From Theory to Design: Exploring the Power & Potential of ‘Connected Learning,’ Part Two

One of the more compelling aspects of connected learning is the opportunity for students to create personalized learning pathways that establish important links across the different nodes in their learning ecology. I had a chance to witness the power and potential of connected learning during a three-week summer digital media and design camp that we conducted with students at Texas City High School (TCHS).

Like so many schools populated by students from low-income households, TCHS struggles with the stigma that its students are low-performing and “at-risk.” And yet, outsiders might be surprised to see the range of technologies—iMac computers, game authoring software, FinalCut Pro, digital cameras, and audio recording equipment—available to students in a Technology Applications class that our team worked with during the year.

The Tech Apps class is a classic case of what Jane Margolis calls “technology rich, but curriculum poor.” This is a reference to the fact that even when students in low-income schools have access to technology hardware, software, and courses, they may not have access to fully developed curricula that can leverage those resources in ways that adequately support their ability to engage the higher-order thinking and doing skills that prepare them for the classrooms, workspaces, and challenges of tomorrow. The teacher who we worked with was hard working and caring but lacked access to the professional development resources that support rigorous curriculum planning.

After spending a year in the school, we took on a unique challenge: creating a connected learning space at TCHS.

Critical Design, Critical Dispositions

The design challenge for our students was to create an iBook that tells a research-driven, community engaging, and interactive story about the childhood obesity epidemic. Students would learn by doing things such as research and data collection, writing and analysis, and producing a variety of digital media artifacts—interactive maps, podcasts, video, photo galleries, graphic art—that conveyed their ideas, arguments, and vision for a healthier community. Digital media production in this context went beyond simply making things. We wanted to create a context in which designing and making reflected a disposition that was at once creative and critical of the challenges their community faces. This approach to production embodies a shift in our thinking about equity in the digital world. It is no longer enough to provide students access to computers.

Young people in edge communities will face many challenges in their lifetime. Developing the competencies to use digital media technologies to collect and analyze information, document evidence, persuade, and tell stories will be invaluable in an information dominant world. Consequently, educators must establish access to learning opportunities that emphasize critical engagement, high cognitive demand, and opportunities to apply lessons learned and skills attained in creative and novel situations. I call this ‘critical design literacy.

Supporting Connected and Interest-driven Learning

Consistent with theories of interest-driven learning, many of our young designers came to the project with interests and identities that they had been cultivating. Take Alberto, for example. He was a music enthusiast. Alberto had spent some time as part of a band and was a fan of music videos. Not surprisingly, Alberto figured out a way to translate his passion for music into a piece for the project. He wrote the script to a music video, recruited friends as actors, used a music software program to compose some original beats, and wrote lyrics to lay over his tracks.

During the three weeks, Alberto sought out ways to personalize his learning. He stayed late in the afternoons to work on projects and checked out equipment—laptops, audio, digital cameras—so that he could work at home. Like other students, Alberto documented his food environment through pictures, video, and interviews. He also pursued independent research that explored the differences between simple and complex sugars. Alberto was making vibrant connections across the nodes in his learning ecology—peer, summer camp, home, online, and popular culture—that our instructors never could have envisioned.

Alberto’s learning ingenuity animates one of the major tenets of connected learning: a vision that supports the ability of students to build learning pathways that are authentic, interest-powered, and academically engaging. Once students begin to see learning as something that connects to the people, places, and things that they care about, the possibilities for what can happen from a learning perspective are endless.

Over the course of the entire previous semester, we observed students in technology classes at TCHS struggle to produce a single piece of work. In a three-week span, Alberto produced a short informational video that explained some of the myths and clinical aspects of childhood obesity; a music video that creatively integrated some of the facts, trends and lifestyle implications of childhood obesity; an interactive graphic that generated information about the sugar content in foods commonly found in American homes; and a brief informational piece explaining the role of simple and complex sugars.  In addition to the quantity of products that Alberto created, we were impressed with the quality of the work. It was research driven, informative, creative, and engaged with his community.

Connecting Learning to the Real World & the Real World to Learning

We were not the only ones that were impressed with Alberto’s work. He has been invited to talk about his involvement in the project in several venues including a local television news program, surrounding schools, and two Austin area conferences on technology and education.  After his team presented the iBook to a local area hospital, a doctor from the Dell Children’s Hospital invited Alberto to submit work for a city-wide campaign called the “No Soda Challenge.” These are all powerful endorsements of the work that Alberto did—the kind of credit, recognition and respect that can make a significant difference in the path that a young person takes in life.

Alberto’s engagement embodies the true vision of connected learning: the ability to help students take a controlling interest in their learning by expanding the opportunities to pursue their passions in ways that are personally reaffirming, community enriching, and academically empowering.

Banner image credit: Not Another History Teacher: