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Learners take control online

By Ann Nordby

Anyone who has been around teenagers in the last five years knows that they are constantly online. 91% of them use smart phones daily. These devices are like extensions of their bodies. How should youth workers respond? Your impulse might be to ask youth to put their devices away to avoid distraction but what if you harnessed them as learning tools?

The internet has been disrupting institutions for about 20 years now, and youth programming is no exception -- when people have computers in their pockets, they get to decide what to pay attention to. Since we’re in the business of facilitating interest-driven learning, this is not a bad thing.

In past 10 years, those of us who design online learning environments have come to realize that online learning shouldn't stand apart from face-to-face youth programming. Nor must it be a solitary activity. It can be integrated with the myriad learning resources that youth have -- mentors, books, interest groups, videos and educational games, to name a few.

Connected Learning is a model that recognizes the web of resources and the implications for teaching. Youth programs can engage young people by facilitating learning in the way young people are accustomed to accessing information -- through multiple media and with the learner at the center. Youth workers are still very much needed, but they will meet youth where they are today.

The research backbone of connected learning is Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, published by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub in 2013. Connected learning is peer-supported, interest-centered and academically interested. It leverages digital tools for media production, social media for interest groups, and has open access to learning resources.

I’m on the Minnesota 4-H online learning team, which is developing online adventures -- learning modules in which youth ages 10-14, in small groups led by an expert mentor, study subjects that interest them. They build things, observe, report and resolve to tackle issues in their communities.

In 4-H Online Adventures, 4-H'ers learned about pollinators
We take a connected learning approach: for example in the “Pollinator Superheroes” adventure, we asked participants to identify pollinators in their garden, upload photos of what they found and discuss their findings. They played a matching game about pollinator body parts and flowers and took a behind-the-scenes tour of a university entomology lab. We asked them to name ways they will help pollinators in their local areas.

We’re finding that youth like the format, which is not surprising – Generation Z and most millennials have been online all their lives. In a way, our goal is to make our platform invisible – just a framework for all the things that young people do when they are driven by their own interests. But there are implications: How to incorporate curriculum? How will the adult facilitator’s job change?

Are you incorporating online learning into your program? What challenges do you see?

-- Ann Nordby, online communications & learning

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  1. This is an exciting project, and I love how you're translating the connected learning framework into learning adventures for students. I do hope that, to respond to your last questions, those in charge of curricula will be open to change, incorporating new possibilities such as you are developing here.

    1. Thanks! Most of our 4-H online adventures have been adaptations of existing curricula. It will take longer for our entire program to adapt. Luckily, we have strong support from our department.
      But I do hope to hear from youth workers in other programs about their experiences.

  2. Like you, I also see huge potential in using distance learning tools and technology to keep the 4-H program model relevant and current to today's youth and volunteers. One way that I do this is through a hybrid, or flipped classroom approach. We've heard a fair amount from parents that they get their kids involved in 4-H to get them *away* from screen time, but I think screens can allow us to achieve higher quality outcomes from our limited face-to-face time. Much of our curriculum involves knowledge transfer (i.e. lectures, etc.) that works really well in an online environment but could be boring in person. In addition to providing education, 4-H also wants to build young peoples' sense of belonging and mastery of skill. Relationship development and skill demonstration are harder to do online. By allowing youth to take in content focused on knowledge transfer online in short, interesting snippets, youth workers can make good use of their limited face time.

    I also think technology can be a powerful tool for improving the quality of the 4-H program by offering 4-H volunteers project curriculum through short video lessons. Our volunteers sometimes lack confidence in certain project areas or they simply don't have time to plan highly educational, yet interactive club meetings. Online project curriculum that allows volunteers to show videos and then facilitate activities and reflection with youth would be a huge help to those volunteers!


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