Connected learning reality check from the UK & US

By Anne Collier

By the sound of it, there are significant barriers to connected learning in UK schools too – maybe bigger ones. I’m referring to hurdles pointed out by Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics in a presentation she gave for the Connected Learning Research Network about “The Class,” her ethnographic study of the connected lives of British middle-schoolers. For the past year, Sonia and colleagues have followed 13- and 14-year-old students in an ethnically and socio-economically diverse London school through their online and offline experiences at home, school, extracurricular activities, and in “peer space.” It’s a little like a smaller-scale UK version of the Digital Youth Project here in the US, where, for three years, more than two dozen researchers followed and talked with US kids in all those parts of their lives (here‘s the resulting 2009 book), but possibly more free-flowing through students’ days. “We tried to follow them wherever they go,” Sonia said, mentioning football practice, school lunchrooms, music lessons, Facebook, quiet times at home, time with pets, and of course classes.

Findings from “The Class”

The goal was to test out this idea of connected learning – the ideal of “kids feeling flexible and free to move their interests and values across those spaces in creative and constructive ways” – see if it’s happening in “an ordinary British school.” Sonia added that “the notion that we live in a networked society should make connected learning all the more possible,” but it hasn’t. “We saw a lot of learning and a lot of digital use, but they haven’t come together a lot,” she said in the video presentation.

Two of the barriers she mentioned will sound familiar to American students and schools: 1) “endless technical problems – problems of access and adoption (e.g., hardware doesn’t work, wi-fi too slow, teachers don’t have time to learn how the technology works) and 2) everybody they talked with – parents, teachers, “and especially students” – has no idea of the sophistication and creativity Connected Learning researchers are talking about or of “the possibilities that are out there.” It sounded as if she was referring to projects like Forsyth County (Ga.) School District’s Bring Your Own Technology program; California 4th-grade teacher Joan Young‘s use of the Toontastic storytelling app for social-emotional learning; and, in New Jersey, the Elisabeth Morrow school’s classes in Minecraft (it’s happening all over the country; awareness of all that connected learning does for students just has to outweigh inertia and fear of change, lawsuits and social media).

Then Sonia cited two more serious barriers:

1. “School lockdown”: “We think social networks and mobiles can enable learning, but cellphones aren’t allowed in our schools, FB isn’t allowed in school. What teachers really want to talk about is cyberbullying, sexting, the possibility of kids passing around illegal [sexting] images, and how often police have to be brought into school to deal with the risks associcated with these technologies.” It’s virtually all negative. Just in the face of that, she asked, “How are we going to allow connected learning?”
2. Resistance to de-silo-ing: “There are real embedded reasons why children, but also parents and teachers actually don’t want these spaces completely connected up – why they want them separate,” Sonia said. “Kids especially want their private spaces without emails from teachers, without homework getting muddled up with personal self-expression,” and parents in their digital spaces even more. Parents are worried about any increase in their responsibilities that connecting up home and school might bring.

She kept hearing that “it’s a challenge to be constantly in touch across these spaces,” Sonia said, referring to home, school, and social spaces, “so what we’ve been hearing about is why there’s a value in not keeping those spaces separate.” That’s the barrier that hasn’t surfaced explicitly over here, except around the subject of Facebook in school. But it seems to be less of an issue now, partly because there are many educational alternatives to Facebook (such as Edmodo or Edublogs), some schools have created their own social media tools (see this, for example), and some teachers have found creative, safe ways to incorporate Facebook (see this).

A question about “the fear narrative”

Chris Lawrence, senior director of the Mozilla Webmaker Mentor Community, asked Sonia how much of the resistance to tech in school was “reality-based” and how much of it was “the fear-based narrative” – years of scary messaging about online risk. Sonia said that certainly only a small percentage of students are affected by cyberbullying, sexting, grooming, etc., but that, for that small percentage, the problem is so serious that “teachers say they have to be wary. Risks are sufficiently present for them to be attentive…. It’s about how the school defends itself to its board of governors or parents. It’s an extremely risk-averse culture in which everybody is afraid of complaints or litigation so that it’s much easier just to say ‘turn it off’.”

What our kids need for 21st-century life & work

The Connected Learning Research Network (of which Sonia is a member) has found barriers too – “broken pathways from education to opportunity” (school itself no longer being a sure path to employment), “a growing learning divide” (ethnic/racial/socio-economic achievement gap), and “a commercialized and fragmented media ecology (an increasingly commercialized media environment) – and reports that connected learning addresses these by “diversifying entry points and pathways to opportunity” and supporting both individual and collective work and achievement.

This approach to both educational reform at the national level and learning at the school level is spelled out in the research network’s 5-page summary. What I’d like to zoom you in on right here is the set of “skills, dispositions and literacies” they believe children need for life and work in a rapidly changing networked world. These are what parents and schools want to help foster in their kids: “systems thinking, information literacy, creativity, adaptability, conscientiousness, persistence, global awareness and self-regulation as well as the cultivation of interests, building of social capital, and a positive orientation to academic subjects.”

Related links

*A hero’s journey: From Azeroth to Tyria (Guild Wars 2),” by North Carolina teacher Lucas Gillispie (in his program, students are heroes and teachers lorekeepers)
* Guest series by a teacher: “Mining Minecraft
*Educon 2.5 and helping kids learn in a landscape with no maps
*Using social media to grow student engagement
*Making Digital Learning Day meaningful
* Blog of Sonia Livingstone’s co-researcher on The Class, Julian Sefton-Green

Leave a comment