Connected Learning as informal learning across an academic department, part 3

I’ve shared the first two pieces of a larger concept paper I’m writing. Part I presents a scenario-based view of what connected learning as informal learning across an academic department looks like. Part II includes some introductory text and a schematic of the concept. In that schematic, you can see that student ePortfolios play a central role in the design. It so happens that, over a year ago, I had the opportunity to work with Laura Gogia to write a major federal grant proposal that centered on ePortfolios. The grant wasn’t funded; I think something like 2% of applicants received funding. I had been looking for the right moment to share some of what we (well, really Laura) wrote in the proposal because I think it’s pretty great. Some of the narrative works nicely as part of the concept paper, so what I share below is a natural third blog post as I publicly share the development of the concept paper.

Additionally, Martha Burtis’ keynote at #domains17 served as a good provocation for sharing part of the grant proposal. Burtis asks three questions at the foundation of the Domain of One’s Own project/initiative/movement:

  1. How do we create a space within our schools (with all their political, technical, and institutional realities) that truly embodies a spirit of self-determination and agency for our students.
  2. How do we free our students from the shackles of corporate and commercial Web spaces without creating some new kind of shackle?
  3. And, how do web build a platform for the practical, valuable, discernible activities of building on the Web while also grappling to understand the Web on which we build in deep and discerning ways?

Burtis goes on to highlight a really important and real tension: The Domain of One’s Own project/initiative/movement got it’s initial energy from a pragmatic need (ePortfolios) that may now be constraining the project/initiative/movement. Martha says,

“On the one hand, attaching our project’s goals to a defined institutional need allowed us to move forward. We were able to secure both resources and support from important stakeholders by suggesting that Domains was a way to address some of the goals of the ePortfolio working group… All that said, I believe we have to push beyond pragmatism now. I think it’s time for us to expect more of our Domains projects… I believe there are opportunities… to push beyond the pragmatic goals of Domain of One’s Own into deeper more reflective and more critical territory…”

I totally agree with Martha. 100%. But, I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. That is, let’s not just dismiss ePortfolios entirely; let’s consider them part of a larger effort around helping students explore the affordances of the Web. In that vein, I’ve copied and pasted four paragraphs from our grant proposal below. I believe Laura Gogia wrote about 97% of it, so she should get most of the credit should you care to give anyone any credit. I should also note that Gardner Campbell gave us the time, space, and resources to write the proposal. He inspired the idea and let us run with it. ((Gardner is also responsible for the name “ConnectBook.” I never loved it, but I had no better alternatives.))


For more than a decade, universities and colleges have used digital or electronic portfolios (e-portfolios) to document student learning across curricular and co-curricular activities (Yancey, 2009). When compared to paper-based portfolios, e-portfolios have proven easier to share with multiple audiences and desirable for providing students with opportunities for multimodal expression. Research suggests that e-portfolios may promote student reflection and engagement, particularly when students are allowed to take as much ownership as possible over the content, structure, formatting, and aesthetics of the project (Eynon, 2009; Yancey, 2009). In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, students and faculty tend to use e-portfolios to facilitate social learning and formative assessment, while many colleges and universities in the United States present e-portfolios as opportunities to create summative compilations: collections of completed works meant to demonstrate competencies or show improvement over time. As a project, they are often presented as opportunities to impress audiences of faculty, administrators, and potential employers rather than for the students, themselves (Yancey, 2015).

The VCU Discovery Project, and its proposed student intervention, the VCU ConnectBook Program, offers an alternative approach to e-portfolios, one that is designed to promote integrative and deeper learning by applying a connected learning lens to existing general education curriculum and academic support programs. Although connected learning is a novel pedagogical approach, it is firmly rooted in the long-established learning theories of Dewey (1916/1985), social constructivists (e.g. Bruner, 1996; Wenger, 2000), and constructionists (e.g. Harel & Papert, 1991). It encourages students to make meaningful connections between academic learning, life experience, and professional goals through the creation of knowledge products for authentic audiences and participating in dynamic, peer- and mentor-supported affinity networks that build and distribute information, feedback, and the social capital necessary to broker high impact learning (Ching et al, 2015). Instructors who strive for connected learning understand learning as distributed across space, time, and a number of formal and informal environments, including but not limited to school, home, community organizations, peer “hangouts,” and online spaces (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2014). They help students network or link these distributed learning experiences in ways that allow students to examine and build on uniquely personal patterns of passion, skills, motivation, ambition, and social connections. The discovery, building, and shaping processes, as well as the patterns themselves, are called the “learning life.” When fashioned into a concrete, yet dynamic, narrative, the learning life reflects and facilitates a broader and deeper understanding of learning and the relevance of formal education (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2014).

Connected Learning e-portfolios, called “ConnectBooks” in this proposal, are student-established, networked, digital spaces existing on the open web where students discover, build, and shape their learning lives in an ongoing, social process of meaning making. Like traditional e-portfolios, ConnectBooks support learning by encouraging students to reflect on and construct knowledge products. However, ConnectBooks are formative processes as much as finished products, changing and changeable as students connect, disconnect, and reconnect their distributed learning experiences. Furthermore, ConnectBooks are designed to be launch pads for social learning: meeting posts for students, their peers, and mentors that facilitate the formation and activity of affinity networks. Finally, unlike many e-portfolio initiatives in U.S. colleges and universities, ConnectBooks are housed on the open web rather than in closed learning management systems, allowing students to access resources, inspiration, collaborators, mentors, and audiences beyond the local academic community (Groom & Lamb, 2014).

The implementation of ConnectBooks as a method to support student discovery, learning, and educational persistence requires a paradigm shift in how faculty, staff, and students perceive e-portfolio initiatives and higher education. Framed through connected learning, e-portfolios are no longer situated at the margins of academic courses, repositories for course-specific assignments. Rather, they are deeply and explicitly integrated into early general education courses; they become the foundation as well as the purpose of curricular design. In these environments, faculty and students co-construct learning activities that enable students to explore their existing personal interests, talents, and skill sets, as well as their formal and informal learning pasts (Ito et al., 2013). Faculty also model and provide opportunities for students to develop, shape, and use personal learning networks (PLNs) to access learning opportunities. In this context, personal learning networks become a form of social capital, networks of other people who provide students with “smooth access to the mainstream marketplace where privileges, institutional resources, opportunities for leisure, recreation, career mobility, and political empowerment are abundant” (Stanon-Salazar, 2001, p. 105). Faculty and staff broker learning activities, using their own personal learning networks to offer students access to people, ideas, events, and resources, while seeding the students’ emerging PLNs so that they can engage in acts of self-brokering (Ching et al., 2015).


Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Ching, D., Santo, R., Hoadley, C., & Peppler, K. (2015). On-Ramps, Lane Changes, Detours and Destinations: Building Connected Learning Pathways in Hive NYC through Brokering Future Learning Opportunities. New York, NY: Hive Research Lab. Retrieved from:

Eynon, B. 2009. Making connections: The LaGuardia ePortfolio. In D. Cambridge, B. Cambridge, and K. B. Yancey (Eds.), Electronic portfolios 2.0: Emergent findings about implementation and impact, (pp. 59–69). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Groom, J., & Lamb, B. (2014). Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review, 49(3). Retrieved from:

Harel, I. E., & Papert, S. E. (1991). Constructionism. New York, NY: Ablex

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. Retrieved from:

Kumpulainen, K. & Sefton-Green, J. (2014). What is connected learning and how to research it? International Journal of Learning and Media, 4(2), 7-18. doi: 10.1162/IJLM_a_00091

Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (2001). Defensive network orientations as internalized oppression. In B. Biddle (Ed.), Social Class, Poverty and Education, (pp. 101-132). London, UK: Routledge.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246. doi: 10.1177/135050840072002

Yancey, K. B. (2009). Electronic portfolios a decade into the twenty-first century: What we know, what we need to know. Peer Review, 11(1), 28.

Yancey, K. B. (2015). The social life of reflection: Notes toward an ePortfolio-based model of reflection. In M. Ryan (Ed.), Teaching Reflective Learning in Higher Education, (pp. 189-202).

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