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).