One of the primary forces in higher education is the development of global open learning networks and resources. It is now possible to connect learners ‘in the wild’ via social media to professional learning communities and open educational resources, and for learners to engage in structured study via MOOCs. Learners are able to follow their own interests and structure their own learning pathways. They can use social media to create and share their work and the development of their thinking.
By contrast, higher education has generally been bound by closed systems. Learning pathways are structured by course and unit designers sometimes in conjunction with industry accreditation requirements. Readings are accessible via subscription databases and library materials. Class groups communicate with one another via learning management systems. Assessment is usually a communication between the individual student and the assignment marker.
Connected learning is a pedagogical approach that connects people, networks and information. Connected learning empowers students to develop personal learning networks by interacting with real world, authentic learning environments (Educause 2013). It is production-centred and interest-driven, where students create, curate and share the results of their learning to a wider audience (Ito et al 2013).
A key element of connected learning involves participating in professional communities via social media. Some professional communities are hosted on Linkedin, Google Communities, Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags while others take the form of listservs and forums. Examples of specific professional communities include:
- school educational leadership and management
- mathematics knowledge base and Q&A
- social media marketing
- teacher-librarian knowledge base and discussion
- collaborative software development
- technology in education (TechinEDU Linkedin group, #Edtech Twitter)
Engagement with open online professional learning communities can be integrated into activities and assessment tasks. For instance, students can curate and share information found on the learning communities. They can analyse the discussion and information in the communities to identify issues and themes relating to professional practice and knowledge in their field. They can contribute to the learning community by uploading, posting and commenting.
The production-centred aspect of connected learning mirrors the shift from consumption (Web 1.0) to creation (Web 2.0). In a Web 2.0 environment social media is used to create, curate and share content. Students can upload video content to YouTube or Vimeo, audio to Soundcloud, images to Deviant Art and Flickr and text to WordPress and Tumblr. They can curate information using tools such as Pinterest and Scoopit. Many of these social media platforms are sophisticated participatory communities that allow students’ work to be shared, critiqued and promoted. For example, Deviant Art is an online exhibition and gallery space where artists can build a fan base, communicate and collaborate with other artists, and market and sell their work, while Soundcloud “enables sound creators to upload, record, promote and share their originally-created sounds”. Many of these platforms enable content and people to be liked/rated, followed, shared and curated via social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest.
The range of high quality online professional learning communities also enables personalised connected learning. Personalised learning involves individualisation, customisation and differentiation, for instance where learning is customised from a number of options, where learning is differentiated to addresses the learning needs of individual students, where the student manages their own learning and where the student creates their own Personal Learning Network (PLN). For instance, students learning programming could create their own learning pathway by learning to code in Codecademy, taking a MOOC in programming, participating in Q&A at Stack Overflow, sharing and collaborating on Github, and creating and publishing in Sourceforge.
The challenge for higher education is the tension between open and closed networks and resources that is occurring at all areas of higher education, including research, publishing, teaching, community engagement, policy, marketing and promotion. A real-world approach to curriculum should involve embracing social media and online professional environments ‘in the wild’ for more powerful, authentic, connected learning.