Blog Post

Researchers Introduce New Model of Learning


Connected Learning: Designed to ‘mine the new social, digital domain’

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Citing an ever-widening gap between in-school and out-of-school learning experiences, a team of researchers today introduced a model of learning -- ‘connected learning’ -- that taps into the rich new world of information, knowledge, and online collaboration available to youth and learners.

The connected learning model, which is anchored in a large body of research on how youth are using social media, the internet and digital media to learn and develop expertise, also seeks to respond to deepening fears of a class-based “equity” gap in education that, without intervention, is likely to be accelerated by disproportionate access to technology and new forms of knowledge sharing.

“We are seeing a growing gap between in-school and out-of-school learning as more and more of young people’s learning, attention, and access to information is happening outside of classrooms and through online networks and exchanges,” said Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in youth and technology. She is one of the principal investigators in the new Connected Learning Research Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. “That’s the disturbing news,” Ito said. “The good news is that new technology also hands us opportunities for bringing young people, educators, and parents together in cross-generational learning driven by shared interests and goals.”

Connected learning, Ito said, suggests an approach to education that integrates and connects learning across different settings in a young person’s life because learners achieve best when their learning is reinforced and supported in multiple settings, by parents, educators, knowledgeable peers, and communities that center on their interests. Ito said even more research on learning is needed as the ability to span school, home, community, and peer interaction grows.

Researchers pointed out that, as a new model, connected learning will benefit immensely from contributions and critique from the many stakeholders in public education, especially in how to translate its principles into practice. It draws on social, ubiquitous, blended and personalized learning models, designers and practitioners working with the effort say, but is distinctive and has the potential to help reconstitute our educational system.

The introduction of the connected learning model took place at an evening press briefing at a conference in San Francisco attended by 1,000 technologists, futurists, researchers and educators, “Beyond Educational Technology: Learning Innovations in a Connected World.”

A set of principles for connected learning were developed by a group of researchers, technology makers, philanthropists, and educational practitioners seeking to come together around a common approach for how to expand educational opportunity in the digital age. This approach proposes knitting together of three crucial contexts for learning:

Interest-powered...Research has repeatedly shown that when a subject is personally interesting and relevant, learners achieve much higher-order learning outcomes.

Peer-supported...In their everyday exchanges with peers and friends, young people are fluidly contributing, sharing and giving feedback in web-powered experiences that are highly engaging.

Academically oriented...When academic studies and institutions draw from and connect to young people’s interest-driven pursuits, learners flourish and realize their true potential.

...and the embrace of three key design principles:

Production-centered...Connected learning prioritizes the learning that comes from actively producing, creating, experimenting and designing, because it promotes skills and dispositions for lifelong learning, and for making meaningful contributions to today’s rapidly changing work- and social conditions.

Open networks...Today’s online platforms and digital tools can make learning resources abundant, accessible, and visible across all learner settings.

Shared purpose...Today’s social media and web-based communities provide unprecedented opportunities for cross-generational and cross-cultural learning and connection to unfold and thrive around common goals and interests.

The connected learning model seeks to take advantage of the web’s radically expanding culture of sharing by developing learning experiences for all youth that are more engaging, more motivating, more social, and more supported, because they are abetted by the internet and today’s dynamic knowledge society.

Researchers also announced the launch of two new websites, and, featuring an array of resources and research, all open and free:

  • Weekly webinars for educators, researchers, policymakers, youth workers, and parents about this new approach to learning
  • Stories of connected learners, and educators and organizations already deploying connected learning principles
  • Videos about connected learning and the research behind it
  • An infographic, an executive summary, and detailed white paper that researchers hope will activate conversation and collaboration among education reformers
  • Details of a second wave of ongoing research by a group of education/technology/media scholars from the U.S. and the UK who comprise the Connected Learning Research Network

“I don’t think there’s anyone in education and learning who doesn’t feel an urgent need to reimagine learning for the new century,” said Connie Yowell, Director of Education for U.S. programs for the MacArthur Foundation. The connected learning model, research, and work is supported by the MacArthur Foundation as part of its Digital Media & Learning Initiative, a nearly $100 million program that was one of the first philanthropic efforts in the U.S. to systematically explore the impact of digital media on young people and implications for the future of learning. “Our schools are struggling to prepare young people for fulfilling adult lives and careers.

“Connected learning represents a path forward,” Yowell said. “It’s learning that is socially rich and interest-fueled -- in other words, it’s based on the kind of learning that decades of research shows is the most powerful, most effective. And connected learning is oriented towards cultivating educational and economic opportunity for all young people.”

Among the topics at the heart of a new tide of ongoing research by the Connected Learning Research Network:

How can our new culture of online sharing and connecting improve mentoring and coaching for youth, both with peers and multi-generationally?

 How specifically is social networking changing the learning practices of youth?

How effective can the exploding sector of open learning and peer-to-peer learning be?

In what ways can digital media boost learning for marginalized communities?

What can popular strategy and creation-oriented games such as LittleBigPlanet 2 and Starcraft II teach us about the power of new-generation video games for learning and education?

Can social media and digital technology improve the impact of after-school programs, especially for disadvantaged youth?

Does learning that is connected to a learner’s interest help produce young people who are more civically engaged and more active 21st century citizens?

The researchers are:

Kris Gutierrez, professor of literacy and learning sciences who is an expert in learning and new media literacies and designing transformative learning environments, University of Colorado, Boulder

Mimi Ito, Research Network Chair, a cultural anthropologist with deep expertise in the implications of how youth are engaging with technology and digital media who led benchmark three-year study of digital youth, University of California, Irvine

Sonia Livingstone, a leading expert on children, youth, and the internet, including issues of risk and safety, and author of a massive study of 25,000 European children and their parents on internet usage, London School of Economics and Political Science

Bill Penuel, expert in learning with digital media in both formal and informal settings, literacy, and using digital tools for digital storytelling, University of Colorado, Boulder

Jean Rhodes, clinical psychologist with expertise in mentoring, adolescent development, and the role of intergenerational relationships in digital media and learning, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Katie Salen, a game designer who has founded two 6th-12th grade public schools that employ game principles for learning, Depaul University

Juliet Schor, economist and sociologist who has published broadly on work, family and sustainability, Boston College

S. Craig Watkins, expert on young people’s social and digital media behaviors and is piloting new programs for in-school and out-of-school learning, University of Texas, Austin

“The announcement of the connected learning principles and the research of the connected learning network couldn’t come at a more crucial time,” said David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California systemwide Humanities Research Institute and executive director of the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub, sponsor of the connected learning work. “The connected learning principles are well-suited to our digital society. They are built on the best of a historical body of research on how youth learn, combined with fresh research that has surfaced the extraordinary learning opportunities made available through today’s networked and digital media.

“The Connected Learning initiative is also a call for those of us working at the intersection of technology, learning and youth to join together in communities to advance creative new forms of learning and to share them widely with all those who stand to benefit.”

About the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub

The work of the DML Research Hub, which includes original research on connected learning, and youth and participatory politics; websites; publications; workshops, and an annual conference, is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Located physically at the University of California, Irvine, and situated within the UC system’s Humanities Research Institute, the Research Hub is dedicated to analyzing and interpreting the impact of the internet and digital media on education, politics, and youth. The website for the research hub is

About the MacArthur Foundation and the Digital Media & Learning Initiative

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conversation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. The MacArthur Foundation launched its digital media and learning initiative in 2006 to explore how digital media are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life, and what that means for their learning in the 21st century. More information on the digital media and learning initiative is available at


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