Urban Wire Connecting learning to careers
Hamutal Bernstein
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Connected Learning is an educational approach that rejects the classroom as the only space for learning and empowers young people to follow their passions through informal learning opportunities in their communities and online. This approach helps them develop skills and learn about which career paths may motivate them to pursue a lifetime of learning.

Although these efforts are aligned with concepts of career readiness and workforce development, those similarities aren’t always clear. Connected Learning educators risk losing the ear of employers and colleges if they cannot clearly articulate how closely related their principles are to key workforce development concepts.

Bridging the gap may simply be a matter of speaking the same language.

How does Connected Learning work?

Young people are living their lives in densely connected, media-saturated contexts, connecting to peers through social media. Connected Learning aims to harness this environment to help young people explore their passions and, along the way, achieve stronger academic outcomes and fulfilling careers.

In this model, which emerged from years of investment in digital media and learning by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, young people control their own learning. They receive the tools and the peer and adult supports they need to set their own goals and gain skills and knowledge through hands-on learning opportunities.

Several innovative programs use Connected Learning, including makerspaces like the Chicago Public Library’s YOUMedia program, which gave teenagers access to equipment and supports to create their own music, video, and other media products, and innovative school designs like Quest to Learn, where students learn through games.

This approach suggests a solution to high dropout rates by getting students excited and engaged in learning, especially as they enter middle and high school. And it is motivated by the staggering inequities between the experiences of high- and low-income kids and their differential access to out-of-school learning and high-quality schools. It works to put the rich resources unleashed by modern technology and media in the hands of all youth.

Learning to speak the same language

Here are three ways Connected Learning and workforce development concepts overlap, even though the terms each camp uses is different.

  • “Career exploration” and “messing around”

    Matching people with specific career paths (and corresponding training) is a critical area of workforce development. In Connected Learning, this career exploration comes about by “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” as youth explore topics on their own, interact with peers in person and on social media, and identify their interests.

    A teenager interested in music might start out writing and recording a song in an open studio space. Then, spurred by friends at the studio, he or she may explore production, working with friends to produce a longer piece or an album. This may lead to video production or perhaps creative writing, coding, or even zoology. By trying different activities, teens can identify which career paths and industries they may want to target and learn which skills and tools they need to develop to achieve those goals.

  • “Career pathways” and “playlists”

    Some people may want to acquire in-depth and advanced knowledge of a subject through successive steps. To support them, Cities of LRNG has created “playlists” that guide learners through a series of activities to gain knowledge and explore different topics.

    A playlist might suggest to young people interested in science that they first go to an outdoor learning event on local flora at a park, to a workshop at the science museum, and then to a more advanced biology program where they conduct experiments.

    Following a playlist builds knowledge and skills chunk by chunk. This “chunked” approach of breaking down a training goal into achievable steps resonates with many key concepts in workforce development, such as the career pathway model. Efforts to break up learning into discrete, stackable activities is a way to lead people down a path to identify their own interests, strengths, and, ultimately, career goals.

  • “Microcredentials” and “badges”

    The digital setting of many Connected Learning experiences allows people to capture and document their skills in a way that traditional credentials and résumés cannot. Learners can document their own work products, and educators can document their observations and assessments.

    A future employer could look back on a candidate’s past learning activities and products through a digital portfolio, viewing earned digital badges with associated “artifacts,” which together illustrate a nuanced account of a person’s learning trajectory, knowledge, and expertise. A digital portfolio—or “backpack” as Mozilla’s Open Badges program calls it—can provide more tangible and specific proof of knowledge and skills than achievement test scores or bullet points on a résumé.

    This task-based documentation aligns with movements in workforce development toward competency- and skills-based training and assessment.

Connected Learning provides a paradigm to bridge informal learning advocates and educators with employers and workforce development stakeholders. But it is important that practitioners and researchers share a common language and understand how interest-driven learning is synonymous with career exploration and skill development.


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Research Areas Education Workforce
Tags Employment Higher education Workforce development Job training Youth employment and training Beyond high school: education and training Technology and future of learning and training
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center