Young people today grow up fused to their digital worlds. And yes, being a screen zombie has its downsides. But instructors who harness students’ passion for social media can open their minds to a dynamic theory of education called “connected learning.”

At its core, connected learning capitalizes on a young person’s immersion in digital technology and online networks to encourage curiosity, deeper study, and self-education. With good guidance, learners tap into a vibrant network of teachers, like-minded peers, mentors, and role models. Before they know it they are absorbing crucial academic knowledge while engaged in enjoyable discussions, experiments, and accomplishments.

Take Patrick, a teen participant at YOUmedia’s ARTLAB+ program in Washington, D.C. Patrick was always passionate about art, but he saw his creative pursuits as a personal hobby unrelated to his future. His introduction to the digital tools at YOUmedia (a network of connected learning spaces with a presence in Pittsburgh), and his contact with digitally attuned educators who took his work seriously, gave him a fresh career outlook.

“I see myself wanting to create video games or probably doing advertising in marketing for big companies,” Patrick said in a YOUmedia report. “I’ve developed an interest in stop motion and music since I’ve come to ARTLAB+. I already had an interest in games. I just never really found a place to really get into it until I came to ARTLAB+.”

Adult mentors can play a critical role in helping youths connect their natural passions to an academic or professional path.

“So much of learning occurs in the context of relationships,” said psychologist Jean Rhodes on Connected Learning TV. “And when kids are pursuing their interests and going deeper into a topic, having a more advanced thinker [to] help them scaffold that interest can be key to whether they go deeper into it or move away from it.”

In Pittsburgh, our unique network of schools, museums, libraries, and universities offers an ideal staging ground for connected learning. In February 2015, experts here unveiled a model “learning pathway” to help local youngsters advance their interests in media making. Students might begin their journey in a stop-motion animation class at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, then move on to a digital-photo workshop at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. From there, they could head to WYEP’s audio workshop.

It is easy to imagine that pathway for, say, youngsters who have been into robots since childhood, or spend afternoons playing video games, or love to read and be heard.

In a Q&A with Remake Learning in 2014, cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito, one of the originators of the connected learning theory, put it this way: “When you talk to people who are doing things they love in their lives, they can generally point back to a learning experience where other people validated the thing they love and gave them opportunities to be recognized.”

The Key Principles of Connected Learning

  • Interest Powered: Builds and expands on youths’ own interests
  • Peer Supported: Encouraged by peers who also provide help and feedback
  • Academically Oriented: Recognized by teachers and supportive of success in school
  • Production Centered: Involving making, production, or performance for an external audience
  • Shared Purpose: Adults participate alongside youth in a common endeavor in which youth have a say in the goals and structure of the activity
  • Openly Networked: The infrastructure, focused on digital media, that creates easy access to tools and expert guidance needed to pursue interests