What is connected learning?

Guest post by Kyle Matthew Oliver

Connected learning is, in short, an opportunity for churches to more deeply engage with their communities and invest in local young people.

It is also a movement that acknowledges a truth churches have always known: that learning happens everywhere.

In communities across the country, especially in self-identified Cities of Learning, educators and other local leaders are finding ways to nurture and coordinate this learning, formal and informal. Connected learning partners include schools, libraries, museums, scouting groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, and—our perennial favorite in the faith formation world—households.

My friend and colleague Lisa Brown and I just attended a gathering of connected learning practitioners in Pittsburgh. It was sponsored by one of the major funders of connected learning initiatives in that region and hosted by Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab.

We came away with the strong conviction that congregations have a role to play in the connected learning ecosystems emerging all over the country.

On the whole, the educators we met seemed open to the idea of partnering with faith groups. Indeed, Michael Robbins of Span Learning came to his current work helping launch Washington’s District of Learning from a previous position at the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education

But clearly it hadn’t occurred to most of the teachers and nonprofit leaders we met that they might reach out to churches for space to host connected learning programs or to partner in designing and offering them.

On further reflection, that wasn’t exactly surprising:

  • Finding the right partners and building sustainable collaborations in this emerging movement is not easy. And the religious dimension, including fear of young learners being proselytized, may make it particularly difficult to build trust around faith-based involvement in connected learning.
  • Poor church websites and IT infrastructure make it difficult to discover and promote programs at churches, and to host learning that takes advantage of Internet connectivity or other specialized tools.
  • Although churches have much to offer such partnerships—we are experienced event planners, savvy designers of age-appropriate learning experiences, and supporters and practitioners of the visual and performing arts—our interest and skill is probably not well-known to those coordinating connected learning initiatives.

We know lots of churches are already involved in formal and informal learning communities in their neighborhoods. Here are just some of the ways Christians have been involved in the connected learning movement before it was called that:

  • hosting and providing volunteers for after-school tutoring,
  • training young musicians through choir school programs,
  • sponsoring scouting troops,
  • contributing to mentoring and wellness programs for at-risk youth, and
  • (you knew it was coming) providing safe summer space and teaching the values of faith through summer camps and VBS.

We hope as this movement gains momentum, these experienced partner-ers will help teach the rest of us best practices for getting connected. We know that most faith groups need to do a better job of translating their missions to secular audiences and finding common cause with others who work for justice and the betterment of our communities.

I hope we will also reach out to the leadership of these increasingly sophisticated connected learning networks to learn about what they’re seeking: space needs, programming needs, leadership and volunteer needs.

I hope we will be creative and flexible in thinking through what we have to offer. We can do so much to invest in our communities and get churches on their radars in the process. “Butts in pews” are not the point of this work, though we know engaged congregations often grow as a result of their community involvement.

Helping transform our neighborhoods into places of vibrant and meaningful lifelong learning should be its own reward. And it fits perfectly into our mission—empowered as it is by the Spirit who leads us into all truth and connects us one to another.

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching. Before seminary, he helped found a connected learning network called The Hacker Within for graduate students in Madison, WI.

Photo credit: “Pick Your Play: Digital or Analog?” by Eugene Kim via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

What does tech fluency have to do with Christian formation?

Guest post by Lisa Brown.

The following post was initially written for an Episcopalian Christian educator’s blog but it I hope it would encourage anyone who wants to make the world a better place.


I just spent two days at Context 2015: Tech Fluency for Teaching & Learning. The conference was sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, housed in the university’s Robots Institute.

What could an Episcopal priest (e-Formation’s Kyle Oliver) and a Sunday school teacher (that’s me) possibly gain from this gathering of techies, scientists, and secular educators? What could we want with robotics? Circuitry? Digital imaging? Digital badges?

What would Mr. Rogers say?

Perhaps a hint that we weren’t completely out of our element was represented in the simple choice of venue for the event.

In addition to the breakout sessions at the university—which is known for both letters and science—we gathered for each morning’s keynote address in the Carnegie Museum of Art. Best of all, we concluded our conference in WQED studios, where the perennial children’s classic television show Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood was filmed.

In addition to being a beloved presence in the lives of millions of children, Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister whose message of unconditional love is embodied by Christian formation ministers everywhere. His theology was expressed in his profound respect for children’s curiosity, their worldview, and their need to explore. This gentle outlook served budding philosophers and scientists equally well.

Which brings us back to the technology. We couldn’t help but think about how what we saw at the conference would be useful in Christian formation. Here are a couple of ideas …

Arts & Bots: Bringing poetry to life

As an incredible example of the intersection of humanities and science, we learned about one of the “Arts & Bots” projects in which students created motorized shoebox dioramas based on poetry.

In choosing which poetic image to represent, and by carefully constructing the diorama out of traditional craft materials brought to life by robotic components for motion, sound, and light, the students were encouraged to “go deeper” into the meaning of the poems they were studying.

They were forced to consider the writer’s intention and context, as they reread and interpreted the words as a visual, animated image. In their personal response, they were forced to ask “I wonder?” questions.

Wait a minute. That creative exegesis and questioning sounds a lot like Godly Play.

Telling a story with 100 objects

In an illustration of technology being used to enhance historical understanding, we discovered the “100 Objects” project. Based on a popular exhibit at the British Museum, “The History of the World in 100 Objects,” the instructor asked his students to narrate a history of race in the U.S.

The students chose the objects, and then recorded audio podcasts telling a first-person narrative, a witness to history from the “perspective” of that object. Next, the students used graphic design software to create posters featuring the object and a scannable QR code.

The posters were displayed where other students could use their smartphones to read the QR code and gain access to the podcast. In one example, we listened to a microphone from the Cotton Club talk about being present in one of the first spaces where people of different races could mingle socially and witnessing the memorable day when Billie Holiday sang.

Wait a minute. Educating young people about the history of race in America sounds like an effort to transform unjust structures of society. That’s one of the Five Marks of Mission in the Episcopal Church.

Immigrant children become Bigshots

Another fascinating demonstration introduced the Bigshot” camera, the first digital camera designed for experiential learning. Children can assemble the entire device from a kit, and understand much of the underlying science with the help of some engaging online tutorials.

As a Christian educator, they had me at “experiential.”

In one Bigshot learning project, immigrant children were each given a kit to assemble the digital camera, which is powered by a hand-crank and features a “Swiss Army”-style rotating lens. The children then took to the local art museum, where none had ever visited. They took photos there, had them printed (something most could not have afforded to do), and then got to see them exhibited at the museum with their families as special guests.

To tell our story is a basic human urge; in fact, it is through storytelling that our shared identity is formed and propagated.

For these mostly marginalized children, for whom English was a second language, and for whom economic and academic prospects were sadly limited, this camera gave them a voice with which to speak and be heard. It gave them a measure of dignity.

Wait a minute. That sounds a lot like the Baptismal Covenant promise to “…strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer)


At this point you may be asking if these examples are just gimmicks. Isn’t it a bit of a stunt to pitch technology education as Christian formation. I think not.

Here’s an observation: in today’s world, if you give an 18-month-old child a spoon and an iPhone, you might be shocked to discover that they are equally adept with both tools.

Technology provides us with tools. And tools are no more and no less than the means by which we accomplish something else.

We build, we travel, we communicate using our tools. We share our faith using our tools. Before you could read the Bible on your Kindle, you read it in a book printed on a digital printer. Or an offset printer.

Before the printing press, it would have been a hand-copied book written with a quill. Further back, before most people could read, we shared our stories and formed our community using stained glass windows and altar frescoes, crafted with hand tools and delicate brushes. We used the tools we had to tell our story.

So today, when we have tools that are capable of miracles compared to their precursors, why wouldn’t we use them?

This is how people communicate. This is how people form communities. This is how people interpret the world in which we live.

To proclaim the Good News, to teach and nurture believers, we need to meet them where they are. We need to speak their language.

It was with an almost theological orientation that Context Conference keynote speaker, former Carnegie Mellon provost Indira Nair, urged us to teach the next generation to use the marvelous tools available to us. The root of the word “technology,” she explained, was derived from the Greek word tekhne, meaning art, or craftsmanship, and logos, meaning expression.

What tools in our modern world will allow us to cleverly craft and express the foundational stories of our faith? As Nair noted, “…stories inspire and orient me.”

What tools will allow us to carry our faith into the next century and orient young believers? How can they help us to, as Nair challenged us, “invert the standard power relationship and privilege the child’s voice”?

As Christian educators, these are the questions we need to be asking.

Lisa Brown (@LCBrown67 ) is the Director of Children’s Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA. She is also a coordinator for the Children’s Ministry Team of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon, an active member of Forma, and a multi-troop Girl Scout leader, Lisa is passionate about creatively engaging, enlightening, and enriching the spiritual lives of young people.

The Rev. Kyle Oliver is the Digital Missioner and Learning Lab Coordinator for the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is the coordinator of the E-formation Conference (http://www.eformationvts.org/ ) which is an ecumenical conference on ministry in a digital world.

Educational Technology Fluency at CONTEXT 2015

The Context 2015 Conference held April 21-23, 2015, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was an amazing opportunity to meet, connect, and learn from so many knowledgable and passionate educators. I attended on Wednesday and enjoyed hearing Illah Nourbakhsh welcome attendees in the Carnegie Museum of Art and update everyone on the fantastic work from teachers and students using CREATE Lab resources to connect with their communities and use technology in creative ways. A nice tie in to Earth Day, I especially enjoyed learning about the Lemonade Stand project where "young scientists" used digital data collected with the CATTFish, a device which measures water quality. Do you know what's in your water?  These kids do; and they found a "sweet" way to educate others and build awareness. Check out out this video:

I was inspired by Keynote Speaker, Indira Nair. She discussed how technology at the root of the word means art and expression.  She advised us that “shared language leads to shared understanding.”  She also explained that technology education is “guiding [students] to thinking of and working in a bigger system with appropriate choices, ethics, languages, and voices.”  Her stories about her teaching experiences were entertaining and endearing. She gave an example of a high school student who asked a speaker at the end of his presentation on algae, “Who cares?” Teachers in the audience gave a little chuckle and Indira explained how she quickly rephrased the question for the presenter, saying, “What Joe means is…” But she went on to explain how she thought the student’s question was “very, very deep.” This powerful example stressed the importance of making meaningful lessons. She shared  how she would always “tell her students up front” what she was “trying to do” and that she “made sure her students CARE about and understand WHY” she was “trying to teach something and not  just WHAT she was teaching.” She left us with the same words she delivered to her students at the end of her courses, “I hope you leave with more questions than when you came in.” I would love to have been a student in her class!

We enjoyed a rainy Earth Day walk outside to CMU with a colorful umbrella parade. We were welcomed with hot coffee and dispersed to our choice of sessions or workshops. I enjoyed Riverpoint Academy teachers, Regan Drew and John Marshall, share examples of student’s using “real tools, to solve real problems, for real people.” I loved their way of introducing tools by leaving them out and allowing the student’s natural curiosity to lead them to learning about their uses and build on their own interests and talents.  Robert Bandao and Rick Malmstrom, from the Ellis School had a dynamic presentation on teamwork with collaborative strategies for integrating technology in creativity ways. Their presentation included a cross-cultural exchange with a school in Brazil as an an example of showing how technology makes it possible to expand beyond the walls of your classroom.

It was standing room only in the Tech Fluency Session, followed by a boxed lunch with a choice of sandwich, cookie, and the best potato chips, I ever tasted.  I enjoyed sharing ideas about CREATE Lab and the GigaPan at lunch with some out of state educators who work at the collegiate level. If you haven’t seen any GIGApans yet, check out http://gigapan.com/ as a resource for your classroom and look at http://www.cmucreatelab.org/projects/GigaPan/pages/GigaPan_Education for some great ideas for classroom use with CREATE Lab.

The Context Clinic was a wonderful opportunity to visit different stations to learn about tech fluency from experts!  There were teachers taking notes, brainstorming, sharing ideas and advice.

I joined Mac Howison (Sprout Fund), Gregg Behr  (Grable Foundation), Jim Denova (Benedum Foundation), and Megan Cicconi (Allegheny Intermediate Unit) in a Workshop on Idea Generation: Refining Projects for Grant Writing. The panel presented information on local grant opportunities and allowed time for small group work to craft or develop an idea that could lead to a grant proposal. As a classroom teacher, I was happy to share some grant writing tips including:

    1. Be creative and follow your passion when looking for grant opportunities.
    2. Look for that “shared language” that Indira Nair talked about in her Keynote.
    Take advantage of the resources and contacts that you have.
    3. Be an innovator.  Indira Nair also told us that “innovators, know one thing well, but can expand beyond it.”  Look for opportunities to collaborate with other groups to make connections for support and for project sustainability.
    4. If you don’t get what you need at the start, don’t be afraid to keep asking.  Be positive, and ask someone else for support or help.
    5. Say THANKS.  Explain to the group who offered support how you will help share their message.  Speak at conferences to share your work and spread the good news of your success.

The conference was a great experience and a way to connect with some old friends and make new friends. Thanks to conference team, you did a fantastic job.
And special thanks to the conference organizers and teams.  I hope everyone will continue the conversations started at the conference in in the words of Indira Nair, “I hope you leave with more questions than you came in [to the conference] with!”

Here is an Animoto with some photos from Wednesday at the conference.

Guest post by:
Zee Ann Poerio, K-8 Computer Teacher
St. Louise de Marillac School