Engaging Learners with Emerging and Connective Technologies

Engaging Learners with Emerging and Connective Technologies

“We should expect them to learn more while being taught less. Their personal engagement with their own learning is crucial; adults cannot ‘give’ them an education. Too much giving breeds docility, and the docility of students’ minds is a widespread reality in American high schools.” Theodore Sizer

What did you do in school today” is a common question educators encourage parents to ask of their student. The responses can vary, but sadly, too often they demonstrate just how disengaged many learners are in school. This reality is a concern long noted by many leading thinkers such as Dewey, Sizer, Wagner, Gordon, Pink, and Robinson and calls for engagement to become a critical focus for educational reform efforts.

To understand the scope of this problem we must look beyond students who are bored to determine accurate levels of engagement. Walk the halls, visit classrooms, and talk with learners. If you observe closely and listen carefully, you’ll find learners that appear to be engaged by their physical signs and activity but are, in reality, intellectually and emotionally removed from the learning environment.

As Schlechty notes, these are the strategically compliant or ritually compliant students that have learned to play the game: guided by outcome and grade, enticed by the path of least resistance, focused on superficial thinking, grounded in minimal risk-taking, and an absence of learning transfer. Too often, we fail to recognize this reality as problematic and remain satisfied by the realities of these students simply because they match the common definition of a “good” student.  It is time to address the current problems of engagement and begin reconnecting these learners.

Reconnecting learners is a difficult but achievable goal that schools must make a priority in order to remain viable. It will require the interplay of engagement, learning theory, generational learner traits, and formative assessment to properly influence instruction. A focus on learning immersed in emerging and connective technologies is required, along with an understanding that some students will initially resist a student-centered, engaged learning environment focused on what Prensky calls “Partnering”.

Tools Focused > Instruction Focused > Learner Focused

The social media phenomenon is currently demonstrating a heightened level of personal engagement across blended spaces: physical and digital spaces, social and working spaces, and formal and informal spaces. These blended spaces are being shaped by the ability to navigate and interact with hyper speed information flow, to design and maintain networks, to create and share content, and to socialize and engage in customized and personalized ways.

One only needs to look at how educators are embracing these technologies for their self-designed and personalized learning to see why they are important for use with students. Through the use of social media tools, educators are becoming increasingly self-directed, personalized, collaborative, and more fully engaged in their own learning. They are utilizing these technologies to enhance their own learning in a context created and framed with the influence of other learners. They are now capable of exploring without mandate or constraint from any formal institution, which will influence how they interact with students and colleagues.

Imagine learners in our classrooms experiencing flow the way many educators online do – powerful, passion-driven learning occurring independent of time,space, place, path, or device.  Many have gravitated towards this “different”, blended environment in society yet our learning environments have not.

Why are learners in our classrooms not afforded the same opportunity to design and personalize their learning? The answer clearly identifies a gap between personal experiences available to a learner inside and outside of school. It is time for schools to engage learners as designers of their learning and eliminate restrictions that inhibit creativity, risk-taking, thinking, and growth.

It is important to recognize that an increasing number of educators are exploring these tools and some have already shifted from a being tool focused to instructional focused. While this provides wonderful new contexts for instruction, it is slow in evolving and falls short of what is really needed: a fundamental shift in our use of these technologies towards learning and learner centered contexts. The next big move that is needed to close the gap is from an instructional focus to a focus on the learner and learning. Focusing on the learner and learning are essential if we are to begin leveraging the power of emerging and connective technologies for student engagement. These technologies provide a wealth of opportunities to self-select the tools used to construct meaning, represent understanding, and transfer learning in ways that makes thinking visible. The fundamental shift from instruction focused to learner and learning focused will promote intellectual freedom and gives life to creative and critical thought.

Creating such an environment requires difficult conversations about current instructional practices: “If we aspire to create learning environments where all students are engaged in using and developing 21st century competencies, however, a much deeper approach may be required; one that provides for inclusive and sustained work with ideas and practices that disrupt prevailing assumptions about teaching, learning, and educational outcomes”(CEA).

At the core, this requires us to not only find ways to infuse technology into our instruction but to engage learners with opportunities and technologies that empowers them to design and personalize passion-based learning through choice, voice, and network construction.


  1. Depart with the one tool, one path, one choice, one outcome philosophy (e.g. everyone must create a poster using Glogster)
  2. Focus on self-determination theory and social media as a mechanism to personalize and customize the learning environment
  3. Utilize design thinking and Challenge-Based Learning through proposals and conferencing that empower learners to contribute to the construction of learning paths: learning outcomes, content, process, products, tools, and assessment.
  4. Guide learners in the selection and diversification of technologies that meet their learning needs and the demonstration of learning
  5. Foster responsibility by establishing choice and flexibility in due dates, learning outcomes, content, process, and assessment.
  6. Develop learner owned spaces that are independent of a course, support multidisciplinary interaction, and evolve with the learner.


  1. Equip learners with their own digital authorship tools: a blog, video suite, audio suite, photo suite, and a think tank space
  2. Make thinking visible using digital authorship tools and other self-selected web 2.0 tools
  3. Promote self-authorship, 21st Century enlightenment, and critical thinking through creation, contribution, and mash-ups
  4. Reallocate classroom time for collaboration, inquiry, and prosumtion with a foundation in argumentative literacy, digital literacy’s, and partnering.
  5. Root assessment in performance and process focused on the deep learning that transfers
  6. Provide space and time for meta-cognition, critical self-examination, and self-awareness to develop more autonomous learners and thinkers.

Network Construction

  1. Build a learning community rooted in empathy, risk-taking, and innovation
  2. Establish and maintain a culture of creation, sharing and transparency
  3. Model the power of networking and Connectivism in your own learning and teaching
  4. Expand our notions of learning to networks and connections that leverage human expertise and resources to support collaboration, active participation, social- and passion-based explorations, service learning, and partnership development.
  5. Expose learners to sharing and networking tools and allow them to leverage the mobile learning devices that make this possible.
  6. Blend the role of teacher and student to just learners through the use of networks and knowledge commons including the creation of a toolbox of technologies built by the learning community

Ignite Their Passions

“My own commitment is to pursue this question: How do we create conditions for learning that reinvite, reignite, and reconnect? If we can invite children to engage in their burning questions and give them the resources to do so, they can achieve remarkable results.” Stephanie Pace Marshall

On a recent visit to to the Museum of Play, I became enamored with the children exploring in an obvious state of flow, lost in the moment physically and mentally. In that moment, I leaned over to a father who was equally enamored as his children explored butterflies and exclaimed “imagine if all their moments were like this”. He retorted  “imagine if their classrooms were like this”.

Our schools need to become environments where  teachers and students are both recognized as learners, where digital and physical spaces combine to form a multidimensional learning space, where teacher and student centered learning activities fully engage the learner. When will choice, authorship, and network construction become part of the norm that empowers learners to engage socially, passionately, and intellectually.

Customization, passion, play, and exploration need to be accepted as interconnected with engagement and learning. These are non-negotiable if we are to capture and shape the hearts and minds of the whole child. We live in a time that is unparalleled in providing learners support to ignite their passions and become engaged learners for life. Schools cannot continue to function as walled environments with a one size fits all, linear model of curriculum, instruction, assessments, labels, and spaces when the potential for customized, autonomous learning environments exists.

It is time for schools to foster learning environments that empower learners with the tools that allow their voices and ideas to touch the world; embrace their choice of path, creation, and representation of their learning; and provide them with environments to support the development of 21st Century habits. It is here we will come to know engagement that fulfills the purpose of education: ignite and support the passions of learners while developing the skills, habits of mind, experiences, and dispositions that foster the whole child and qualities of genius.

Co-Written with Dr. Michael Riggle, Superintendent of District 225

References and Influences

Bransford, J. (Ed.). (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Retrieved January 13, 2011, from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=6160Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1991). Making connections: teaching and the human brain. Alexandria, VA.: Association for supervision and Curriculum Development.Chen, M. (2010). Education nation: six leading edges of innovation in our schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997).Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: BasicBooks.

Dewey, John (1919).  Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education.  NY: Macmillan.

Gordon, G., & Crabtree, S. (2006). Building engaged schools: getting the most out of America’s classrooms. New York: Gallup Press.

Jacobs, H. H. (2010).Curriculum 21: essential education for a changing world. Alexandria, VA.: Association for supervision and Curriculum Development.

Itō, M. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation. New York: Riverhead Books.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co..

Kohn, A. (2004). What does it mean to be well educated? and more essays on standards, grading, and other follies . Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.

Marshall, S. P. (2006). The power to transform: leadership that brings learning and schooling to life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2002).Critical thinking: tools for taking charge of your professional and personal life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times/Prentice Hall.

Perkins, D. N. (2009). Making learning whole: how seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Prensky, M. (2010). Teaching digital natives: partnering for real learning. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin

Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: how finding your passion changes everything. New York: Viking.

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge . S.l.: s.n.].

Sizer, T. R. (1992). Horace’s compromise the dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Schlechty, P. C. (2009).Leading for learning: how to transform schools into learning organizations. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Schlechty, P. C. (2002).Working on the work: an action plan for teachers, principals, and superintendents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schmoker, M. J. (2006).Results now: how we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA.: Association for supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown up digital: how the net generation is changing your world. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need–and what we can do about it. New York: Basic Books.


    • RT @ryanbretag: New from Metanoia & co-written with my superintendent: Engaging Learners with Emerging and Connective Technologies http: …

    • @ryanbretag Great post-Congrats to both of you-Very high level. Guessing that @tracycrowley77 & I will share w/others to your west. Thanks!

      • @jasonklein @djakes thanks for the thoughts on the Engagement piece.

  1. Love this post. This paragraph says it all: “Why are learners in our classrooms not afforded the same opportunity to design and personalize their learning? The answer clearly identifies a gap between personal experiences available to a learner inside and outside of school. It is time for schools to engage learners as designers of their learning and eliminate restrictions that inhibit creativity, risk-taking, thinking, and growth.”
    I intend to try to use this ideas in my classroom in 2 weeks. Engaging the learners by personalizing their learning experiences. I’m going to take these new risks. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. This article gets at the heart of student engagement in the 21st century. Daunting task for some, particularly “seasoned” educators, but necessary for all.

  3. I absolutely agree with what is stated above. I would love to teach with students that are all engaged, technology willing and see me as a peer and not as the distributor of a grade. The questions I ask myself are:

    1. How would this work with beginning students who are simply learning words and to put a basic sentence together?
    2. How will the whole school embrace this way of thinking and how will our time, space and overall school structure change?
    3. What about teachers that do not embrace this way of thinking? What training will there be to prepare teachers in the 21st century? Are universities going to embrace this way of thinking and training our teachers?
    4. Is technology the only way to really prepare our students for their future profession?
    5. I believe a concrete plan of action is necessary to really prepare teachers.

  4. I whole heartedly believe that our nation’s schools are behind the times and are not preparing our students for the personal choices and endless opportunities that await them. Of course students need to have a framework of working knowledge, but information is now easy to access. It’s how you utilize and manipulate it that defines your talent. Many teachers, like myself, became involved in education because we have succeeded in the confined structure of our schools, it probably wouldn’t be wrong to say that many of us are convergent thinkers, yet divergent thinking seems to be an essential skill for the future. Use and understanding of technology is the crucial element in facilitating this new way of thinking. It’s our responsibility to bring it into the classroom.

  5. I think that this is a profound statement about our approach to education. Teachers will have to give up a lot to achieve this. I think the payoff can be enormous, but we really have to adjust our thinking about our role. We are going to have to become the same kind of learners/teachers we expect our students to be. We are going to have to enter into multiple learning environments. We are going to have to become fluent in tech tools that we want our students to utilize. We are going to have to model the learning we expect from our students. And we are going to have to give up our view of ourselves as the master of and the principle deliverer of content. There is no way for us to keep up with the expanding content our students have flooding in to them anyway.



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