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March 1, 2012 |

A few years ago, I conducted a study with a large team of researchers on how young people were learning through electronic games, social media, and digital media production. We saw many reasons to be hopeful as to how the online world could support learning that is social, participatory, and driven by the personal needs and interests of the learner. We were inspired by young people who were taking to the online world to learn complex technical skills, create and share sophisticated media works, engage in social causes, and pursue specialized knowledge. At same time, we found reasons for concern. While highly activated and motivated youth were mining the learning riches of the Internet, these young people were a decided minority, and tended to be those who were already technologically and educationally privileged. Were we in fact seeing a new kind of equity gap, an emerging digital learning elite? Why weren’t the majority of young people taking advantage of the opportunities that new media offered for learning?

This concern has led me on a journey over the past three years, in trying to understand not only how new media can support highly engaged, geeked out, and self-directed forms of learning, but also how it can make this kind of learning available to all young people. Together with a committed group of colleagues and partners that are part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, I’ve been engaged in an effort to address this challenge, seeking to enlist a diverse constituency of educators, parents, technology makers, and young people in a new vision of learning in the digital age.

Today we are proud to announce a new research network, community site, and a set of learning and design principles that seeks to promote dialog and experimentation around a model we are calling “connected learning.” In a nutshell, connected learning is learning that is socially connected, interest-driven, and oriented towards educational and economic opportunity. Connected learning is when you’re pursuing knowledge and expertise around something you care deeply about, and you’re supported by friends and institutions who share and recognize this common passion or purpose.

The Essence of Connected Learning from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

This path towards connected learning is both personal and professional for me. I grew up with a connected learner, my brother, who tended to have a troubled relationship to formal education but was always geeking out on a hobby with the support of caring adult mentors. Although he never graduated from college, he has gone on to be a successful Internet entrepreneur and the director of the MIT Media Lab. I’ve seen connected learning when my son’s teacher invites him to do a school assignment about his favorite electronic game that he plays with his closest friends and expert mentors, or when my daughter is able to direct her passion for sewing into making costumes for her friends in a school dance performance. And I’ve experienced it when I’ve been able to connect the social causes I care about to my career ambitions. These kinds of experiences shouldn’t be the province of the 1% of connected learners or learning moments, any more than economic wealth should be concentrated in the hands of the few.

We don’t need to think of education as pushing scarce and static knowledge from center to periphery and of educational opportunity as being able to do better on standardized tests. We have the opportunity to tap into a much more dynamic, distributed, participatory, networked knowledge universe to capture the attention of diverse learners.

We believe we can harness the power of social media, online knowledge, and digital production tools to make this kind of learning accessible and ubiquitous. The power of digital networks is in the ability to connect learners and teachers across space and institutional boundaries, to build linkages between school, home and community, and to make information and learning resources highly accessible and personalized. Our challenge is in guiding more young people to take advantage of these opportunities. We need an expansive and diverse network of people and institutions to develop, improve, refine, and take up a vision of 21st Century learning, and our hope is to support this process of network building through our connected learning approach and principles.