What is connected learning?: Implications for mentoring

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 2.07.25 PMby Sarah Schwartz, Ph.D.,Postdoctoral Fellow, MacArthur Foundation, Connected Learning Research Network.

 Connected learning is a framework developed to understand and support learning in current social, economic, technological, and cultural contexts (Ito et al., 2013). In a society where existing educational pathways no longer guarantee opportunity, and with a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, connected learning aims to expand entry points and pathways to opportunity. In this framework, school is viewed as one setting within a broader network of learning contexts available to young people. By developing and supporting other arenas for learning, with a particular emphasis on leveraging the potential of digital media and an increasingly networked society, connected learning seeks to address inequities in access to learning and educational opportunity. Connected learning, however, is not limited to a particular form of media or content, but is more a philosophy of learning. Indeed, sports, creative pursuits, and civic and intellectual activities that do not require digital media can all be connected learning experiences, although digital media provides a unique opportunity to increase opportunity and access to connected learning experiences.

Specifically, connected learning is:

  • Socially-embedded: Learning is supported by peers and caring adults.
  • Interest-powered: Learning is driven by individual interests.
  • Academically-oriented: Learning is connected to academic, career, and/or civic opportunities.

A model of connected learning in practice:

Last week I had the opportunity to visit YOUMedia, a 5,500-square foot space located in the Harold Washing Library in Chicago, designed to provide teenagers with a space to “hang out, mess around, and geek out” (Ito et al., 2009). YOUMedia has everything from computers with production software, to a sound studio, to a 3D printer. That, along with comfortable furniture and caring adults, including teen librarians and YOUMedia mentors, draws approximately 7,000 teenagers per year. YOUMedia offers workshops designed around the interests of the teens who spend time there, as well as welcoming those who are simply there to hang out and socialize. By providing a space for learning supported by peers and adult mentors, with learning opportunities created around youth interests, and increasing efforts on the part of YOUMedia mentors to connect youth interests to academic and career opportunities, YOUMedia represents an innovative approach to connected learning (Sebring et al., 2013).

So what does connected learning have to do with mentoring?

Mentoring is an integral part of connected learning. Mentors can help young people explore and identify interests, support them in developing skills and expertise around those interests, and connect them to academic, career, and civic opportunities that draw upon and provide recognition for what they have learned. In fact, the growth of infrastructure and programming around connected learning offers substantial opportunity for the mentoring field, since mentoring has long played a role in informal learning and vocational learning. Moreover, almost a century ago, Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who studied cognitive development, described the “zone of proximal development” as the distance between what a child can do on their own and what he or she can do with adult guidance. Mentors can provide guidance and support to maximize the learning that takes place in informal and out-of-school contexts. Moreover, adult mentors often possess valuable social capital to connect youth interests and accomplishments with academic, career, and civic opportunities.

In future posts, we will be highlighting some mentoring programs that incorporate principles of connected learning, as well as exploring the ways in which mentoring can be integrated into connected learning.

In the meantime, we would love to hear any examples of mentoring programs that are working to foster connected learning.


Ito, M., et al. (2009). Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids

Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ito, M., et al. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Sebring, P. B., et al. (2013). Teens, digital media, and the Chicago Public Library. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.