Connected Learning Now

Summer 2013

By John Palfrey


A ninth-grader came into my office with a proposal. I am the head of a boarding school, founded in 1778, that is blessed with extremely bright students from around the world. This student had tracked down Apple Computer’s sales representative for our region of the United States, and on his own initiated an extended conversation with the rep about buying iPads for all students and teachers at our school. 

This student came to my office prepared to convince me of his iPad idea. He had thought it all through. He offered a set of pros and cons associated with changing from print-based textbooks, used by most teachers, and the digital alternatives that are beginning to emerge on the market. He recited chapter and verse about the benefits of iPad-based curricular materials over traditional printed texts: interactivity, better tailoring to student ability levels, better fit with contemporary student learning styles, less pressure on the back and arms from the backpacks worn by nearly all kids on campus. He nailed his case; it was seriously impressive.

Given his logic and enthusiasm, this student could not understand why I wouldn’t immediately demand that all faculty begin teaching all courses from iPads. He found it amazing that we couldn’t switch over immediately to electronic textbooks. It seemed to me a great teaching moment. I shared with him my views about change management, about the realities of technology and teaching, and about respectful student activism and its place in society. But I also learned from him about how he liked to engage with information — and why he cared so much about learning using an iPad.

I’ve been thinking about this student since he left my office. Perhaps the learning moment was not so much for this bright ninth-grader as it was for me, and for the school. Certainly his passion for experiencing a different kind of teaching was a good reminder that the demand side of the learning equation (the students) — not just the supply side (teachers and administrators) — matters most in the end. Teachers know best, in very many respects, and our authority and knowledge are plainly important. But we don’t know everything, and student interest and passion can be the lifeblood of any great school.

Our institutions of learning, including schools and libraries in particular, risk falling out of step with the generation of people who are coming of age today. In the late 1990s, the same thing happened to the recording industry. A student at Northeastern University, Shawn Fanning, created a disruptive force — Napster — and in a matter of months had tipped the scales against an old distribution model for recorded entertainment in favor of a new, direct, digital model. The music industry (in)famously took years to embrace this change, initially fighting Fanning and all those who saw the world the way he did. 

The analogy between recorded music and learning in a digital age is imprecise. But it is not irrelevant. Schools need to listen carefully to students and better understand the ways in which they are learning — and the ways in which they are failing to learn adequately. 

We ignore our students and their preferred ways of learning at our peril. But we would be making an equally grave mistake by simply turning our great institutions into a field of computer-based correspondence schools, competing with each other to see who can provide the splashiest and most efficient distance learning.

The theory of “connected learning” offers a positive frame for thinking about how to take advantage of the best parts of the digital era while avoiding its pitfalls. Connected learning doesn’t start with technology and ask how to apply it to education. Instead, it calls for educators to pull together all the various experiences, interests, communities, and contexts in which learners participate — in and out of school, online and offline — as potential learning opportunities. Connected learning is a way to think about how technology and other affordances of our age can improve student learning and our approaches to teaching.

Independent schools — both day and boarding — are environments in which connected learners can thrive. By design, students are connected to peers and adults not just in the classroom, but also in their clubs, artistic and musical endeavors, and sports teams. Learning goes on many more hours per day, in integrated fashion, than it does in most public schools. Some of our campuses have museums and laboratories; others have museums and laboratories a subway or bus ride away. Adults in independent schools have a bigger canvas to work with in order to connect these experiences for students. If the teachers I work with are any indication, independent schools are packed with devoted educators with active, curious minds and a hunger to teach as effectively as they can.

Of the many venues in which connected learning can take place in an independent school, three stand out as opportunities: at the margins of the curriculum, at the core of the curriculum, and as a form of public outreach. 

At the Margins of the Curriculum

At the margins of the curriculum, connected learning means making available positive experiences for students that they would ordinarily not have in their core studies. 

Imagine a group of students interested in learning about fashion design and design thinking who don’t happen to attend an art school. Connected learning means finding ways to connect these students to one another, to experiences that would enable them to act on their passion for design thinking, and to adults involved in the fashion world. Perhaps it even means finding ways for them to lend their growing expertise to a broader learning community, online or offline. 

Or imagine that a small group of students has an interest in studying Japanese in a school that doesn’t have a Japanese teacher. A traditional way to meet this need might be to structure an independent project for the few students who want to pursue this course of study, and hire a teacher to support the students. A connected learning approach would call for teaming up with other independent schools to offer an online, partially peer-driven course in Japanese. The Global Online Academy exemplifies this latter approach, in which schools have formed a consortium to offer a series of networked courses that are otherwise not offered at those individual schools. 

At the Core of the Curriculum

At the core of the curriculum, connected learning involves improvements to traditional, existing approaches to teaching. 

In a math class, a teacher might use contests, puzzles, or games (online or offline) to excite students whose love of math has yet to show itself. In a chemistry class, a teacher might use an interactive tablet application to make the course materials and problem sets more effective, adjusting the rate of new material introduced and the mode of teaching it as data flow in about each student’s performance. 

A Russian teacher might find ways to give faster and better feedback to students, flipping the classroom in the process and using face-to-face time for higher ends. A course on computer science might include student-developed problems related to hacking systems in safe and lawful ways — and, thus, teach students how to make and remake code and develop a heightened sense of agency. A course in the humanities might benefit from relevant primary sources in the form of digitized texts or images offered by a library, archive, or museum located thousands of miles away.

For Public Outreach

As a form of public outreach, connected learning can enable an independent school to share its resources more widely with those who are not among its student body. Many independent schools see themselves as private schools with a public purpose. Schools struggling to reach their enrollment targets may deem this form of outreach to be strategically unwise or downright impossible. Yet it may be worth considering that an investment in outreach could result in higher visibility for a school, and potentially, more applicants over time. 

Schools might take a functional approach: think not of “sharing” but of “building brand value” by offering materials to students who otherwise might never learn of their offerings. Independent schools might take a cue from what MIT did in launching OpenCourseware, a project that involves the sharing of teaching materials online, and build upon this tested model. A school might offer interactive experiences for younger students as part of its admissions process that would improve the school’s reach and broaden the kinds of assessment that an admissions officer could draw upon. 

A school might offer blended programs in which students come to the campus for a short period of time and rely upon distance-learning methods and social media to connect with peers and teachers for the rest of the year. A school with a library, archive, or museum might digitize some of its learning materials to share with the world via projects such as the Digital Public Library of America, which launched in April 2013.

Assess and Improve

Assessment of learning outcomes is an essential component of any educational change movement. A crucial aspect of connected learning is to assess carefully whether new approaches improve outcomes for students. Independent schools can and should be leaders in assessment of pedagogical innovation. This moment in history, with its rich and exciting set of opportunities for teaching and learning, is the right moment to rethink and recreate assessment methods and to put them to use in serving our students well. 

This process of assessment and application of our ways of teaching is more fundamentally important than the specific modes of connected learning. 

We have the raw materials — in our students and teachers — to make radical improvements in the learning outcomes for our students today, no matter how effective our schools have been in the past. Ambitious new pedagogical approaches do not need to, and should not, come with wholesale abandonment of what’s worked before. Independent schools need to be actively engaged, with and for our students, in the experimentation and assessment business to avoid missing a major change in education.

John Palfrey

John Palfrey is head of school at Phillips Academy (Andover, Massachusetts). He serves on the board of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and chairs the board of the Digital Public Library of America. He is the coauthor of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (Basic Books, 2008).