Does connected learning work? The answer is important to students, educators, and parents. It’s also of great interest to institutions such as the MacArthur Foundation, which has a multi-decade commitment to improving educational outcomes.

After years of granting millions of dollars to schools, the foundation started a broad initiative that was based not strictly on educational institutions, but also on the extra-curricular learning environments that were emerging as more and more young people became immersed in digital media: “In 2004, we decided to consider alternative paths. Instead of focusing on schools and school districts, we turned our attention to how young people were learning outside school. Digital media and the Internet seemed to be sparking new ways of creating, sharing and organizing knowledge. We decided to investigate this topic. Site visits, a literature review and modest exploratory grants suggested that it would be a promising area to work in. In June 2005, the MacArthur Foundation Board established Digital Media and Learning as a new grant making area, which launched in 2006.”

In addition to grant making and community building, the digital media and learning effort has always included an extensive research component. After thousands of interviews and years of data-gathering, the results are beginning to show that connected learning principles do, in fact, improve learning outcomes — particularly in the case of non-dominant youth.

“I really enjoyed this concept. I was encouraged to voice my opinions whilst tweeting, allowing me to contribute to the class discussion. I felt more confident doing this than speaking out in front of the class and I found it amazing in the way that photographers that I have looked up to replied, favourited and retweeted my notes that I would normally write in my book that no one would see. It was also a great way to read other students notes and look at what they took from the same clip I’d watched”.
Zoe: Level Four University of Gloucestershire Student

“It was a great and new way of researching as I was able to collect a wide range of source material very quickly and efficiently”.
Hannah: Level Four University Gloucestershire Student

“I was encouraged to share my thoughts with my friends”
Connie: Level Four University Gloucestershire Student

Get Students Involved

When students engage with open learning they often need to watch a series of video lectures as part of their learning. But just watching videos — without also engaging interactively — is an ineffective way to learn, according to a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

The study, Learning Is Not a Spectator Sport: Doing Is Better Than Watching for Learning From a MOOC, looked at an open course, offered through the Georgia Institute of Technology, titled Introduction to Psychology as a Science. Some of the students on the open course chose to take it as a traditional MOOC, spending most of their time watching video lectures. Others opted for a version that combined the MOOC and interactive materials produced by Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative.

All of the students were assigned 11 weekly quizzes and a final examination. Those in the MOOC-only course scored an average of 57 percent. Those in the combined course scored an average of 66 percent. And when students in the combined course completed an interactive activity, they learned six times as much as those who only read the material or watched a video.

“When one is watching a lecture or reading material, there’s an illusion of learning,” says Ken Koedinger, a professor of human-computer interaction and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, and an author of a report on the study. “Lessons communicated in a lecture don’t stick.”

When students listen to a lecture or read text, Mr. Koedinger says, it is easy for them to feel confident that they know the material. But that feeling is deceptive, because sometimes students come away from lectures with misconceptions. And without trying to replicate what they’ve learned in lectures or receiving feedback on their work, they won’t know when or why they’re making mistakes.

The activities that the researchers envision aren’t necessarily complicated. Colleges and companies needn’t spend money on elaborate videos, Mr. Koedinger says, but should instead focus on constructing a few simple activities that address common misconceptions about the material.