A new report by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Connected Learning lays the groundwork for tapping the potential of digital media to inspire more engaged learning and to help bridge the growing educational divide.

Far too many kids are not finding their passion in the classroom, and as a result they disconnect from school—at a moment in our nation’s history when education has seldom mattered more.

The authors of the report, “Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design,” (pdf) led by University of California, Irvine, cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito, argue that education is “struggling to provide equal pathways to opportunities for all youth” and that we need a new response.

They argue that what we need is a way to connect the many learning opportunities in and outside of the classroom into a more cohesive whole, with more formalized guidance. And the “networked” online world can play a central role.

We need “effective matchmaking,” Ito explains in a recent video. “It’s not so much about finding the information anymore… but about bringing people together who want to learn together.”

This “connecting,” the authors of the report suggest, is about fundamentally reconfiguring what we think of as the problem and goal of education. Too often, education begins from the wrong question. We ask, what outcomes do we want our kids to achieve? And then we design the classroom to fit those outcomes. We forget that the learners at the center might be more engaged if they were able to begin the exploration with their own questions.

So what does that look like?

Shani Edmonds was a typical teen in many respects. Born and raised in Chicago, she coasted through school, not really stretching her considerable talent. But then she was introduced to the Digital Youth Network and later YOUmedia at Chicago’s Harold Washington Public Library. Skeptical, she agreed to give the library a try, fully expecting to be in and out of there. But then she saw the video cameras, laptops, and recording equipment. She picked up a camera and was hooked.

Mentors encouraged her to see literature in a different light, and she quickly began to “write” her book reviews with a video camera. One project, for her advanced placement literature class, mashed up Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” with music by pop artist Lauryn Hill.

“Before YOUmedia,” she told me back in 2010, “you wouldn’t catch me at a library. But now, YOUmedia has given people an opportunity to just WANT to come here.”

She would spend the rest of her high school years stopping in at YOUmedia as often as she could. The center quickly grew to be a safe and vibrant digital space for teens that blends digital with traditional media to help teens become media creators, not just consumers. She eventually became a mentor herself and in 2011 left for college with plans to major in film.

Although attending college was never a question, she says, before her experiences at YOUMedia “I didn’t have specific plans. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my future. I didn’t have a passion for something.”

The elements of success like Shani’s turn on two things important to kids: their peers and their social life. Start there, the theory goes, and kids will get interested. Then add some guidance from mentors, educators, and other adults. And importantly, fold what the kids have discovered outside the classroom back into the classroom, into their civic life, and eventually into the workforce.

The authors of the report say that connected learning is not about any particular platform or technology, but rather about how to create a community that fosters optimal learning experiences for all of its children.

Pittsburgh is in many ways leading the nation in piloting the connected learning principles on a regional scale. With more than 100 organizations, from museums and libraries to “maker spaces” and robotics labs, the Pittsburgh region offers ample opportunities for kids to develop a passion for learning.

And true to connected learning, they start from students’ interests. For example, the Carnegie Science Center is building a supportive environment for an emerging peer culture of geeked-out girls through programs like Can*TEEN, a career exploration program that integrates pop culture, science, and technology to give girls a preview of the exciting STEM Careers that lay ahead of them.  Or one of my favorites, harking back to my “Harriet the Spy” days, is Click! Spy School, a quest-based learning game that challenges girls to use scientific knowledge and reasoning to solve mysteries.

And with leadership from folks at the University of Pittsburgh’s Activation Lab, our Network members – educators and researchers from schools, libraries, and museums – are working together to create a regional infrastructure of linked experiences that can benefit all of the area’s children.

As the authors of the Connected Learning report note, “diverse youth, educators, parents, and technology makers coming together around a shared vision of learning can achieve ‘network effects,’ where more value is created when the number and diversity of participants are increased.” We’re already seeing that happening here in Pittsburgh.