The Promise of Connected Learning

The Promise of Connected Learning

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Chief Product Officer, NextThought


Connected Learning is based on the notion that learning is about expanding the connections between people and information within a learner's personal network. In this model, the individual learner exists at the center of his/her own learning network and expands knowledge and understanding by increasing the number of connections between nodes, people and information, in that network.

A primary value of Connected Learning environments is their ability to create and accelerate learner engagement through collaborative communities. These environments are powered by the premise that increased learner engagement within the personal network ultimately results in improved learning performance. In order to promote this sort of engagement, Connected Learning environments necessarily support:

  • Flexible, open-ended, and multilayered learning communities
  • Multiple options for creating connections within the learning network
  • Learning connections across both spatial and temporal boundaries
  • Learner activity measurement related to network engagement
  • Learning network acceleration that targets learner engagement and the growth of personal learning networks

Connected Learning has become increasingly important in recent decades because of the many ways the Internet has changed the way we view learning. Information, once stored in bound volumes and placed in geographically dispersed centers, is readily and easily accessible. Expertise is distributed and multilayered, and time has become an elastic variable. Learning has become something that happens flexibly across both time and space.

As a result, our closed, course-centric structures for learning delivery have come under increasing pressure. The interactions and connections made possible by the Internet have reminded us of something we have always known or intuited: learning is an open, social activity that takes place within communities. It accrues and is enriched as our learning networks expand over time.

Not surprisingly, this shift in perception has had a dramatic effect on the way we view education. We have adjusted our focus away from artificial or siloed forms of education toward new, networked models that mirror real-world learning and have a more enduring impact. We have created new models for learning delivery—online, flipped, and hybrid—that increasingly place the individual learner at the center of a learning network. We have finally begun to harness the possibilities inherent in Connected Learning.

Connected Learning Theory and Research


While one might argue that the notion of learning as a communal activity is as old as human civilization itself, we can trace formal pedagogical theory and research behind the concept only to the first quarter of the twentieth century and the the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He was concerned with traditional testing that attempted to measure knowledge as something residing within and acquired solely by an individual child. In particular, Vygotsky contended that children would be severely limited if required to learn lessons on their own. Instead, he promoted the idea of the "more capable peer" who supports a learner as he or she grows within the continually expanding zone of proximal development (ZPD). [1]

Since Vygotsky's work, multiple generations of theorists and researchers have refined our thinking about the importance of community and social interaction as part of the learning process. What follows is a brief, chronological overview of the evolution of theory and research related to social or connected learning since Vygotsky. [2]

  • Social Cognitive Theory and Social Learning Theory — Support for community as a key component of learning continued to evolve with the work of Neal E. Miller and John Dollard on social cognitive behavior[3]—people learn by observing the behavior of others—and with the social learning theory put forth by Albert Bandura in 1963.[4] Bandura posited that learning takes place in a social context and occurs through observation or direct instruction.
  • Community of Practice (CoP) — In 1991, social anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger further elaborated the idea of learning as a social activity with the introduction of the community of practice. According to Lave and Wenger, a group of people who share an area of interest or a profession can evolve naturally because of the members' common interest, or it can be created specifically with the goal of gaining knowledge related to their field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.[5]
  • Connectivism — The advent of the Internet and and the related evolution of distributed learning models has ushered in new research and thinking on the subject of community or network-based learning. The most significant theory related to this work is Connectivism, elaborated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, which presents learning in the context of a network with nodes and connections.[6] With Connectivism, the formation of connections between nodes of information (i.e., networks) constitutes knowledge—and in addition, Connectivism posits that "the ability to construct and traverse those networks" comprises learning.[7] As George Siemens states, "the learning is the network."[8]
  • Connected Learning — Based on a foundation of Community of Practice and Connectivism, Connected Learning is a formal, pedagogical articulation of the networked learning process, and focuses on how learning systems can support and enhance that process. In particular, Connected Learning emphasizes the individual learner as the center of a learning network and promotes personalization of the learning experience through interaction with the network. Connected Learning theory and research emphasize learning experiences that are/practice the following: 1) openly networked; 2) interest-powered; 3) production-centered; 4) academically oriented; 5) peer-supported; and 6) shared purpose.[8]

Connected Learning Design Principles

Connected Learning environments are based on three core learning-design principles. These call for learning platforms that are production-centered, openly networked, and that have a shared purpose.

From a software design perspective, these principles translate to platforms that are architected with specific pathways for interaction and feedback. In particular, Connected Learning software will be:

  • Participatory (driven by a shared purpose) — The software should connect learners to their peers and content based on common goals and interests, and facilitate learner engagement via shared inquiry and activities;
  • Interactive (focused on multiple forms of production) — The software should support/promote the development of specific literacies by encouraging learners to create, make, produce, experiment, remix, decode, and design;
  • Community Building (connected through flexible networks) — The software should link learners together—to other learning communities within their institution and to groups across other sectors, including interest communities, support groups, and information sources.

By definition, then, Connected Learning platforms are learner-centric and network focused—they place the learner at the center of the learning network and necessarily evaluate interactions and knowledge evolution in terms of individual learners within their learning networks. Moreover, Connected learning software is necessarily designed around the fundamental premise that increased learner engagement—an increase in positive connection between network nodes (people and information)—will lead to improved learning performance.

Key Functional Elements for Connected Learning Environments

In addition to these guiding design principles for Connected Learning environments, there are also several key features that must be present. Such functional elements include:

  • Flexible, open-ended, and multilayered learning communities — Connected Learning is predicated on the learning network and the ability for that network to grow and connect with other networks. On a practical level, this means that Connected Learning environments must support the creation and management of any desired number of communities that can be connected through communication and sharing. Ideally, the environment will support both online and offline communities in order to provide the greatest set of community connections possible.
  • Multiple options for creating connections within the learning network — In order to promote the expansion of individual learner networks, Connected Learning environments must provide a variety of options for creating network connections with people and information. The environment must support the formal collaborative assignments traditionally associated with course platforms—discussion forums and group projects—as well as learner-initiated connections that are both spontaneous and informal. Specifically, learners should be able to initiate new connections from any point within the network.
  • Learning connections across both spatial and temporal boundaries — While traditional learning environments tend to be focused on course constructs that are defined by fixed start and end dates, Connected Learning solutions embrace a definition of learning that endures beyond artificial timelines. Connected Learning environments consist of networks that continue to expand long after a formal course has ended.
  • Learner activity measurement related to network engagement — Analytics[10] for a Connected Learning environment should collect and evaluate data that measures learner engagement and correlates that engagement to learning performance. Such data will include a wide variety of actions and interactions related to participation within the learning network. Categories for such activity might include, for example, content creation, information sharing, and connections with other users in the community.
  • Learning network acceleration that targets learner engagement and the growth of personal learning networks — Connected Learning recognizes the centrality and importance of the personal learning network, but also acknowledges the need to help the learner visualize and realize the potential of the network. To that end, Connected Learning environments should provide various forms of "network acceleration" prompts or recommendation related to people, conversations, and information. This acceleration should be driven by analytics and should include the promotion of "expert" sources.


Examples of Connected Learning Solutions

While Connected Learning is a valuable applied pedagogy for almost any form of education, there are several learning delivery models that are ideal for this solution.

  • Online Programs — Online programs[11]—those created for specific colleges, departments, or disciplines—can be defined as learning networks framed by branded content and expertise. Such programs look to expand their market appeal through positive learning experiences and the creation or re-engagement of loyal alumni groups. Connected Learning environments are ideal for such programs because they allow institutions to extend the learning network by including connected communities for mentors, professional experts, and/or alumni. Connected Learning also facilitates deeper cohort relationships and can allow graduates from online programs to move seamlessly into a mentor or expert community. This not only increases the value of the learning network but also generates a greater degree of alumni engagement and loyalty.
  • Hybrid Learning — In hybrid learning models, institutions look to extend the classroom beyond its brick-and-mortar confines. In doing this, the primary challenges institutions face are: 1) creating meaningful learner engagement outside the classroom, and 2) measuring that engagement and correlating it to actual course performance. Connected Learning environments are an ideal solution for these initiatives because they are designed specifically to promote/measure learner engagement and to correlate that engagement to overall performance. In addition, Connected Learning environments allow institutions to design hybrid courses that can extend learner engagement outside the classroom by connecting the class cohort to other, non-cohort subject communities.
  • Professional Development Initiatives — The purpose of professional development programs is to deliver continuing education opportunities to established communities of practice. This makes them optimal for networked learning, as their target audiences are already part of well-defined communities that support and encourage professional connections. A Connected Learning environment can augment these existing communities by introducing mentor and expert relationships and also by fostering connections between communities separated by geographic distance. Equally important, Connected Learning environments make it possible to facilitate learning that endures over the span of a professional career, and also provide feedback loops for capturing and sharing professional experiences outside the confines of the course.


There is no doubt that the Internet has fomented an evolution of how we view learning. In addition, online learning technologies have introduced new modes of instructional delivery and new business models into formal education.

These changes have also made possible the emergence of Connected Learning environments. These environments offer institutions, instructors, and learners alike a framework for expanding the impact of traditional coursework through engaged learning communities. Such connections inevitably foster learning experiences that endure well beyond the traditional boundaries of the course or the class cohort.

Please share your thoughts and ideas with us.


[1] Wikipedia contributors. "Zone of proximal development." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2015

[2] This list is not intended to be comprehensive. Notable omissions include:

  • Activity Theory by Vygotsky's compatriots Aleskei Leont'ev and Alexander Luria ("Problems of the development of mind." English translation, Progress Press, 1981, Moscow), and Yrjö Engeström (Learning by expanding).
  • Situated Cognition by Brown, Collins, and Duguid ("Situated cognition and the culture of learning". Educational Researcher, 1989 18 (1): 32–42

[3] Miller, N.E., J. Dollard, and R. Yale University. Institute of Human, Social learning and imitation. 1941, New Haven; London: Pub. for the Institute of human relations by Yale university press; H. Milford, Oxford university press.

[4] Bandura, Albert (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

[5] Lave, Jean; Wenger, Etienne (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42374-0.; first published in 1990 as Institute for Research on Learning report 90-001

[6] Siemens, George (2005, January 1). "Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age". International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 No. 1

[7] Downes, S (2007, February 6). Msg. 30, Re: What Connectivism Is. Connectivism Conference: University of Manitoba. Message posted to

[8] Siemens, G. (2006, November 12). Connectivism: Learning theory or pastime of the self-amused? Elearnspace blog.

[9] See the work by the Connected Learning Alliance and the Connected Learning Research Network.

[10] The term “analytics" here refers simply to the collection and evaluation of network or community data/activity. This can certainly be part of an automated software system, but can just as easily be a manual process.

[11] Online programs, in this context, also include programs for specific audiences, such as low-residency and early-enrollment programs

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