Connected Learning is a theory positing that the most meaningful and resilient forms of learning happen when a learner has a personal interest or passion that they are pursuing in a context of cultural affinity, social support, and shared purpose. Research into connected learning involves examining learning that cuts across the contexts of home, school, and peer culture, looking at the links and disjuncture between them before offering a way of connecting them. Mizuko Ito is a cultural anthropologist focused on the use of technology, especially examining children and youth's changing relationships to media and communications. Last week, she spoke at the University of Pittsburgh to a diverse group of teachers, administrative staff, education consultants, etc about her work. Both public and charter schools in the area have started to embrace her work and applied it to their own domains. However, some of her work requires additional discussion within the context of public education as it currently exists.
Adults Stigmatizing Technology
The combination of technology and education is a volatile topic, because as Mimi Ito points out "Opportunities and risk are inextricably intertwined." The common and somewhat valid argument that educators and teachers make is that the same technologies that give students the maximum potential to learn and grow are also the ones that stifle and stagnate their learning. The best example of this is the personal laptop, as it gives students the opportunities to explore, research, create and engage, but also allows students to be distracted and confused. There are two issues here that need to be addressed.
The first issue is the lack of adaptation from adults. If education is supposed to cater to kids, it is the responsibility of educators to adapt to the new generation, whether it be culturally or technologically. Many adults are still under the misconception that "I learned X this way, so why can't the children today also do the same", but this idea is extremely unproductive in the context of improving the current system of education. With the culture that our youth are immersed in today, it would take a lot more resources to retain the old system by combating the pervasive cultural effects on the current generation rather than embracing them in our efforts to educate them.
The second issue is the idea that the usage of technology should be risk averse because potential of students becoming distracted is worse than not utilizing the technology in the first place. The general consensus in the progressive community of educators is that teachers need to be educated about the new technologies or media that their students interact in. Multiple studies that disprove the effectiveness of technology in schools fail to account for disinterested teachers and school districts, and instead focus on how the technology itself hasn't demonstrated any benefit. Instead of focusing solely on introducing new and latest technology into the classroom, some of the resources should be diverted towards professional development for educators to learn how to gain the maximum utility from the devices and help them better interact with students.
While adults stigmatizing new ideologies has been a consistent cultural pattern, the concept of interest-driven learning is fairly new. One anecdote from Mimi Ito's lecture: "Facebook is a collection of people you went to school with. Tumblr is a collection of people you wish you went to school with." Sites like Tumblr and Reddit allow users to categorize their online interaction by interest with an unprecedented accessibility that has allowed many young members to discover and grow their unique self-identities. A member of the Carnegie Mellon University administration pointed out an observation that each freshman class in the last few years seems more self-aware than the last, not in their decisions regarding the future, but rather their passions and interests that they wish to foster at the university with their time and independence. Mimi Ito speaks at length about the growth of these communities and how the education system can leverage this self-awareness and connect it to academic achievement.
In one of her studies, Mimi Ito examines the Nintendo franchise Pokemon to show the levels of social and intellectual complexity young students can attain. Young members were navigating through the diverse world in the game, optimizing their team, adapting to challenges, and connecting with friends. This combination of engagement, complexity, and interactivity exploded into trading cards, national competitions and television shows and other media to draw in young members. Many adults in their 20s and 30s still fondly remember their initial foray into the Pokemon world and can probably name more Pokemon and facts from the world than what they learned an entire year in Biology class.
Today, there are millions of online communities surrounding a variety of interest groups from news and videogames to obscure topics like wrestling fan-fiction. In the same way that previous generations valued athleticism and physical prowess, the explosion of technologies and media have created many avenues for students to develop and grow based on their interests, even leading to a skill-determined social order among groups. To some, these interactions are a passing hobby, while for others, they're a passion. Dismissing or stigmatizing organic interests is one of the most harmful practices that public education system and parents engage in today.
Mimi Ito provided a brilliant case study of a young woman who was interested in an obscure form of fan fiction, a hobby she discovered at home and cultivated by interacting with online forums. A teacher uncovered her interest, and encouraged her to join the school newspaper, where she developed her writing ability, in the end getting accepted to several competitive liberal arts programs. It was a simple example of education that was personalized to her because her teacher connected her organic interest developed at home and encouraged her to develop a skill using it. Connected learning celebrates the marriage of in-school and out-of-school learning by bridging the gap between elements learned in the classroom to the student's social and cultural experiences.
Mimi Ito's proposition is bold and idealistic, but rational and comprehensive enough that many progressive educators have begun to adapt. The shift in cultural perception regarding the use of technology in the class room may have to wait until the current generation reaches adulthood, but interest-driven learning can be integrated into the current system in many ways. Many school districts and initiatives have taken note of Mimi Ito's work and have applied it to their individual spaces. One school district has restructured all their libraries to include a media space where kids are encouraged to explore their interests. Studies have shown that the number of books being borrowed at libraries increased dramatically after the creation of these spaces. A few schools have carved personal time for students to interact with teachers to share their interests and hobbies, while others are rotating teachers with a class, to make teachers more personable and available to students.
Mimi Ito and her colleagues have also been studying the use of specific games and communities on learning, such as Minecraft and Starcraft. In the next month, I will be reaching out to them at UC Irvine to discuss the use of League of Legends as an example of out-of-school program with the goal of creating interest in mathematics and art, as well as building social relationships and teamwork.
Here is the link to the full research into Connected Learning as well as some case studies: Link