Logged on and Learning

Over the summer, Northshore Magazine interviewed 15th Head of School, John Palfrey. In the interview, Palfrey said, “I want to draw out a spirited conversation among the faculty, staff, alumni and students and ask the question of us all: What does the best possible education look like in the 21st Century? It’s a huge question but one we have to keep asking and seeking to answer.” This sparked my curiosity, so I read through the article, hoping to find some of Palfrey’s ideas on how he would answer his own question. What caught my attention was when the article stated that Palfrey “has chosen ‘Connected Learning’ as the theme for his first major initiative.” I had heard the term “Connected Learning” in relation to Palfrey before, and besides knowing it had something to do with utilizing technology to teach, I had little idea to what it was. I decided to do some research to discover what Connected Learning was, and try to imagine how it could fit in at Andover. I quickly discovered that Connected Learning eludes a concrete definition; rather, it is described by terms like “interest-powered,” “production-centered” and “openly-networked.” Because these phrases are so vague, the way different schools might implement the principles of Connected Learning depends entirely on how they choose to interpret these words. While allowing flexibility, Connected Learning’s reluctance to provide uniform implementation strikes me as a weakness, as it further complicates an issue (developing a better educational system) that yearns for an elegant solution. Gradually, however, I crafted a definition for Connected Learning. Although perhaps less nuanced than the original definition, mine is centered simply on three main principles. We should not restrict learning to schools alone, but rather encourage it in all areas of the student’s life. Next, the student should study that which he or she is passionate about, as the student learns best when he or she is interested in the subject. Finally, educators should utilize technology in a way that encourages and enables the previous two principles. One public school in Loveland, Colorado, called the InnovationLab or the “Be You House,” exemplifies a radical adoption of Connected Learning principles. The school, open to K-12 grades, enforces no formal curriculum. Rather, students choose what they want to research, and then are encouraged to find the mentors and resources they need themselves. The InnovationLab urges its mentors to drop any agenda, allowing the student to choose the direction of his or her study. Now, I can’t see Andover dropping its curriculum in favor of the InnovationLab’s self-directed learning anytime soon; however, when I tried to examine how the general principles of Connected Learning might coexist with the incumbent educational system at Andover, I came to a surprising conclusion: Andover, to a certain degree, already aligns itself with Connected Learning’s principles. The first portion of my interpretation of the definition suggests that learning should happen everywhere. Andover currently offers several community outreach programs, such as the Niswarth Program, Pecos Pathways, and the Johns Island community service trip, all of which encourage students to expand their boundaries. The second principle encourages students to pursue passions. At Andover, we have a large selection of electives students can choose from, allowing interest-driven learning (although some argue diploma requirements restrict that freedom). Also, students can opt to spend a semester on an Independent Project, during which they have virtually entire say in the direction of their studies. This goes well with the spirit of Connected Learning. Finally, Connected Learning urges the use of technology to enable the previous two principles. Andover offers very up-to-date technologies to its students, encouraging students to use these technologies as a resource for their studies; the Russian department has even incorporated iPads into daily classes. Thus, Andover’s philosophy seems to cohere with Connected Learning’s stress on the utilization of technology to facilitate learning. By spearheading an initiative that largely coincides with the current educational system, Palfrey suggests he is prepared to mesh well with the Andover community, and move us forward in the direction we are already headed. However, I hope we will continue to challenge the current system with new, emerging ideas to see how they compare. Of course, Palfrey’s own interpretation of Connected Learning remains untold, but I highly anticipate hearing his opinions. With all considered, I feel we are progressing positively towards finding that “best possible education” Palfrey has urged us to seek. Makenzie Schwartz is a three-year Upper from Bradford, MA, and an Assoicate Commentary Editor for The Phillipian.