Connected Learning and Open Networked Learning – a comparison

My research focuses on the personal learning networks of teachers, and how they experience professional learning through these networks. One of the defining aspects of the PLN is that it is driven strategically by the individual; the network creates an informal learning opportunity that is shaped around the thoughts, feelings and actions of the teacher, as they seek to create and remix knowledge through their connections with people and resources/information.

Participating in the Open Networked Learning course (ONL162) is a slightly different, possibly more formal learning opportunity to the type of learning that occurs in a PLN. In this course, social learning is experienced by each individual, as they collaborate in a small PBL group, however the direction is created through the combination of the course structure and the needs and interests of the group, not the individual  (there is  the option to participate in the course as an individual, but to receive a certificate, participants must interact within a PBL group).

Despite this difference, I have been thinking about how the ONL course aligns with the concept of connected learning, and particularly the connected learning framework, that has been created by Mimi Ito and her colleagues at Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

What is Connected Learning?

Through my extensive reading and consideration of research around connected learning, I have drawn the following conclusions:

Through the lens of connected learning…
Knowledge is actively co-constructed in a learner centred environment.
Learning is a social phenomenon which occurs across multiple contexts, driven by learners’ interests.
The learner develops a learning environment which supports connections, drawing together the contexts of their personal interests, peers and personal learning goals.
The role of social software (social media) is to enable the creation of spaces where interaction, support, content creation and sharing might occur.

(Based on the work of Ito et al., 2013)

Connected learning has been described as an “analytical frame…which exists as a way of reconceptualizing learning in the 21st century” (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2012, p. 10). Although currently the connected learning framework has largely been applied to the experiences of adolescents and young people, in my own research I am seeking to extend the model, to test whether it can also be applied in adult learning.

For those unfamiliar with the connected learning framework, the key features are below:

Adapted from and based upon the Connected Learning Framework. Click to access the full report.

About ONL

Open networked learning is an online course that is offered by Karolinska Institutet, Lund University, Linnaeus University (Sweden) and Independent Institute of Education (IIE) (South Africa) jointly, with the goal of enhancing the pedagogical knowledge of  teachers, educational developers, learning technologists and course designers in Higher Education, particularly in the area of online learning.

The pedagogical design of ONL is based upon the principles of networked learning and problem based learning.

By building on the frameworks of PBL and Networked learning, we want to further explore how these frameworks can be utilized to create open, collaborative and online learning environments. An intention in designing the course is to develop a community of practice that can enhance understanding of what personal learning networks and environments can mean and how these can be built. The course is built on the use of freely available social media tools that does not require extensive technical skills to be mastered and implemented.

Having participated in the course twice, firstly as a student and secondly as a co-facilitator of a PBL group, I have been able to think about how this also might reflect the connected learning framework, and whether this additional way of viewing the course may allow fresh innovations. Below, I discuss how the course exists in light of the CL framework.

The context of connected learning

The connected learning framework draws together three contexts which may operate within the learning experience of the young person. These are learning that is peer supported, interest powered and academically oriented. Connected learning may occur when the “motivations, content and abilities” from these spheres are integrated, creating an environment where the learner may experience meaningful and sustained learning (Ito et al., 2013, p. 63). By providing multiple points of entry and giving equal recognition to the learning which occurs in each of the spheres, opportunities for learning are maximised.

Connected Learning Open Networked Learning
Peer Support Social belonging and interaction with peers creates a highly engaging learning context for young people (Ito et al., 2013). In a context of peer support, there is potential to contribute, provide feedback and share learning with others (Brown, Czerniewicz, & Noakes, 2016; Ito et al., 2013). The social construction of knowledge is recognised within this context; as young people informally learn together.


 If participants choose to become part of one of the Problem based learning groups, they have the opportunity to experience a ‘team’ atmosphere. Although the participants are not likely to know each other initially, working together as a small group within the larger cohort enables greater opportunities to contribute, provide and receive feedback and to discuss and debate learning with others. Each PBL group is tasked with responding to the topic scenario, which is then shared with the larger group. Having opportunities to interact within the smaller group of 6-8 may encourage greater ‘risk taking’ with learning, as it is seen as less threatening than sharing with a larger cohort of about 100 participants.
Interest Powered The connected learning framework investigates how personal interests and hobbies might drive passion and engagement in learning. The underpinning research finds that higher order learning outcomes are achieved when learning is connected to subjects that are personally relevant and interesting (Ito et al., 2013). Learners come from many different backgrounds, yet all are tertiary educators with a shared interest in developing their knowledge and understanding of online, open and/or networked pedagogy. Thus there is a personal relevance for each learner, as this directly relates to an aspect of their current position, or to their own personal area of interest. During the course some participants find that they cannot balance the coursework with other demands on their time, however the greater personal or professional interest, the more likely the participant seems to be to ‘find’ the time and to prioritise participation (personal observation only).
Academically oriented In the connected learning framework, opportunities for peer supported and interest driven learning are linked to “future-directed” goals, most usually shaped through achievement in school (Ito et al., 2013, p. 65). While in some cases the academic sphere is separate to other aspects of a young person’s life, connected learning enables an academic orientation to be integrated with other potentially engaging contexts. It creates another layer of opportunity for young people to access learning, as they experience learning that links the environments of home, school, peer group and personal interests (Ito et al., 2013). Should participants choose, they can register to receive an official recognition of the completion of this course. This requires active participation in a PBL group, publication of a minimum number of reflective blog posts and the maintenance of an activity tracker. For some participants enrolled in the co-ordinating universities, this course may also be officially recognised as part of their studies/research/professional learning. The opportunity to participate in a recognised course which is accessible online allows learning to occur at different times and places as best suit the learner and the group, and also creates an atmosphere where participants are keen to support the learning of each other.

Core properties of connected learning

In the connected learning framework, the core properties include learning which is production centred, has a shared purpose and is openly networked. These properties may be more easily realised when the contexts of peer support, personal interests and academic orientation are integrated. Active production of media, knowledge and cultural content may occur more naturally and authentically when students are engaged in purposeful, interesting and socially embedded experiences (Ito et al., 2013).

Connected Learning Open Networked Learning
Production centred Production centred learning, which involves the use of social software and digital technologies, is associated with the concept of the “prosumer”. This term was coined by Toffler (1980) to describe one who is both a consumer and producer. The process of learning may potentially be one of prosumption, as learners not only consume knowledge but interact with it, becoming the “filter, mediator and the weaver” of aggregated knowledge, drawn together through networks (Siemens, 2006, p. 93). Each topic is focused around a scenario, which participants are challenged to respond to using the problem based learning approach. Problem based learning  requires an active, collaborative approach to learning, where participants construct new understandings by providing suggestions as to how to resolve an open-ended problem. This is very production centred, as at the end of each topic, groups are asked to share a product which encapsulates their response to the scenario, using their choice of free and open digital tools. I believe that the course could become even more production centred, if students were asked to curate resources that assisted them in their learning, and to share these with the larger group, using a tool such as Diigo. This would require participants to not just consume the readings given to them by the course organisers, but to seek and engage with additional information and to reflect on this as part of the curation process. The production of a curated collection of resources could then be handed to the next iteration of the course to further build upon.
Shared purpose The connected learning framework  is built upon the concept of networked learning, which emphasises the shared connections made between learners, their peers and information and resources (Jones & de Laat, 2016).  Factors such as geographical location or time zone have less impact when connecting online, and participants within connected learning environments may be drawn together through shared purpose rather than by physical or temporal limitations. The intercultural and intergenerational sharing possible through connected learning may enhance learning opportunities.


Participants in ONL are definitely drawn together by the shared purpose of learning about online and open pedagogies, and are not limited by physical boundaries. In my most recent experience, there were some temporal limitations (interaction with tweet chats and webinars was sometimes difficult as my time zone was significantly different to the majority of participants), however this was sometimes overcome by providing access to recordings, and in many cases asynchronous communication was possible. Intercultural sharing was evident, particularly within my group which had participants from Sweden, Poland, South Africa, Pakistan and Australia, and was demonstrated in one of the learning artefacts created by the group: this website, sharing information on Open Education around the world.
Openly networked Open networks as described within the connected learning framework are largely concerned with enabling access to online platforms across a range of contexts (Hunt, 2014). Open networks support sharing, transparency and access. A range of free, publicly accessible digital tools create and enable the open networks described in the connected learning framework. These tools provide connections across contexts, provide multiple points of access and interaction, enable the learner to demonstrate and share their learning and give opportunities to use and create openly licenced resources, all of which are suggested as “ways of leveraging open networks” in the connected learning framework (Ito et al., 2013, p. 77).


All tools within the ONL course are openly networked. They are free and openly accessible digital tools which are relatively easy to learn how to use. Google Plus provides the central space for all community interaction, and each small group also has their own G+ space. The course itself is run from a free WordPress site.

Interaction between sites is also encouraged – blog rolls are available on the G+ site and the ONL WordPress site, resources are shared across sites and different video conferencing tools (including Zoom.Us, Skype and Google Hangouts) are used and recordings shared across platforms. Although participants in each small group have access to each other’s email address, communication is commonly publicly shared across community platforms.

Design principles of connected learning

The connected learning framework presents four integrated design principles, which support the contexts and properties of connected learning, and which direct the creation of connected learning environments. These principles are that everyone can participate, learning happens by doing, challenge is constant and everything is interconnected (Ito et al., 2013, p. 78). Together, the four design principles encourage learning that is open, participatory, active, and self-directed, in an environment which is constantly challenging and interconnected. Individually, these principles contribute little compared to when all four are interacting together within the learning environment.

Connected Learning

Open Networked Learning

Everyone can participate


In the connected learning environment, barriers to entry are low and participants are encouraged to support each other as they share learning and exchange resources. Although drawn together by a shared purpose, learners may be of different levels of expertise, and they may contribute in different ways as part of the learning process.


There are no barriers to entry for the ONL course, with the exception of the requirement that each participant has access to an internet connection. As the course is aimed at tertiary educators, in the vast majority of cases this is not an obstacle, as even if internet access is not available at home, most teachers have access via fixed or mobile connections at university. The learners are of widely varying levels of expertise – some participate to confirm their learning, others to begin the development of their digital literacy.


Learning happens by doing Learning is actively sought and understandings are constructed through a range of strategies determined by the learner. Active participation within the connected learning environment requires creating, trialling and reflecting on experiences across different networks and contexts. Active participation is a key expectation and a requirement for successful completion of the course. Participants are challenged to maintain their own blog on their choice of platform, as well as to interact within the G+ environment (a new platform for many) and to take part in Tweet chats on Twitter and Webinars in different platforms. There is an open and flexible atmosphere created by the facilitators, where trial and error is encouraged and ‘playing’ with a range of different tools is a major aim of the course.
Challenge is constant Learning is motivated by engagement and interest, and expertise and achievement is built as learners create connections to enable access resources which otherwise may be out of reach. The presence of supportive connections and exposure to a range of opportunities to learn in different ways creates an environment for problem discovery and solving. Each topic presents a new scenario, which different challenges for the course participants to consider. The different scenarios provide opportunities to experiment and engage with different ways to respond and to work with colleagues to investigate possible solutions. The first topic is run for an extended period to give all participants time to familiarise themselves with the new learning environment, and to begin to develop relationships with their group members. Once familiarity is established, new challenges in the way of scenarios, tweet chats and webinars are introduced.
Everything is interconnected Online platforms are openly networked, providing a range of learning contexts and access to expertise, support and a wide range of learning resources. Sharing, transparency and opportunities to give and receive feedback are present. The platforms are all open and provide a range of different ways to interact. Key speakers are brought in for webinars and tweet chats, and a range of open learning materials are also provided. Commenting on blogs is encouraged, as is interaction throughout the course on the various platforms.


The ONL course is able to be adapted, as it is shared under the Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. It provides one model for online learning which appears to align strongly with the connected learning framework.

I will continue to explore how learning online may be experienced, in my own research and beyond. If you have any observations, reflections or suggestions, I welcome them in the comments!


5 thoughts on “Connected Learning and Open Networked Learning – a comparison”

  1. Great post! A firm believer in the potential of connectedness and connected learning – being bent towards learning for the fun of it (not always a viable solution?), I found in this course that the setup sort of got me engaged in a fun way so the subject matter just mixed into a smooth flow. Wish I could find more like this – who knows what I’d be able to learn?
    As we all know, ‘young’ is a mental state… But if you stay in academia or return as an ‘adult’ (whatever that is), could it be that interests merge so that there is no real divide between academic interests and the personal? Not only participants in this course ‘find’ the time – for me as a facilitator (and I believe for you also, especially concerning time of day… or night ;o)) this course tends to spill into time spent on the sofa surrounded by family, not always a popular choice, but a matter of engagement. Thanks for this post – having your work ‘interpreted’ by someone else means formulations from another brain adds to my own experience!

  2. Hi Kay – I came across your blog today, delighted to see the work you are doing! I am an educator and researcher in the area of Open Education, specifically researching the use of open educational practices (OEP) in higher education. After reading your post I thought you might be interested in a paper written by one of my colleagues, Laura Gogia (perhaps you are already connected with Laura 🙂 ) — ‘Collaborative Curiosity: Demonstrating relationships between open education, networked learning and connected learning’. There seem to be some synergies with your own work. Laura’s paper was part of a symposium at the Networked Learning conference – you can find the link to the paper here:

    My time is short just now, but I look forward to future conversations about this work 🙂

    1. Hi Catherine
      Thank you so much for visiting my blog and taking the time to write! I LOVE that paper written by Laura! I haven’t met or spoken with Laura, but you are right when you say there is great alignment between her work and my own research. I found it a really useful article, and one that raises a lot of connections that haven’t received a great deal of attention. I drew on Laura’s work in writing the theoretical framework chapter of my thesis, and look forward to following her next steps. I have also appreciated open education, particularly with regard to the generous sharing of the Networked Learning conference, as I have found many relevant and interesting papers published on the site. It is my goal (and hope!) to submit my work as a paper for the 2018 Networked Learning conference, which I understand is in Croatia. It would be a great honour and amazing learning experience to attend and hear so many wonderful speakers.

      I also look forward to conversing further with you. Thanks again for saying hi!
      Kind regards, Kay.

    1. Thank you for your question. I am not sure to which research you are responding, however I will share that learning through the Open Networked course has been very rewarding and I believe the model it is designed upon, informed by networked and connected learning, results in authentic and meaningful knowledge construction which is not always the outcome of online learning opportunities. I hope that this is the response you were seeking! Kind regards.

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