Explaining the Research of Connected Learning

The idea of “connected learning” encompasses a way of theorising and describing the kinds of learning that take place against the grain, as it were, in places where we might not usually expect to find it, in communities where traditionally it is not always recognised, and amongst individuals who frequently appear to be on parallel tracks to those customarily valued by the mainstream. It describes communities of practice that have sprung up in virtual and informal spaces inhabited by young people and around activities and interests often ignored by conventional schools.

However, whilst the idea of connected learning may be attractive as a banner under which disparate elements can group during this period of educational instability, for it to gain wider traction beyond its immediate ideological appeal, we need to be able to identify it and to research it. “Connected learning” is not an obvious simple phenomenon that we can “see” or capture. Because it is a fundamentally relational concept — that is, it comes into being and exists between people or in spaces or places — it is not obvious what it is or how we might observe it.

I have recently edited a special issue of the International Journal of Learning and Media (IJLM) dedicated to stimulating debate about this challenge. Its starting point was the question of what kind of research and what kinds of research methodologies should be used to explore connected learning. Partly, this is a question of expanding and developing research into the social uses of digital technologies — where the digital is both the object of research and the medium for enquiry — and, partly, it is a question of framing those new kinds of social activity which may comprise connected learning and about which, up to this point in time, we do not have agreed ways of describing.

Although methodology may sound an arcane and minority interest, the contributors to the issue tried to find a way of showing how important such questions are to the larger challenge of redefining and promoting other kinds of education in the current era. As a group, we argued that unless we can find ways to exploit fully the potentiality afforded by digital technology — both as an object and medium of and for research — some of the aspirations about change in learning will remain simply on the level of wishes. Equally, hunches and suppositions about the changing nature of learning itself will only remain half glimpsed or anecdotal unless we can find ways to bring such experiences more securely into the gaze of scientific research. We offered a series of key concepts including understanding, tracking and tracing learners; chronotopes; boundary crossing; intertextuality, and learning lives.

The contributors to the journal all work within a range of national European contexts, the UK, Italy, Norway, Finland and Denmark. These countries possess distinctive accounts of childhood and youth as well as a significant commitment to state education — albeit in varying degrees. The differences posed by the challenge of connected learning look different from these European perspectives to the U.S. and, as a group of authors, we subscribed to the belief that such diverse perspectives can only help strengthen the academic rigour of our collective enquiry.

We also brought together scholars from the fields of media (and communication and cultural studies) with researchers from education. It is the field of media studies that has developed the more sophisticated and imaginative ways of researching the social uses of technology even if we need the discipline of education to characterise its meanings and significance in terms of a wider contribution toward understanding the changing nature of learning. In particular, we explore the uses and development of various formulations of digital and/or media literacy and explore how people who are at the core of the activities under study (learners, audiences) are conceptualised: how do we imagine them and what abilities do we expect from them?

One key approach to research connected learning is to blend and mix existing methods of research. We argue that methods aimed at the study of learning and the social practices of young people have to take into account four key issues: the boundaries between online and offline experiences are blurring; that young people act knowingly or reflexively; and that their activities cannot be understood through the use of a single method, but require the use of multiple tools of investigation. We propose three ways of approaching these challenges: examining research designs aimed at following people along their transmedia paths; the relevance of participatory research; and discussing the implications of multi-method research.

The issue contains shorter studies with a specific attention to the integration of different methods: from face-to-face interviews, to “expanded ethnographies,” to participative methods up to the challenge to harmonize qualitative research and the Large Social Databases retrievable within social network software. We describe how these methods can add layers of understanding to young digital users’ practices that cross the boundaries of online and offline spaces and that include entertainment, sociality and learning activities.

Finally, we explored the particular set of ethical challenges that emerge from using digital media both as a research tool and as an object of enquiry. The challenge is how to maintain ways of researching that do not subject people to harm and indeed engage fully with the notion of informed consent. We asked the group to offer up ethical dilemmas from their research and which have arisen specifically as a nature of employing or investigating digital technologies as a way of extrapolating general ethical guidelines for connected learning research.

This issue of IJLM is offered as a way of marking the conceptual and practical challenges facing researchers who are trying to develop new methods to capture the changing nature of our understanding of learning. It does not pretend to be fully comprehensive or, at this stage, to be absolutely confident that we can grasp the complete range of methodological implications facing us. It does suggest that by working in an explicitly interdisciplinary and comparative fashion we can address some of these problems more imaginatively and with greater academic confidence.

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