March 5, 2021

Connected learning for a connected age

What would it look like if we redesigned school for the world of tomorrow?

Technology has completely revolutionized how we shop, communicate, entertain ourselves, and even how we work, but no such revolution has happened in education.

There are many reasons for this, including the fact that our education system is dominated by a large, entrenched system, but this is no reason that it should not change. The world is changing faster than ever before - 65% of today’s elementary school students will work in careers that are yet to be invented. It’s hard to believe that incremental changes to the system that educated our grandparents and parents will be the optimal solution for 21st century youth.

We believe it’s time to question the status quo. In a world where we work and engage with people around the globe, does it still make sense to send kids to hyperlocal schools with others just like them? In a world where technology allows kids to learn at exactly the pace that is right for them, does it still make sense to standardize curriculum based on age? In a world where many people can work from anywhere and schedules are flexible, does it still make sense for schools to be so rigid? In a world where success will depend far more on fundamentals like adaptability, creativity, critical thinking and EQ than on knowledge, does it still make sense to focus largely on academic disciplines?

In our opinion, the answer is no. To truly prepare kids for the world in which they will live and to take advantage of the technologies, information and global opportunities that are and will be available, we believe the following shifts need to take place in education:

Today's schools New learning paradigm
Schools bring together kids from the same neighborhood, limiting racial, socioeconomic and political diversity and creating deep inequity in the quality of schools.
Rather than being limited by zip code, kids access a diversity of others from across their nation and the world because virtual learning eliminates boundaries.
Technology is used within the constraints of the existing system (one that was designed for pens, paper and textbooks) which limits its power to truly revolutionize learning.
Instead of fitting technology into an existing educational model, technology is used to completely reimagine how learning happens.
There is limited opportunity for kids to pursue what interests them, to move at their own pace, to manage their own schedules and to be independent.
Kids have considerable control over what they learn, how they learn it, when they learn and even where they are in the world when they learn. And they always know why they are learning what they are learning.
Extrinsic motivation
The goal of students is to get good grades and test scores so you can get a good job and stay there.
Intrinsic motivation
The goal is for kids to be motivated by the joy of learning and the satisfaction of achieving their potential, so that they become self-motivated lifelong learners capable of reinventing their careers many times over the course of their lives.
The primary purpose of school is to pass on information in core academic subjects and measure how well it is retained.
The primary purpose of learning is more than academics, it is to also develop fundamental skills and qualities essential to success in the 21st century: critical thinking, creativity, adaptability, EQ, communications skills and more.
Prior to the internet, the teacher was the holder of knowledge and their role was to pass it on.
Thanks to the internet, high quality, engaging educational content is readily available, obviating the need for lectures. Teachers are freed to focus on mentoring students, providing rich feedback, and facilitating meaningful discussions.
Curriculum is broken into distinct academic subjects with limited connection to one another.
Kids solve real-world problems that require them to apply skills and learning from multiple academic disciplines simultaneously. After all, the real world isn’t divided into school subjects.
Curriculum tends to be theoretical in nature with limited opportunities for applied, real-world learning.
Kids apply knowledge and skills to hands-on and/or real-world settings, creative projects or directed research.

A new class of modern education companies is emerging to make all or many of these shifts. They all differ in their implementation, but they have three things in common. They are:

  • Digitally connected - rather than bolting technology onto an existing learning model they take advantage of the latest technologies to rethink how learning happens. The internet and live video is used to replace textbooks and lectures and to allow kids to learn from home or anywhere. Adaptive technology is used to make learning more personalized, flexible and accessible. These companies are committed to always being at the leading edge of using technology in education and always being open to fundamentally changing the learning model as new opportunities arise.
  • Globally connected - by leveraging online learning to bring together kids from different regions, nations, backgrounds and perspectives, these companies break down the socioeconomic, racial, political and national silos that are perpetuated by the traditional zoned approach to schooling. They take a global approach to learning - focusing curriculum on important world and societal issues and encouraging kids to share and learn from their diverse experiences 
  • Personally connected - these companies celebrate the uniqueness of each child by giving kids considerable control over what they learn and how they learn it and by helping kids tap into their unique strengths and interests. They move away from the traditional approach of standardized curriculum and grouping by grades and put considerable emphasis on developing critical skills like creativity, critical thinking and communication rather than just acquiring knowledge. 

We refer to this new category of education companies as Connected Learning Networks

Connected Learning is a term that has been used in research since the 1990s to describe a model of education rooted in personal interests, supportive communities and real-world opportunities, and that takes advantage of the abundant access to information and diverse social connection in the digital age. Today’s Connected Learning Networks take these principles and apply them to a new vision for online education, one that goes well beyond the first wave of online schooling (dominated by companies like K12 and Laurel Springs) that effectively reproduced traditional education in a virtual setting. Connected Learning Networks take inspiration from the best practices of many of today’s most innovative bricks and mortar schools - project-based learning, design thinking, mixed-grade classrooms, interdisciplinary themes, to name a few - but unlike these schools which are very hard to scale and are often associated with high tuition, Connected Learning Networks have the potential to be far more affordable, accessible and scalable. 

We’ve attempted to map the education landscape and Connected Learning’s place within it. We’ve identified a handful of organizations that fit the definition for Connected Learning Networks, but it’s likely there are more and certainly more will emerge. We would love your help to build out this market map. Please reach out if you think we are missing any major players or categories in our map, and especially if you know of other Connected Learning Networks that we have missed.

We firmly believe that the need to reimagine education for the 21st century is universal and that every child will benefit from an education that is more personalized, globally-connected and technologically integrated. Our hope is that Connected Learning Networks not only benefit millions of kids directly, but also help to inspire many existing schools and organizations to take a more connected approach to education.

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