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Connected Learning versus Blended Learning: New Terms, Old Debate

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When I started this blog about a year ago, one of the first things that I argued was that a fundamental division exists in education technology between those who believe that learning can be delivered and those who believe that learning must be experienced. In many ways, this is the core question of education philosophy in the U.S., most profoundly shaped (or at least symbolized) by John Dewey, father of the progressives, and Edward Thorndike, one of the fathers of standardized testing. These ideas continue to profoundly shaped education discourse, and these poles are still helpful in understanding the spectrum between.

Recently, a group of scholars supported by the MacArthur Foundation published Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, a manifesto for a pedagogical and philosophical framework for the networked age. At the core of connected learning is the idea that learners need to be empowered to explore their interests within a supportive ecology of institutions—homes, schools, informal centers, online spaces—and challenged to connect those interests to career, college, and citizenship. At the heart of the report is a quotation from Dewey:

"To 'learn from experience' is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction-- discovery of the connection of things."

Often, when trying to understand what someone is arguing for, it's helpful to think about what authors might be arguing against. Though unstated, the foil or counterweight of Connected Learning is Blended Learning. Blended Learning generally takes the position that the curriculum of schooling is fine, that schools are the proper institutions of education, and structures of instruction are inefficient. Blended Learning advocates argue that students can move more quickly through a prescribed curriculum when supported by digital tools that allow for computers to do some of the work of teachers:delivering instruction, grading assessments, identifying student learning needs, and fulfilling them with a combination of human and computer instruction.

By contrast, advocates of Connected Learning hold more radical beliefs about the inadequacy of fundamental structures of schooling and learning. Connected Learning advocates argue that universal curriculum is a dated concept for an era of infinite subspecialties and a deeper understanding of learner variation. They argue that understanding learning through the activities of schools is far too limited a canvas for the age of lifelong and lifewide learning. They argue that technologies are not best suited to optimizing student pathways through a prescribed curriculum, but for connecting learners with mentors, peers, and resources for learning experiences that tap into students interests and passions and span from school to home to library to cultural institutions to informal learning spaces.

To some extent, these are brand new visions of education, hard won through difficult hours of research, reflection, experimentation, and writing. To some extent, they are new skins for an old debate, a new salvo in an old skirmish.

One important rhetorical move made by Connected Learning advocates is to situate their entire work in the context of growing educational opportunity gaps between affluent and low-income students in the "Global North." This is a courageous move, and a welcome one. It raises troubling questions about whether a pedagogy of individual interests can be equitable in a world where the affluent have much more capacity to support the exploration of individual interests. I'll take up these challenges in a future post. For now, I'd encourage readers to take a serious look at the Connected Learning report, read the case studies of connected learners, and imagine how such a philosophy might take root similarly or differently in different neighborhoods.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

PS. A minor footnote. The report should be released under a CC:BY license, rather than CC:NC:ND. A report celebrating the power and potential of remixing as a mode of learning, should have a copyright license that does not prevent remixing.

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