Amplifying the Teacher Perspective on Connected Learning

This is my second post in a series exploring my journey to develop and teach a graduate “Multimodal Literacies” course for pre-service and in-service teachers based on the connected learning framework. (Here are my first and second posts in the series, as well as my original inspiration.)   

And, we’re off! In the blink of an eye, the first five weeks of my graduate course focusing on “New & Multimodal Literacies” with pre-service and in-service teachers have flown by. My six committed students and I have been engaged in an exploration of Connected Learning and its applications to the English language arts classroom that is making me reconsider and extend my thinking about this framework for teaching and learning in the digital age.

The image above was taken during the first class as my students documented the paths of their own personal new literacies journeys that had brought them to our course. We considered the role of digital media in our lives inside and outside of the classroom and generally found that we had much more robust relationships with new literacies as tools of creative expression and recreation than we did as professionals.

This realization became the perfect segue into discussion of the foundational Connected Learning report and my rationale for the design of our course.

I shared the DML post that I wrote to lay out my three-part conceptualization of our work together — analysis of new literacies theories, exploration of hybrid and multimodal texts and tools, and creation of Connected Learning experiences for young people. I uploaded the post onto Genius.com and gave students the opportunity to add their comments and questions so that we could adapt the course to our needs. It’s public — check it out and add your thoughts to our conversation!

Diving back into the Connected Learning report with my students brought up four ideas that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.

First, I was reminded of just how revolutionary it is to say out loud that learning should be shaped by what our students are interested in. While it may seem obvious to some of us that learning should start where students are and connect content to their lives, it is important to remember that this is still an important shift to be made in teacher education and practice.

Here’s how one of my students reflected about this idea:

“I think one of the key elements we miss for pedagogical opportunity in the classroom is the incorporation of children’s interests. Allowing students to bring their interests to the classroom and create an activity, lesson, or unit based on their passion within the guidelines of connected learning gives agency back to the learner, brilliantly employs the tools of their generation, and destroys the classic oppressive dynamic which exists between authoritarian figure and subject. This is Paolo Freire 101. I also agree that much real learning is occurring outside of class simply because students are not able to pursue or engage their interests within the classroom. The report seems to paint a picture of an antiquated teaching style we need to let go of in lieu of new and progressive methods better suited for the changing times.”

Second, I was reminded of the fact that Connected Learning is, as its name suggests, about pedagogy that forges connections for young people — but, that the pedagogy does not necessarily have to always include technology. As another of my students mused:

“In a world of constant change and evolution, we cannot always assume that effective learning must be based on new gadgets. While, in fact, digital multi-media tools are evolving and creating interconnections for students, it is noticeable that sometimes technology does not grow deep into everyone’s interests. Students should be able to have effective, integrated knowledge without depending entirely on an app or a device.”

How can we ensure that the focus stays on the pedagogy rather than the tool? And how do we ensure that as we merge formal and informal spheres of learning, we don’t rob either sphere of its power?

This led to the third idea I gained from a re-reading of the report with my students, which is the danger that out-of-school learning might lose some of its quality of “messing around” and “geeking out” if brought into the classroom. As one student put it: “The biggest question I would have concerning this idea would be whether or not some of the magic of personal interests might be diminished if brought into the classroom setting.” Another extended the idea: “I would have never written assignments for school like the fan fiction I wrote. I always drew a line between what I put out on the internet and what I turned in for assignments, even when I minored in creative writing.”

So, where does this leave us classroom educators? That is the fundamental question my students and I are exploring and will continue to address throughout our next 10 weeks together. One of my students who is a current classroom teacher captured the struggle of trying to think about pedagogy from the Connected Learning perspective when so many forces seem to be pushing back against him: “I know I’m not alone in this, but I often feel like the minority when it comes to forming digital lessons that relate to student needs and background. It often feels like a never-ending struggle with little to no gain each year.”

All of us in the Connected Learning community have a responsibility to help support dedicated teachers like my student. And, I will continue to document our journey to wrestle with the challenges and capitalize on the promise of this framework.

As my student reminds us: “Teachers must be pragmatists who decide what exactly this ‘broader vision of social change’ looks like in the classroom. How will connected learning change what they do in their classes on Monday morning.”