Five Ways to Connect: Another Look at Connected Learning



Connection (kəˈnekSHən/) noun: a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) ALT Lab where I work has the tagline “Connected Learning for a Networked World.” Most people are familiar with the notion of a networked world but what about “connected learning”?  The ALT Lab’s Laura Gogia offers an overview and makes the case for connected learning (in chapter 3), based on various efforts from the Connected Learning Alliance and others.  These are useful analyses well worth reading but, for me, they can also have a “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to them.  Interesting and relevant topics, production-centered courses, peer supported efforts, and much more are all part of these formal descriptions.

In discussing the idea of connected learning with faculty, I find myself using much simpler language and more intuitive examples that stay focused on the central idea of “connection” and its potential benefits for learning.  My approach does not cover all the dimensions of connected learning as elaborated by education specialists but I think it suggests the essence of the potential power of the approach.  Basically, this is the story I tell:

Digital technology is more ubiquitous than ever and the opportunities to use these platforms for learning are expanding and becoming more accessible to us all.  Connected learning takes advantage of these digital technologies to foster and showcase various types of learning that make connections to people and resources.

  1. Connecting to Content.  This is perhaps the best-known type of connection.  The Internet is filled with material that is extremely useful for teaching and learning.  Blogs, videos, images, data visualizations, slideshares, and more can be found for any field of study.  Ideally, learners can make a contribution by creating new resources to share with others.  Why not make use of some of this available material and see if there are ways for students to create content that is useful to others?
  2. Connecting Students.  Social network platforms of various sorts enable students to communicate, share, and support each other.  One way is through blogging, as in our Rampages effort which gives students and faculty easy access to their own blogs, the content of which can be aggregated on course websites in various ways. This speaks to the potential power of online learning that goes far beyond the traditional model of pushing content + quizzes.  But this isn’t necessarily a replacement for a face-to-face experience; it could simply be an added dimension to learning.  Paradoxically, when online, students can often learn more about each other, interact more, and support each other more than they do in a face-to-face class. Why not help cultivate more student interaction as part of the learning process?
  3. Connecting to the Community.  As a field botany class that worked with ALT Lab illustrates, work in the classroom can be linked to natural resources in the community, resulting in an interesting online resource available for all to explore.  Why not do something similar with the social resources of our community; the people and organizations that work in social service agencies, schools, community non-profits, and social change organizations to help improve the quality of life here?  VCU’s Community Engagement programs, including its service-learning courses, offer students invaluable lessons by applying their coursework outside of the classroom, experiencing the complexity of real-world community efforts, and learning from being exposed to new forms of diversity.  But often this work and its products are not easily visible to other students, faculty, or the off-campus community.  Why not create digital platforms that help to showcase existing efforts, share information with stakeholders, learn from other projects, and enable new collaborative projects?  This might include maps showing the location of university efforts across the community, links to community organizations, data visualizations showcasing community engaged research results, discussion forums, and more.  Even taking into account the digital divide, these digital spaces potentially offer unique opportunities for information sharing, discussion, and collaboration.
  4. Connecting to the World.  Too often, local community engagement is thought of as being in tension with study abroad and international efforts.  But, really, both of these enterprises share the goal of enhancing student learning by connecting to diverse people and experiences beyond the classroom and campus.  They are both ripe for technology-enhanced connected learning.  Some students already blog about their education abroad experiences, for example.  But why couldn’t we use digital platforms to do much more?  Link students and faculty abroad with students at home?  Connect students abroad in multiple countries with each other?  Enable international online research and teaching collaborations with students in multiple countries?  The opportunities seem endless.
  5. Connecting Students Across Time.  Typically, a course starts, work is done, the course ends, and the work disappears.  Rinse and repeat.  There is usually no cumulative gain from all of the hard work that students and faculty put into a class.  But digital platforms enable course material to be archived so that new students in a course can learn from the work of students who came before.  Perhaps final projects can be models for the next cohort of students.  Or maybe a virtual annotated bibliography in a topic area can grow over time as a collective resource.  Or perhaps a course can feature something as simple as a final blog post offering advice to the next group of students taking the class.  Again, the possibilities are endless for how work done in one class might benefit those in the next iteration of the course, thus connecting across time.  Why not make course work meaningful and useful for the students (and others) who follow? (Jon Becker writes about this issue.)

For me, those are some of the most enticing possibilities afforded by teaming digital technology with innovative teaching ideas.  The point is not technology, of course; the point is using whatever methods we can to promote high-quality, engaging learning experiences for students.  Today, one important way to do that is through connected learning.