Connected Learning is a student-driven, production-centered, openly networked framework. The theory and practice of Connected Learning is based on more than a decade of research and development, largely funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and real-world application by dozens of organizations. Much of the activities that use Connected Learning take place out of school, but the nature of the framework makes it easily transferable between in-school and out-of-school environments.

Overall Goal

Students learn best when they are pursuing their own interests, so the Connected Learning framework builds environments where students can do just that. These spaces allow students to  use technology as a means of expression as well as a tool for learning. Once there is a suitable environment, students can connect with peers and engage in academically oriented activities through their interests. Through this, they develop the essential skills that help them solve problems and collaborate with others.

Theoretical basis

Connected Learning builds on the idea of learning ecologies. Ecologies are interdependent by nature, and bring together opportunities for students to learn, and people to help them make sense of their learning. This kind of learning is particularly well-suited for the digital era, as today’s students see technology as a system that runs through everything in their lives.

Much of the research that led to Connected Learning reflects the idea that young people learn differently today than they did in the past. The places in which young people now learn are no longer exclusively within the walls of schools, or within walls at all. Instead, technology allows them to learn through their connections and networks of knowledge. These ideas form the backbone of a Connected Learning environment.

The Connected Learning framework is based on a desire to make learning more equitable and accessible. It was designed with the goal of creating easily accessible new opportunities for all students, including students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The knowledge that a student’s environment contributes heavily to his or her success also weighs in the framework, which leads to the connectivity between students, peers, and mentors within communities that can provide the necessary guidance.

Graphic by Connected Learning Alliance

At its core, any Connected Learning environment is peer-supported, fueled by student interests, and academically oriented. It is production-centered, often relying on technology for creation. Participants have a shared purpose and open networks connect students and related groups, whether online or in-person.

There are three design principles

  • Shared Purpose: Social media and the Internet provide a space for students, their peers, and caring adults to come together and work on the same projects and problems.
  • Production-Centered: Learning comes from the act of creating, remixing, and adapting to the work that others do within the same environment.
  • Openly Networked: Environments link the tools for learning with institutions and groups of all types.

and three learning principles that help form a Connected Learning environment.

  • Peer-Supported: All students participate, and learning comes from the interactions and feedback between peers as they produce something.
  • Academically-Oriented: The culture of the environment and the interests of the students are aligned with an area of academic knowledge.
  • Interest-Powered: Students work on projects and inquiries aligned with their passions. This helps them engage in their learning experience and personalize it.

Everyone can participate in these environments, students learn by doing, and there is a constant challenge. Learning in this type of environment is interconnected between students, their work, mentors, and other groups with whom they can share.

Competency emphasis

Connected Learning does not have a list of competencies for individual students to master, largely because it focuses on giving students an opportunity to direct their own creativity or exploration of a topic. However, the success of a Connected Learning environment is measured based on certain principles and core ideas.

Instructional approach

A Connected Learning approach relies on the synthesis of design principles and new media in an environment that encourages children to take part in a production-centered, academically-oriented activity. As long as these ideas are emphasized, a Connected Learning environment can be implemented in any way possible. Quest2Learn Public Schools, YOUmedia at the Harold Washington Library, and The Harry Potter Alliance show the framework as implemented in a classroom, in a single space, and across a web-based network.

Connected Learning leverages peer groups in a way that is uncommon in other frameworks. The support of peer networks for students becomes a key component of a learning environment, and students learn many of the interpersonal skills they need by exchanging feedback with peers and mentors.

Method of assessment

Because Connected Learning uses a production-centered approach, the assessment lies in the creation of something, whether it’s physical or a piece of media.

The extent to which a program uses a Connected Learning approach can be determined based on the presence of the design and learning principles described above. The Connected Learning Alliance leaves it up to the facilitator to decide if their environment fits the framework.

Example: The Labs @ CLP

The Labs has multiple locations including East Liberty.

For teens at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, interests are the key to teamwork and learning experiences. The Labs at CLP have created a space that gives teens the opportunity to dive deeper into audio and video production, art, making, and much more by using Connected Learning principles. Corey Wittig, who runs The Labs’ programs, describes Connected Learning as a way to create connections between caring mentors and a space where youth have access to explore their own interests. In the case of The Labs, the library acts as this space. “The library is for onboarding,” Corey says, because teens will often go there after school. They begin by providing teens with entertainment, and then give them the opportunity to explore different aspects of technology, entertainment production, project-based learning, and making principles. All of the projects are student-driven, and range from a highly successful neighborhood Halloween haunted house to a racial justice documentary. Thanks to Connected Learning, Pittsburgh-area teens were able to engage fully projects like these that, though outside of a traditional curriculum, provided a rich learning experiences in terms of building mindsets, working together, and mastering technology.

External resources

The Connected Learning Alliance

Connected Learning Principles