ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Engaging Learners with Emerging and Connective Technologies

Michael Riggle and Ryan Bretag

Post submitted by Michael Riggle, superintendent of the Glenbrook (Ill.) High Schools, and Ryan Bretag, coordinator of instructional technology at Glenbrook North High School. Connect with Riggle on his blog and with Bretag on Twitter @ryanbretag or visit his website, Metanoia.


"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 a Dewey, Sizer, Wagner, Gordon, Pink, and Robinson and calls for engagement to become a critical focus for education 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 who 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 who 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 hyperspeed 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 using 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 toward 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 instruction-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 toward 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 also 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 from 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. Use 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 literacies, and partnering.
  5. Root assessment in performance and process focused on deep learning that transfers.
  6. Provide space and time for metacognition, 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 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 the Museum of Play, I (Bretag) became enamored with 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 learner-centered activities promote deep learning. 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 nonnegotiable 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. 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 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.


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Comments (5)

Who is Watching Out for Learners

March 4, 2011

[...] student is physical engaged but mentally disengaged because a teacher retrofits [...]

I Heart iPads Not for What it Does

March 4, 2011

[...] still have not found the value in engaging learners with emerging and connective technologies.  Sadly, I’m note sure we ever will outside of [...]

When School Stopped Tasting Right

April 2, 2011

[...] thoughts blur across all those and my answers center on choice, engagement, flow, social/collaborating, transfer of learning into multiple context, and exploration. In [...]

Life is Not Standardized

April 20, 2011

[...] Engaged [...]

Mary Ann

April 26, 2011

I say, “YES” to this blog posting!!  It promotes an OUTSTANDING, template for EXACTLY what our schools need to become!!!!!

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