Connected Learning and 21st Century English Teacher Education

Much of the current rhetoric about technology and education relates to devices and software programs — what types schools should purchase, how much money districts should spend on them, how they should be integrated into classroom learning, and what return on investment they should produce. The implicit message communicated by this rhetoric is that technology transforms education through the medium of specific tools — that these tools are what structure and produce powerful teaching and learning. Give teachers and students laptops and Google Classroom accounts and magic will ensue.

Over the past several years, a group of learning scientists — led by Mimi Ito at the University of California, Irvine — has pushed back against this perspective, arguing that technology has the potential to transform education not because of the affordances of any particular tool but because it creates a new ecology of learning that fosters collaboration, communication, and creativity. In a landmark 2013 report, this group detailed an educational approach, called connected learning, that aims to leverage this ecology to advance academic achievement, equity, and civic engagement.

Connected learning encourages us to consider how technological advancements allow us to interact in new ways and then develop learning opportunities that take advantage of these new forms of interaction. In this model, learning is of primary importance — not the tools. According to the connected learning framework, technology supports the development of open networks through which individuals who share interests can achieve a common purpose by creating together. As such, it suggests that teaching and learning should be designed to support these competencies. While this view of teaching and learning predates the digital revolution of the 21st century, connected learning offers a vocabulary and approach for harnessing technology in meaningful and relevant ways.

Get the latest updates in Connected Learning, technology, and youth culture.

Scholars and practitioners have been hard at work in the years since the report was released to illuminate what connected learning looks like in practice with young people in both formal and informal learning contexts; indeed, the annotated bibliography in this issue offers an exhaustive inventory of research to date. As an ELA teacher educator, I pored over this research and became more and more excited about how connected learning could benefit young people.

But, I also found a bit of a gap. While these pieces often went into great detail about how young people responded to the innovative learning opportunities designed by the educators in their lives, they did not usually delve deeply into how these educators developed the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that helped them design these opportunities in the first place. Instead of magical devices, I seemed to be encountering magical teachers who had somehow internalized this orientation toward learning and knew exactly how to embody it.

That is when I realized that we need a model of connected teaching to complement the model of connected learning. I suggested the core tenets of such a model in a recent DML blog post that I developed by examining the work of teachers affiliated with the National Writing Project, who were committed to connected learning. But, I also wanted to collect and disseminate more burgeoning scholarship about the ways that teachers were being introduced to and experiencing connected learning themselves — particularly within the discipline of English Language Arts, which is dedicated to the exploration of literacy in all of its modalities. Thus, this special issue of the CITE (Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education) Journal was born to share the innovative strategies that teacher educators are using to prepare teachers to become connected educators.

Each of the articles in this issue engages with the connected learning perspective of technology and education by focusing on an expansive ecology of learning and positioning tools as valuable insofar as they contribute to that ecology. For instance, Bettina Hsieh’s piece focuses on Twitter but goes beyond considering it as simply a tool that teachers can use in the classroom with students, instead exploring how the platform can serve as an organic source of resources and community among ELA educators.

Two of the articles explore how a connected learning approach to technology can contribute to the transformation of the traditional field experience component of pre-service teacher education programs. Clarice Moran as well as Julie Rust and Devon Cantwell analyze how digital media sites can serve as third spaces in which both educators and young people disrupt hierarchical teacher-student relationships and renegotiate their roles as Freirian co-teachers and co-learners by collaborating on multimodal literacy projects.

Kira Baker-Doyle shares the personal journey of a literacy teacher educator learning to code in order to detail the intersections of ELA education and computer programming and suggest how a combined analysis of the two can foster new understandings of critical literacy and civic engagement. Stephanie West-Puckett, Anna Smith, Christina Cantrill, and Mia Zamora analyze how a massive online open course (MOOC) dedicated to encouraging teachers to learn about and experiment with connected learning raises questions about the sufficiency of open networks as a support for participatory learning. They push us to think beyond the concept of “open” and consider what it means to truly design for connection.

Finally, Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Rebecca Woodard, Anna Smith, Lindy Johnson, Nathan Phillips, and Katalin Wargo help us understand where the field of connected learning started, where it is now, and where it will continue to go through a living and interactive annotated bibliography that is open to editing by you, the reader. They organize the wealth of information into themes relevant to ELA teacher educators and provide an intuitive and creative way to search and contribute to the ongoing conversation about connected learning and teaching.

This issue seeks to spark further dialogue about what the purposes of teaching and learning are in a digitally interconnected society and how to ensure that we are harnessing the affordances of technology for the purposes of equity, connection, and justice instead of allowing ourselves to be harnessed by shiny devices that promise innovation but leave us mired in the pedagogical status quo.

The special issue is available online. And, check out the first of our teaser videos that we are doing with each of the authors.

View all the trailers here.

Banner image: UCI Assistant Professor of Education Constance Iloh teaches doctoral students. Photo by Steve Zylius/UCI