Understanding Connected Learning – Part One

We have moved from the information age, to the connected age, says President and CEO of Educause, Diana Oblinger (2013). The connected age is enabled by technology that is designed for user contribution – the systems which allow for “the architecture of participation“(O’Reilly, 2004). In the connected age, where information resides is not important; it is the connection we can make to the information, and to each other, and the value of these connections that are vital (Oblinger, 2013).

The word connection, from Latin connectere, where con means ‘together’ and nectere to ‘bind’ (Oxford dictionary) defines a relationship in which a person or thing is linked or associated with something else. Technology which has been architecturally designed to promote participation has led to a massive explosion of content, as the barriers for entry continue to decrease, and access to the internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous. This very blog is evidence of the ability of the everyday person to publish to the world, thus adding to the content accessible to users of the internet.


This abundance of information hasn’t just been transferred to the internet from another source; there is no fabled library of Alexandria that housed it all previously. It has been created as a result of the is the very nature of the internet –  a network where information and expertise can be shared via multiple streams in multiple formats,  that has enabled this explosion of content.

New media has ushered in a participatory culture, which responds to the technologies that enable average consumers to access, create, remix, redesign and redistribute content in new and increasingly different ways (Jenkins, 2009).

The quality of the content produced is variable – as Blank observes, the ability for anyone with internet access to publish does not guarantee the ability to produce content that is of interest or value to a wider audience (2013). However this in itself produces a need for re-examination of educational approaches; when masses of information are highly accessible, and hugely varying in validity, reliability and quality, and when we have the potential to connect directly to expertise and information from all over the globe, researchers are realising that the models of education and theories of learning devised in times of information scarcity may no longer apply in the same way.

Living in an age of abundant and rapidly changing information, to which we have ubiquitous access, must change the way we understand knowledge and learning (Weinberger, 2011). In an environment of rapid change, knowledge is more accurately conceived as a ‘flow’, and learning as the process of creating the pipes along which this knowledge can flow (Downes, 2012; Siemens, 2006). Thus, learning may be considered to be more than simply knowledge acquisition – it may be seen as a continual network forming process (Siemens, 2006), where connections are made between nodes in the act of remixing information to create new understandings.

The notion of connected learning is one way that has been suggested to respond to the increasing complexity, interconnectedness and pace of change in our times (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2012). One interpretation of the term connected learning is seen in the Connected Learning Framework devised by Mimi Ito and her colleagues (2013). This view of connected learning understands learning to be lifelong, and embedded in the world of work, civic engagement and social participation of the learner (Ito et al., 2013). The connected learning framework creates education which is closer to “a many-to-many network of co-learning enthusiasts rather than a roomful of students and a one-to-many teacher” p.116, (Weeks, 2012). This conception of learning aligns with social learning theory (Wenger, 1998), which suggests that learning is a social phenomenon, occurring within the context of our lived experience and participation in the world.

The framework considers learning to be a flexible, networked enterprise, that happens through participation in culture and community. It takes advantage of the affordances of new media to amplify existing capacity, and acknowledges that learning does not take place exclusively in the restricted spaces of formal education, but is situated in a matrix of context (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2012).

Credit: Connected Learning Research Network and Digital Media; Learning Research Hub. This Connected Learning Infographic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

connected-learningThe development of the framework for Connected Learning was inspired by the observation that there was a significant gap between students’ experience of formal education, their personal interests and their peer culture (Ito et al., 2013). The framework draws these together. It seeks to find ways students’ personal interests and participation in peer culture can be connected to an academic or civic orientation.

Drawing a student’s various contexts of existence together in order to create a more authentic, meaningful and ultimately more powerful learning existence is not a new concept. Jane Addams found some success with what she termed socialised learning when she and Ellen Gates Starr built Hull House in Chicago in 1889 (Nam, 2013). She observed that recently arrived immigrants, women and the poor were either unable to access or disengaged from formal schooling, and it had little in common with their lived experience. Recognising that learning was not limited to the classroom and a fixed curriculum, Hull created a community where learning about culture, life skills and local issues occurred naturally and collaboratively (Nam, 2013).

Both Addams and Ito et al. were inspired to develop new ways of enabling individuals to access learning as the structures of formal learning were not meeting their needs. Learners, whether recently arrived immigrants in 1889 or disengaged teenagers in the 21st century were not able to find meaning in models of schooling which have only changed ‘around the edges’ in over 200 years (Davidson & Goldberg, 2010).

Networked learning is a theory that underpins a lot of the understandings present in the framework of connected learning. In fact, Jones goes so far as to equate networked learning and connected learning, suggesting that while connected learning may specifically apply to young people, networked learning is more usually identified in higher education (2015). Age groupings aside, the framework of connected learning and the explanations provided by networked learning complement each other.

Just as connected learning is not new, and may occur offline as seen in the Hull House example, learning through networks is not a new occurrence either (Duguid, 2005). Despite this, the development of the theory of networked learning, and the frameworks explicated in the Connected Learning report have been hastened by developments in digital technology, which has enabled the expansion of networks to permeate our entire social structure (Castells, 2000). New media amplifies opportunities to connect. Technology now makes it possible for people to work together regardless of time and space (Weeks, 2012). Individuals today have increasing accessibility to knowledge and connections, as well as a multiplicity of spaces for engagement and self-expression online. All of this enables diversity and capacity building not possible before. (Ito et al., 2013).

Networked Learning has been defined as:

learning in which information and communications technology (ICT) is used to promote connections: between one learner and other learners, between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources p.453,(Goodyear, Jones, Asensio, Hodgson, & Steeples, 2005)

From this definition, it can be seen that the key term is connections, and the focus is on interaction between people and resources, mediated by technology. In its earliest usage during the 1980’s, networked learning could be considered synonymous with online learning, as technology limited most learning to accessing static resources via a computer network (Carvalho and Goodyear, 2014).

From the early 2000’s, with the advent of Web 2.0, this theory of learning has grown in relevance, as online services began offering two-way communication. The video below is now eight years old, yet still captures the understanding of how this transition to Web 2.0 transformed the potential for networked and connected learning. The range of possibilities for online connections between people and media resources increased (van Dijck, 2013). Thus, the richest examples of networked learning now include interaction with on-line materials and with other people (Carvalho and Goodyear, 2014).

The theory of networked learning is closely linked to the concepts of PLEs and PLNs. Jones (2015) suggests that networked learning is the phenomenon, and the learning network is where this phenomenon can be observed. If we take the understanding of indirect design, (the model by Goodyear is included in the paper attached), which finds that learning cannot be directly designed, but only designed for, then it is possible to see how important further investigation of PLNs is. The study of the tasks, spaces, tools and organisations of successful PLNs will illuminate how best to create an environment where effective networked learning may take place (Jones, 2015).

Therefore, for those of us interested in connected, networked or social learning, mediated by the tools and technologies of the online world, this theory is key. Having only just scratched the surface, I will continue to read more, and I will share my learning along the way, as I hope to contribute value to my own personal learning network.


Blank, G. (2013). Who creates content? Information, Communication & Society, 16(4), 590-612. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2013.777758

Davidson, C. N., & Goldberg, D. T. (2010). The future of learning institutions in a digital age. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. Canada: Stephen Downes.

Goodyear, P., Jones, C., Asensio, M., Hodgson, V., & Steeples, C. (2005). Networked learning in higher education: students’ expectations and experiences. Higher Education, 50(3), 473-508. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10734-004-6364-y

Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutiérrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, S. Craig Watkins. (2013).Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. http://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/Connected_Learning_report.pdf

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Kumpulainen, K., & Sefton-Green, J. (2012). What Is Connected Learning and How to Research It? International Journal of Learning and Media, 4(2), 7-18. doi:10.1162/IJLM_a_00091

Nam, C. (2013). When New Media Meet the Strong Web of Connected Learning Environments: A New Vision of Progressive Education in the Digital Age. International Journal of Progressive Education, 9(2), 21.

O’Reilly, T. (2004, 06/04). The Architecture of Participation. Retrieved from http://archive.oreilly.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/articles/architecture_of_participation.html

Oblinger, D. G. (2013). Higher Education in the Connected Age. Educause Review, March/April 2013, 4-6.

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge. United States: George Siemens.

Weeks, A. (2012). Participation Power. In H. Rheingold (Ed.), Net Smart (pp. 111-145): MIT Press.

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know : rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K;New York, N.Y;: Cambridge University Press.

3 thoughts on “Understanding Connected Learning – Part One”

  1. Thank you for sharing, Kate! Very interesting insight into connected learning. Have never heard of participatory culture before :). Your blogposts are very informative and I learn from them a lot!

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