What do you connect to?  That question is likely far more loaded than you may have ever considered.  But I consider it all the time.  Why?  Not just because I'm the Executive Director of the Institute for Inter-Connected Education.  Because the answer can actually change your life.  Seriously.

Connectedness, in the broadest sense of the term, means a million different things.  But the personal result is crucial.  When we connect with a person, an idea, a group, an ideology, a paradigm, etc., we act. 

I’ll never forget a talk by Mark Milliron (former Chancellor at Western Governor’s University and current Chief Learning Officer at Civitas) almost a decade ago discussing why higher ed needed to embrace web 2.0 and social media.  As all good presenters do, his argument was multi-faceted, discussing the impact on grades, affinity to the institution, and even donations.  But he really brought things home when he said that Colleges and Universities should get into the Social Media game because the alternatives can be horrifying.  He then showed a US map of social media sites trolling for young inductees which ranged from racist to anarchist.  How were they finding new participants?  Connection.  They were working to connect these teens via social media to fallacious arguments that “felt good” to young, manipulable minds.  They would find connection points with family, friends, religion, justice, and the list goes on.  But the strategy was the same.  Connect.  Because once connected, it was very hard to disconnect.

Infographic illustrating hate speech on social media

Infographic illustrating hate speech on social media

So, I take the idea of connectedness very seriously.  I believe in its power and I also feel it must be leveraged with an eye for ethics, ultimately trying to do what’s best for others.  It’s also why I perform my day job.

Learning Connectedness

See, when I was at Saint Leo, I believed in this concept so much that my biggest initiative during my first two years at the school was to create a hyper-connected system.  Having traveled the globe and seeing how little connection colleges and universities created for students made me frustrated.  We know that connection options should be plentiful while also being, well…connected.  After all, how many schools connect a student from the moment they apply through their undergraduate work on into career and potentially as donating alumni?  I know of exactly TWO schools who try to do that and even they struggle because their systems are now antiquated. 

#SheepWithAView photo

#SheepWithAView photo

But can you imagine the benefits?  Businesses have been noodling with this for years now.  Loyalty programs, social platforms for support and affinity, and inter-connecting platforms so that you aren’t forced to leave the comfort of your favorite social media site whilst still playing in theirs have made the customer experience far different than ever before.  And when they get it right, they find that their customers go above and beyond expectations to stay connected.  Look at how audiences connected to the TV show Lost, how Apple successfully connected with people using the #ShotOniPhone campaign, or even how the country of Norway connected with 64 million people in it’s #SheepWithAView initiative reaching a 98.8% positive sentiment!

So why aren’t schools doing this?  Or maybe a better question: why are administrators assuming connection is happening?  (While also wondering how to better retain students?...)  Why don’t students have safe, social, para-academic, or at least contextually appropriate connection options for peers, advisers, professors, and other people?  We all know the research showing that a college student who feels connected to one other person persists longer, right?  The development of TED Talks illustrate how much people hope to connect to ideas, concepts, and topics if they see everyday value.  Add to that the idea of connecting to events, organizations, clubs, and other groups seen as meaningful or beneficial to the student, and connection should be on everyone's radar.  While rudimentary connection may be possible using an app or cobbled together using one-off tools like a calendar resource, we all know that none of it is tracked, nor is it used to determine patterns for future student success. 

And if you go that far, why not think about connecting people to ideas, ideologies, and other paradigms outside of class.  The idea there should not be so antiquated – that only classrooms are for connecting meaning.  But what a limiting shame!  Giving students a platform to share their passions for learning outside of the walls of the classroom could prove amazingly powerful, potentially even encouraging students to adopt majors, minor in a program, etc.  Google the difference between formal, informal, and non-formal learning then see if the classroom should be the end all, be all of idea connection! 

Primary connection option of many universities...

Primary connection option of many universities...

And then you can round it out with alumni affinity.  You all know how that goes.  The school sends you an email telling you about their Facebook site or a LinkedIn group.  You never look at it, but about two years later you get that lovely postcard in the mail asking for a $25 donation.  Wow.  Where is the connection back to your network?  You know, the people you studied with, graduated with, did life with?  Why don’t you get your own, special place to hang out and talk about life’s next challenges like how to get a job, how to raise a kid, or whether to move to Boise?  And when schools see you lamenting the lack of career options, maybe they could even suggest the latest micro-credential to get you back on your way... 

Imagine a networked public (the technical term for a community resulting from the intersection of people, technology, and practice) like that.  Imagine the community that could develop from the time you enroll in college, allowing your network to grow and help one another.  Your company has two job openings?  What if you share that with your connections?  How many people who went to your school live nearby?  Why not use a system that promotes community to find out?  You’re excited about forensic accounting but can’t seem to click with anyone else in your class.  What if your social site helped you meet 6 other students who love it to, allowing you to create a new club? 

Yeah, I think about connectedness a lot.  It drives much…most of what I do to transform educational contexts into something far more meaningful than today.  That connectedness actually has an ROI associated with it; that connectedness actually transforms lives; that connectedness is what life is really all about.  And I believe connectedness can transform learning for all.  

Good luck and good learning.