17 November, 2015

What Connected Learning Is and Is Not

Like many other schools around the globe, ours is in the thick of implementing a 1:1 program.  We don't actually call it that now.  Thankfully we realised that "1:1" wasn't particularly learning-focused and we opted to call our initiative the Connected Learning Programme which places more emphasis on what we want to be doing with the devices - learning - rather than on the tech itself.    

With a new programme title in place, we've naturally set-forth to answer the question:  What is Connected Learning?  

What Connected Learning is Not

In trying to answer these questions, it helped to think about what Connected Learning isn't before trying to define what it is.  All of our staff are quite certain that it isn't merely placing tech into the hands of children and learning magically happening.  It doesn't happen by virtue of handing a child an iPad, just as much as it didn't happen simply by placing an interactive whiteboard in a classroom or wheeling around a TV cabinet.  

If Connected Learning were anything like that, we wouldn't be doing it.

Rather, it's what you do with the tech that matters.  A pencil is just a pencil until its owner channels ideas, imagination, creativity and vision down the barrel to write the next great novel or sketch out the next great masterpiece.  One requires an understanding and mastery over what good writers and artists do while also having mastery over the physical tool itself, knowing how to physically write and apply techniques to draw.  None of these happen by virtue of giving someone a pencil and this is no different with any other technology.  

Good teaching matters.  

But, defining Connected Learning remains difficult.  It involves technology, yes.  And it involves good teaching, yes.  But how does it all fit together?  What's the relationship between technology and good teaching practise? 

It's in that complex interplay where I believe a definition of Connected Learning lies.

Discovering a Definition through Coaching

This all got me thinking about the coaching process we work through with colleagues when integrating technology.  We always start with a focus on the learning.  Be it some factual or conceptual knowledge, a timeless skill, a particular literacy, or big understanding, knowing what we want our students to achieve drives the types of tools we select - digital and/or analogue - and how they'll be used in a lesson or unit.  It seems obvious to start there, but so many teachers try to make the tech fit because of some cool feature it offers rather than letting purpose and context for learning drive the selection process.  

After co-planning, we set out to co-teach.  Either I, or my integrator partner in crime, Louise, take a lead while the teacher works to supports the students, or, vice versa as a teacher's skill level develops.  Regardless of who is doing what, one of us is collecting evidence about whether students are learning what we hoped they would.  We ask students questions, analyse work samples and collect and record other forms of data to reflect upon afterwards.  It's a process we're increasingly using called Looking for Learning and the observer's template can be found here

Following the lesson, we sit down to determine two things based on the evidence collected:  
  • Did learning happen or not and how do we know?
  • What were the factors that helped or hindered learning?  
It's the resulting conversation over the latter question where I feel we get closer to a working definition of what Connected Learning is because reflections there lead us to think critically about those complex relationships I mentioned above; relationships between things like instructional strategies used, the design of the task, the delivery of curriculum content, the type of technology used and how it was integrated.

This is where a lightbulb goes off for me:  types of technology used, methods of using tech, pedagogical practices, curriculum content - hello, that sounds like SAMR and TPACK at the door.  Could that be Connected Learning at the centre of that venn diagram or at the top of that mountain?  

The SAMR model (right) was developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura as a way for teachers to think about and evaluate their technology use.  The TPACK model (left) helps teachers understand the interplay and relationships between what it is we want students to learn (CK), the tools we have at our disposal to support learning (TK) and the implications both of these areas have on our approach to teaching and learning (PK).  Illustration by Ben Hacking.

Connected Learning:  The Height of SAMR & the Heart of TPACK

For those new to SAMR and TPACK, both represent models for thinking about teaching and learning with technology.

Dr. Ruben Puentedura developed the SAMR model as a means of thinking about how technology is used.   At it's simplest level, substitution, technology can be used as a direct substitute for another tool with no functional change or improvement to the task at hand.  The best example I can cite is Alan November's iPad or laptop likened to a $1,000 pencil - using it to simply take notes where pen and paper would suffice.  At the highest level, redefinition, technology enables new opportunities for learning not previously possible without the technology.  This is where we see students using tech to connect and collaborate with other learners and subject-matter experts around the world via Skype, code their own iPad apps to solve a problem or improve a process, or to do tremendous social good by harnessing the power of social media.

For an excellent introduction to SAMR, click the video link below.

As my sketch above shows, I see Connected Learning as being at the height of the SAMR framework - as learning not previously possible without the presence of these tools.  That said, I have to be careful not to associate that redefined learning experience as caused by the technology itself.  Remember, good teaching matters.  SAMR helps us to assess what technology allows us to do, but it does not help us with how we do it - the good teaching that makes Connected Learning possible.  

Take for instance a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) like Moodle or Google Classroom.
Technologies like these can and do function as mere substitutes for noticeboards or filing cabinets of resources.  That said, if optimally used, they could redefine the way curricular content knowledge is learned and extend the time and space of a teacher's classroom.  In essence, platforms like these could enable new pedagogical approaches such as flipped and blended learning to happen.

Same tool, different uses, different possibilities.

SAMR is good at highlighting these differences in use, but does little to help us explain how we climb that ladder to new possibilities and truly make connected learning happen.  This is where I see TPACK as helpful.

For those new to TPACK, it represents another framework for thinking about learning in the presence of technological tools and helps explain how one moves up the rungs of the SAMR ladder.  The TPACK model illustrates the types of knowledge a teacher brings together to teach for effective learning, including curricular content knowledge (CK), pedagogical knowledge of how to teach (PK), and knowledge of technological tools to support learning the curriculum (TK).  For a helpful introduction to TPACK, see the video below from Common Sense Media.

It's at the heart of this venn diagram where I see the essence of what Connected Learning is:

Connected Learning is student learning achieved through sound pedagogical practice supported and/or enabled by appropriate, relevant, authentic and/or purposeful use of technology.

Thinking about all the wonderful approaches to teaching and learning made possible by technological tools:  games-based learning, flipped learning, blended learning, and more - these and many other approaches are all made possible by careful planning and appropriate use of powerful digital tools.

Tell me what you think.  Feel free to comment below.  As I mentioned, we are on a journey to define what Connected Learning is and what it looks like in practice, and this post represents my some of my own thinking around the subject.  I'd be interested to hear other peoples thoughts.