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Connected Learning
The authors of ‘Connected Learners’

Last month a high school English class at Sandvika VGS, one of Norway’s most technologically advanced high schools, published a book titled Connected Learners: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Global Classroom. An American teacher, Ann Michaelson, who blogs about teaching using Web 2.0 tools, collaborated with the students using OneNote, SkyDrive and Google Docs to write this simple, practical guide for teachers on exactly what to do with digital devices in the hands of each student, and why. They are selling the book on Kindle for $4.99 to earn money for a class trip.

First, the good news…

As a document, the book captures both the strengths and weaknesses of the current approach to education that considers itself innovative, progressive and tech-savvy, a broad consensus personified by many of the experts quoted here such as Daniel Pink, Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra, Tony Wagner and Will Richardson. On the positive side, the book is a demonstration of one powerful principle of the movement known as “connected learning”: “When you involve students in meaningful activity, the work they do makes sense.” The students’ motivation and eagerness to contribute to a published work in their second language shines through. “If I actually find something interesting or fun I give it my all,” writes one. And they have collected some useful information. The book includes step by step guides on topics like using Twitter, WordPress, Skype, computer security settings for safe browsing, searching skills, cyberbullying, and even how to write effective comments on blogs.

Then the complex…

While Michaelson frames the book as an argument for “thinning the classroom walls” to connect learning to the broader world via the Internet, by the students’ own self-reporting, much of their current efforts are actually directed toward mediating the ubiquitous effects of technological immersion.

For example, they note, “lids down” is an important class rule when teachers or students are talking in a classroom, and the book explains how to change computer settings so the device doesn’t shut down when you do that. (There’s no word on what to do with a tablet, which doesn’t have a lid–put it in instant sleep mode?) One student recommends using “one-app” mode to restrict themselves on the iPad, while another admits, “When I practice for a test I turn off the Internet and my work has been more effective.”As the students testify, motivation and focus can be hard to find in an always-connected world.

Other myths are challenged as well. Not all young people, they themselves note, are technology experts, and by high school they may have to explicitly relearn creativity and collaboration. And despite all the emphasis on a learner-centered classroom, students argue that that doesn’t mean they want anarchy. To the contrary, they rely on a strong teacher for motivation. “If the teacher seems a little strict and shows how he or she wants it to be, you automatically show more respect and you feel like you don’t have any other choice than work until you lose your fingers.”

Then the bad.

It would not be fair to review this work without pointing out the ways in which it demonstrates the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the connected learning model. First of all, despite the emphasis on collaboration, it seems from the bylines that the teacher, Michaelson, did a lot of the heavy lifting in the writing. This may have been inevitable. It’s clear she’s done great work curating resources here, as a blogger, on Twitter, and elsewhere, and in getting her students to engage on these topics. However, her “research” is mainly repeating the work of other theorists mixed with a few disconnected statistics–I am not convinced that it would pass muster with Wikipedia’s editors, for example.

Meanwhile, like any typical class essay, much of the student writing consists of glittering generalities suffused with the self-congratulatory tone that is too often endemic to writers in the innovation-education space. “Using technology and having your own computer is a very useful tool to use for students,” reads a sample quote that is illuminating in all the wrong ways.

Most of the writing is not bad, considering these are sixteen-year-olds writing in a second language. I blame the editing. Presenting something as a published work, and especially charging money for it, raises expectations that this compilation can’t live up to, as the text is rife with simple errors. “It was very helpful to look up grammar and linguistic tools on the internet, and I think that my text contains less grammatical errors than before.” writes one student. Sorry, but no.

“I think it is really exciting to write a book in English class.”

This is undeniably true. I feel like a scrooge pointing out the weaknesses of this book. However, if connected learning is going to be more than the flavor of the month, we have to honor its potential by holding it up to the very high standards it sets forth. I believe that these students and their readers will be better off if together we can envision a future of student learning that is rigorous and engaged, self-motivated and “hard fun,” intensely researched and composed with much deliberation before it’s then shared instantly with the world.

Check out Steve Hargadon’s interview with the authors of Connected Learning.

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