The Learning Ecology and Connected Learning

How interest and connection shape the learning experience

The following is a paper written in March 2021 for a Library Science course, Informal Learning in Information Organizations. It is being shared here with a new title and minor edits.

In the paper Interest and Self-Sustained Learning as Catalysts of Development: A Learning Ecology Perspective, Barron introduced the concept of the  Learning Ecology Framework,  a perspective and model designed to explain the interdependencies between developing children and the people and places in their environment (Barron, 2006, p. 196)    As Barron explains, a learning ecology model illustrates and helps us better understand how learning outside of the formal classroom environment relates to learning that takes place within schools or other traditional organizations as well as how learning in school can lead to learning activities outside of it  (Barron, 2006). The construct of learning ecologies provides the framework for the Connected Learning Model, which examines the connections between an individual’s interests and the various domains of their life which contribute to positive learning outcomes (Ito et al., 2013)

This paper examines the roles that community, information communication technology, and instructional design play in learning ecologies and the development of connected learning environments. 

Most library science students are introduced to the concept of systemic ecologies with Nardi and O’Day’s seminal work, View of Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart—Chapter Four: Information Ecologies. The authors  (Nardi & O’Day, 1999) define an “information ecology” as a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment. Nardi & O’Day (1999) explained that the ecology metaphor offers a uniquely cogent set of organizing properties to conduct serious discussions about human interaction with technology and the inter-relationships and dependencies among the different parts of the system. Since “learning is how information is acquired, processed, stored, and used, the similarities between the learning process and biological ecosystems are also present. As Nardi and O’Day (1999) proposed, changes or differences in ecology are systemic. When one element is changed, there is a ripple effect throughout the entire system.   This same dynamic applies to learning ecologies.   

As DiaGiacomo (DiGiacomo et al., 2018, p. 9) explains, when learning is viewed through the lens of an ecology model,  the focus shifts from an analysis of outcomes and test scores to a discussion about the deficiencies in components of societies, schools, and communities that produce socioeconomic and educational inequities. The learning ecology model supports the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education (What Was Brown V. Board Of Education?, n.d.), which addressed inequities in education based on race. Barron addresses issues of equity and access to technology resources and the concern that this is still a factor in the lack of diversity in the field of technology design. (Barron, 2006 p. 194).

The following is an illustration of Barron’s learning ecology which reflects the results from a study on the development of technological fluency based on six learning environments:  school, home, work, community, peers, and distributed resources. (Barron, 2006 p. 194). Note that libraries play an important role in the “Community” sector of the learning ecology model.

Barron's Learning Ecology
Barron’s Learning Ecology

The learning ecology is defined as the set of contexts found in physical or virtual spaces that provide learning opportunities [Barron, 2004]. Each context consists of a unique configuration of activities, material resources, relationships, and the interactions that emerge from them. As illustrated, libraries (a form of community), various forms of information communication technology, and instructional design play roles in the model. 

Barron identifies five types of self-initiated learning processes.   They are:

  1. the seeking out of text-based informational sources,
  2.  the creation of new interactive activity contexts such as projects,
  3. the pursuit of structured learning opportunities such as courses,
  4. the exploration of media, and
  5. the development of mentoring or knowledge-sharing relationships (Barron, 2006)

The author also poses and addresses the following questions about the possible interdependencies between settings.

  • How does learning outside school relate to learning within schools or other formal organizations?
  • When does learning in school lead to the independent pursuit of knowledge once the formal course is over?
  • What kinds of resources do learners seek out, and how might we conceptualize such processes of self-initiated learning?
  • Can we nurture learning by seeding informal learning environments with supportive resources that help sustain self-perpetuating processes? (Barron, 2006)

Barron’s study’s primary focus was on how new technologies can help make boundaries more permeable and allow for new kinds of agency in learning (Barron, 2006, p. 200).   The emphasis on the use of new technologies in a learning model is the basis of Connected Learning. Connected Learning theory answers Barron’s questions by providing a model for how all aspects of a learner’s world contribute to their learning.

Ito (Ito et al., 2013, p 4) defines connected learning as socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. The model is based on evidence that the most resilient, adaptive, and effective learning involves individual interest and social support to overcome adversity and provide recognition (Ito et al., 2013, p 4). In essence, it is a theory that acknowledges the myriad ways that learning can take place outside of the traditional classroom setting and formal teacher/student relationship. 

As Mimi Ito (Connected Alliance, 2012) Learning states in the video Connected Learning: Everyone, Everywhere Anytime, the internet has created avenues for learning and provided access to knowledge, expertise, and social connectivity that was previously limited and dependent on professional educators in classroom settings and libraries. Ito (Connected Learning Alliance, 2012b) also notes that a side benefit of the Internet as a learning resource is its ability to foster social connection and well-being by connecting people with common interests. Ito views the potential for building community and intergenerational relationships as a benefit that may be more important than the original learning objective (Connected Learning Alliance, 2012b).

Connected learning looks to digital media and communications to 1) offer engaging formats for interactivity and self-expression, 2) lower barriers to access knowledge and information, 3) provide social supports for learning through social media and online affinity groups, and 4) link a broader and more diverse range of culture, knowledge, and expertise to educational opportunity (Ito et al., 2013 p 4).

Examples of digital media that meet the connected learning criteria are:

  • PBS Learning Media is designed for use by teachers but can be accessed by anyone from anywhere with an internet connection. In addition, the website provides access to thousands of classroom-ready curriculum-targeted digital resources aligned to Common Core and national and state standards  (PBS LearningMedia, n.d.).
  • Websites like PBSKids and Starfall offer games, videos, and activities for Pre-K to 3rd-grade learners. PBSKids states that its goal is “to make a positive impact on the lives of children through curriculum-based entertainment with positive role models and content designed to nurture a child’s total well-being.” The site describes its methodology as taking “a 360-degree approach towards learning which leverages the full spectrum of media and technology to build knowledge, critical thinking, imagination, and curiosity (Questions and Answers about PBS KIDS and PBS KIDS GO! . Help! . PBS KIDS, n.d.)
  • Websites like MathisFun  and CoolMath  are designed for elementary to high school learners.   These were sites that I frequently used as an elementary school math tutor. My goal was to help the students learn a specific math skill or concept and help them develop metacognition. I encouraged them to think about why they felt that learning math was important, how they could use it in the future, what techniques helped them understand the topic, and how they could use those study habits in the future. In short, I want to help them increase their awareness of their thought process when it comes to math and help them develop a tool that they could apply in other classes or out of the classroom.
  • Khan Academy’s stated mission is to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere. The site offers content for elementary to post-baccalaureate learners. 
  • And sites like,  Universal Class, and  for adult learners. 

While reviewing the websites again, I noticed that play and entertainment are interwoven in the content of the sites that cater to Kindergarten through Middle School learners.

Salen (Connected Learning Alliance, 2012a) explains that play creates a reason for people to engage and puts people in a state of mind that fosters openness about ideas and collaboration.   Salen adds that play is one of the most fundamental human experiences because it creates an atmosphere that feels safe to suggest something new, experiment, explore and look for ways to communicate with others (Connected Learning Alliance, 2012a).   

Play often gives children and teens a sense of accomplishment. Salen notes that it encourages teens, who may be otherwise reluctant to communicate with adults, to share what they are discovering, learning, and accomplishing (Connected Learning Alliance, 2012a). I noticed this phenomenon while tutoring math. Since the tutoring sessions consisted of small groups of three to five students, I encouraged students to demonstrate their work on the whiteboard and present it to the group. This allowed the students to explore their thought processes and methods for resolving the problems. The students would discuss whether they agreed with the answer and if they had solved the problem in the same way or differently.   While some students participated in a group discussion or worked together in pairs, I had the flexibility to work one-on-one with students on specific areas in which they were struggling.

I noticed that the students were eager to take their turn on the whiteboard and enjoyed collaborating. Also, since I was tutoring in the faculty lunchroom, the students loved leaving their work on the board so teachers coming through the room could see it. However, until listening to Salen, I didn’t fully appreciate that this was the student’s way of saying, “Hey, look at what I can do!”

Barron ( 2006, p 197) cites the 1973 study by Scribner and Cole, which revealed that most school-based instruction was heavily language based and taught out of context, while out-of-school learning relied more on rich sensory information, imitation, and observation in the context of knowledge use.   The learning ecology model helps us understand how school-based instruction in a subject like math can be brought into context by out-of-school learning. In contrast, knowledge acquired from school can be used in the classroom to make education relevant.

            The following scenario is an example of a learning ecology for a math student. A learner is interested in baseball, which exposes them to batting averages, a form of statistical calculation. The learner is also familiar with the occurrence of a baseball manager bringing in a different pitcher to face an opposing batter, a game move based on the probability of the pitcher striking out that batter. The learner has learned the rules of baseball from a parent or other adult, peers, or by participating in Little League.   The learner watches baseball games on television or attends games at a ballpark and plays baseball video games with their friends. 

These out-of-classroom activities reinforce the in-classroom math instruction when a classroom teacher or tutor uses word problems involving baseball. Then, when the learner struggles to understand the Pythagorean Theorem and watches the YouTube video Pythagorean Theorem Baseball Application Problem (Quiet Quest – Study Music, 2013), that is an example of connected learning.

`Works Cited

Barron, B. (2006). Interest and Self-Sustained Learning as Catalysts of Development: A Learning Ecology Perspective. Human Development, 49(4), 193–224.

Connected Learning Alliance (Director). (2012a, October 30). Connected Learning: Playing, Creating, Making.

Connected Learning Alliance (Director). (2012b, October 31). Connected Learning: Everyone, Everywhere, Anytime.

DiGiacomo, D. K., Van Horne, K., Van Steenis, E., & Penuel, W. R. (2018). The material and social constitution of interest. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 19, 51–60.

Ito, M., Guitierrez, K., Livingstone, S., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watson, S. C., & Penuel, B. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Nardi, B., & O’Day, V. (1999). View of Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart—Chapter Four: Information Ecologies | First Monday. In Information Ecologies Using Technology with Heart. The MIT Press.

PBS LearningMedia. (n.d.). PBS LearningMedia. Retrieved March 9, 2021, from

Questions and Answers about PBS KIDS and PBS KIDS GO! . Help! . PBS KIDS. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2021, from

Quiet Quest – Study Music (Director). (2013, June 17). Pythagorean Theorem Baseball Application Problem.

What Was Brown V. Board Of Education? (n.d.). NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Retrieved March 10, 2021, from