – C3 – is the accumulation of the outcomes of education as a public good. Here, Connected Learning is clearly aligned with the mission of the public university, contributing by expanding participation and the nature and quality of knowledge and of new ways of understanding.

In turn, this emphasis on the significance of public goods is aligned with advocacy for public policy reform. The Connected Learning Alliance originated in advocacy for reforms in schooling that would counter the continuing exclusion of economically and socially marginalized communities. The extension of this approach into post-compulsory education needs to make a direct and informed connection between the application of new digital technologies and continuing and expanding forms of unfair discrimination in access to, and success in gaining, university level qualifications.

The ways in which the individual subject can use new and emerging digital technologies to explore and connect their sense of self with the external opportunities of both networks of other learners and the immense and expanding resources of the public digital domain are a key aspect of the model for Connected Learning set out here. When conceptualized as three, interlocked, domains, Connected Learning can contribute to designs that convene learners from widely separate locations and divergent cultural and political backgrounds in ways that combine the particular and complementary attributes of the virtual and natural worlds.


An expanded version of these ideas, applied to situations where universities are confronting apparently intractable conflicts, will be published in a collection titled Higher Education and Democratic Innovation and edited by Sjur Bergan, Tony Gallagher and Ira Harkavy (Council of Europe Higher Education Series, in partnership with the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy and Queen’s University).

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