Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reflections on Connected Learning from EduCon

Often times we hear the term "Connected Learning" thrown around educational workshops and blogs in conjunction with building our students' digital literacies, and often it is used to refer to those connected online interactions that we attempt to foster with our learners. However, participating in today's EduCon conversation hosted by Christina Cantrill, Danielle Filipiak, Larissa Pahomov, Meenoo Rami, Robert Rivera-Amezola, and virtually by Antero Garcia has me reconsidering the term. My notion of connected learning is changing. Although connected learning does have much to do with fostering collaborative connections, it is not simply an online process. Connected learning is something that we do with our hands, with every part of us. We take the time to connect with what is happening in our world, learn from it, and connect with interested others. Connected learning is hands on learning. It is the type of participatory learning that humanizes what happens in the classroom. But how does it do this?

Connected LearningToday's presenters shared with us a graphic from the Connected Learning group outlining how connected learning empowers students. "Connected learning is a model of learning that holds out the possibility of reimagining the experience of education in the information age. It draws on the power of today's technology to fuse young people's interests, friendships, and academic achievement through experiences laced with hands-on production, shared purpose, and open networks." I know what you may be thinking, sounds a bit lofty, right? Here's what struck me during some of the smaller group discussions that we had during this session: this is why I became a teacher. I've been interested in connected learning, or some variation of it, my entire teaching career.

I started my teacher education program in 1994 when the talk of the time was holistic portfolio assessment which gave students opportunities to revise and select their best work for assessment. Portfolios provided students an opportunity to view their work over time, reflect on their growth as writers, and have choice over how and on what they were assessed. This is the start of connected learning, the foundation. When ownership over the ideas, in this case writing, remains in the hands of students, learners are empowered.

As I neared the end of my undergraduate program and student teaching loomed on the horizon, the professor of my Strategies for Teaching Writing course connected each of us would-be teachers with one of his high school English students. In a sort of pen pal relationship, we helped our students revise pieces they were working on and sent them creative pieces of our own for feedback. We weren't just writing mentors for this group of high school students. We were writing partners. And it is here where I really started to develop my interest in what was then called Authentic Assessment, giving students opportunities to have their work viewed by real audiences. This too is a component of connected learning; giving students real purpose for their work and a specific audience to tailor that work to not only engages students more deeply in their task but also helps students feel empowered.

When finally I found myself in my own classroom after a couple of moves and career detours, one of the big issues my English department discussed was student choice. Where are we fostering student engagement and differentiation through student choice? Not long after beginning my first teaching job, I attended the annual NCTE conference in Pittsburgh where I saw Carlin Borsheim and Robert Petrone speak about how they fostered student choice through a local action research project in which students selected an issue facing their local community, interviewed local experts, and put together research essays and demonstrations based on their findings. Their presentation changed the entire way I thought about teaching. You mean I didn't have to give students a list of topics? I didn't need to outline every step along the way that students needed to complete? When I came back to my tenth grade students following that conference, we ditched our traditional research unit. Instead, I told students that in the real world research was done to affect change, so that's what we needed to do. What did you want to change? Research became action. As I teach a non-Western literature course, the only stipulation that I gave students was that they needed to pick an issue facing a non-western country and do something about it. Along the way they researched, wrote project proposals, and typed up lengthy, citation-heavy essays about their topics, but the culminating piece was that they needed to do something with their topic outside the walls of our classroom. They needed to adapt their research to a specific audience. And over the last six or so years, students have fundraised to build a computer lab for a high school in Kabul, collected school supplies for a secondary school in Haiti, put together a bake sale to support an orphanage in Kolkuta, started a student club to raise awareness about genocide in Darfur, crafted articles for the student paper, put together web pages and Facebook groups, and so much more. And this, too, seems to be at the heart of Connected Learning. In fact, as described by the Connected Learning group, "Interests foster the drive to gain knowledge and expertise. Research has repeatedly shown that when the topic is personally interesting and relevant, learners achieve much higher-order learning outcomes." And this was certainly true when I switched from teaching the more traditional research paper. But, I didn't reach every student. Some students were not interested in issues taking place so far away from home.

@plugusin reflects on EduCon
So this fall, after participating in AJ Juliani's MOOC to learn with other teachers about 20% time projects, I knew I needed to teach research writing differently. Research? What students get excited to write a research paper? So instead of writing the ubiquitous research essay about bullying or problems facing students in Afghanistan, my students and I started 20% time projects in which 20% of our week (one class day each week) was dedicated to researching a topic that students don't ordinarily have time or access to research in the traditional school setting. My 10th graders learned to quilt, how to film a documentary, how to write a screenplay, how to write code, how to decorate a cake, how to start a business, and so much more. And as a part of their research, they needed to interview an expert in the field. We could not have done this without the help of Twitter and Google Docs. We created a spreadsheet with all the student topics and their request for people to interview. I tweeted it out, and within a few days we had a video game script writer at Bethesda Games to interview, a master cake decorator who appeared on Food Network, published authors, television production managers, photographers - all of whom connected with us virtually using Twitter, Google Drive, and email. And this is where it all came together for me - holistic grading, authentic assessments, differentiation, and student choice. Connected learning. It is not often when a teacher has students rushing into class asking if today was a research day, begging for more time to produce pitch videos, conduct interviews, and practice for presentations. And throughout this process, students were writing...a lot! Formal proposals, weekly blog posts, emails requesting and then thanking interviewees, reflection posts on interviews - my students wrote more and more often as part of this research than had previous students. And while I did not require them to write what would be considered a traditional research essay, many of them did in order to prepare themselves for presentations and speeches that they would later deliver. And along the way, we shared all parts of our research through our class blogs and shared Google Drive folder, which meant we could see each other's thinking every step of the way. We were models and mentors for each other. This is connected learning.

But how I got to this point, as you can see, did not happen overnight or even over the course of one year. So we must be patient with those new to this idea of connected learning, offer support along the way, and as Larissa Pahomov pointed out in our session today, remember that this is not an additive model of education. We are not adding one more thing to our curriculums. We are reimagining how we can teach the same skills that we have been teaching in a way that connects and empowers learners.
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