February 3, 2020

Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship–The Final Report from the Connected Learning Research Network

Categories: Connected Learning, Research

It’s rare to have the opportunity to work with a stable team of extraordinary scholars over the course of a decade. It’s even rarer for this group of scholars to span a wide range of disciplines and approaches, while sharing common concerns in research, educational practice, and social change. A long time in the making, we are at last releasing our final collaborative report, The Connected Learning Research Network: Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship, from the MacArthur Foundation Connected Learning Research Network, that grew out of a decade of the network’s work together. 

Like our original 2013 report which launched the CLRN, this new report describes the connected learning approach and research in the context of broader social, economic, and technological changes. In this new report, however, we have the benefit of drawing from our own research studies conducted over the life of the network, learnings from partners putting connected learning into practice, as well as dialog and debate in our network meetings that took place four times a year for nearly ten years. You will find substantial updates to our connected learning model and design principles, a new synthesis of research evidence relevant to connected learning, and an overview of the studies conducted by the network. 

Our understanding of connected learning evolved significantly since our original conceptualization. We renamed the three spheres of learning that are integrated through connected learning from “interests,” “peer culture,” and “academics” to “interests,” “relationships,” and “opportunities.” I encourage you to read the report if you’re curious as to why we made these changes! 

Three spheres of connected learning, renamed and explained

We also refined our description of what constitutes connected learning experiences and design principles, by considering the role of four elements: sponsorship, shared practices, shared purpose, and connections across settings. These elements represent an expansion of our original design principles of shared purpose, production-centered, and openly networked.

We summarize the uniqueness of the connected learning approach as follows:

  • We focus on how to support the interests and development of diverse learners rather than center our work on organizational goals, considering how learning and pursuits span settings such as home, school, community, and online. The focus is not on reforming a particular institution, such as schools or libraries, but on situating these institutions within a broader set of supports for youth pursuits.
  • We conceptualize learning and development as a process of network building, in which building social capital, contributing to collective goals, and belonging to communities is essential. This view is in contrast to approaches to learning that center on individual knowledge and skill acquisition and see education as a linear pipeline and progression.
  • Designing for connected learning takes an ecological and systemic approach, which emphasizes partnerships across sites of learning. It is not about implementing a particular technology or technique. 
  • Rather than see research standing apart, we believe in community-engaged scholarship. The stakeholders we study and seek to benefit have essential knowledge and perspectives that must be at the table in research and design that aims for equity and positive learning outcomes.

I am particularly proud of this last dimension of our work, because it was a unique aspect of the network’s collaborative ethos, and one that is easily misunderstood. Often those who are advocating for technologically powered solutions find themselves in conflict with critical scholarly voices. Our network included scholars and practitioners with divergent critical, empirical, design and impact-oriented approaches. Over the course of our many meetings, debates over food and wine, and collaborative writing, we have forged ways of understanding how all these approaches can be brought to bear on a common endeavor and shared values. The report represents an integration of both inspiration that fuels new efforts and coalitions, as well as careful critical and empirical research that keeps us honest and in touch with limits and failures. We believe that this kind of integration is essential during polarizing times, and to honor commitment to research in the service of practice and social justice.

After the CLRN formally disbanded in 2018, I’ve so missed seeing my colleagues from the network, though grateful that many have joined the faculty at the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine. I hope this final report is a fitting legacy for our collaborative work together, and am looking forward to continuing to see many more publications and impacts from the network in the coming years.

The Connected Learning Research Network: Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship


Mizuko Ito

Richard Arum

Dalton Conley

Kris Gutiérrez

Ben Kirshner

Sonia Livingstone

Vera Michalchik

William Penuel

Kylie Peppler

Nichole Pinkard

Jean Rhodes

Katie Salen Tekinbaş

Juliet Schor

Julian Sefton-Green

Craig Watkins


With Contributions from:

Alicia Blum-Ross

Lindsey “Luka” Carfagna

Crystle Martin

Mishael Sedas

Nat Soti

Photo from the final CLRN meeting in October 2017