(TNS) -- As director of education at the MacArthur Foundation, Constance "Connie" Yowell launched a digital media and learning program in 2006. It was one of the first philanthropic efforts in the country to systematically explore the impact of digital media on young people and its potential for the future of learning. Earlier this year, Yowell left the foundation, which awarded her a grant to form an organization called Collective Shift. Its first project, LRNG, seeks to redesign learning for the 21st century around the world.
"The goal is to turn learning into a lifestyle," Yowell says, "so that it's not something you do; it's something you live." That doesn't eliminate the brick-and-mortar but makes it just one node of a digital system in which learning can take place anytime, anywhere.
LRNG is the nexus of a digital learning infrastructure that has to be built. One feature is earning "badges," or digital learning credentials that demonstrate competency via one of a vast number of routes students can take.
Yowell received the Distinguished Fellows Award from the William T. Grant Foundation to support scholars seeking to bridge research and practice. She used the grant to work with the National Writing Project, helping to develop approaches that integrate Web 2.0 technologies into the social practices of teachers.
We talked to Yowell about digital learning and its impact on the future of education, as well as her beginnings in a tiny Michigan farm town and a career that has taken her to the University of Illinois at Chicago and the MacArthur Foundation. Following is an edited conversation
Q: In the beginning, you were resistant to studying educational technology. Then you met video game designer Will Wright (the developer of SimCity).
A: That was a huge turning point for me. That was what changed everything in my mind and gave me the understanding of the potential of digital media for learning. When I sat down with Will, neither of us knew what to talk about. So he just described the game, and the way he described it was completely how you design (technology) for learning.
Q: In Greg Toppo's new book, "The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter," he makes a compelling argument that video games should be part of learning. Do you agree with that?
A: I'm 100 percent in support of that. We need to fundamentally change what learning looks like and how young people experience it. And what video games and other digital media can do is really change the experience and make it participatory. Our current education system is organized around the consumption of information and making sure kids consume what teachers know and put it back on a test.
Q: Can you explain what you refer to as "connected learning" and what part digital tools play?
A. At its core, the most robust learning happens when three things are connected: what the learners are most interested in, a peer group that shares that interest, and third, it connects that interest to real opportunity in the world — so that the learning is relevant and has some kind of payoff. The irony of the digital age is that, for young people, those three things are disconnected. So, digital media is critical in building a new infrastructure that enables those three things to come together.
Q: Can you expand on a statement you've made that digital technology is helping us reimagine learning?
A: One of our big insights has been that learning in the 21st century has to shift from something you do at a particular time of day at a particular place to something you live. Digital media, done well, enables young people to be learning 24/7 in whatever they're doing. So, we've switched from using the word "education" to using the word "learning" because we're focused on learning as part of lifestyle. It's all connected.
Q: How do you start to make those connections?
A: Our current educational system is driven by standardized tests and accountability. To reimagine that, we've been developing an alternative credentialing system we call "badges" that carries a whole set of data which can enable us to make visible what young people have learned wherever they learn it.
When it's endorsed, it also gives them credit. We can still connect to what's being learned in school as well. We think we're in a moment of extraordinary opportunity.
Q: Are you into technology in your personal life?
A: I have a Kindle, iPhone, iPad, computer, a Roku, an Apple TV and a PS4. I'm broke because I spend all of my money on technology gadgets. One of my mottoes as a parent — I have a 13- and a 16-year-old — is that we have to participate. We have to be part of the social and digital media our young people are using, because otherwise we can't understand what their experiences are. I'm terrible at first-person shooter games, but I play them.
Q: Do you have a favorite book?
A: One of my favorite books, as I think about innovation, is "The Only Sustainable Edge" (by John Hagel III). It's absolutely brilliant. It's about how to manage innovation in the 21st century. Given my rural background, Jane Smiley is a favorite author. "A Thousand Acres" is one of my favorite fiction books. I love Toni Morrison, and "Song of Solomon" is one of my favorite books as well.
Q: What do you think of the new Apple watch? Useful or a gimmick?
A: As with any Apple innovation, the first (generation) is expensive and a little difficult to use, and then it becomes a game changer. I have no doubt the watch will become a game changer.
Q: What do you do to get away from this constant immersion in technology?
A: I love going for walks with my dog. She's from Afghanistan. My brother did a tour there. This dog saved his life a couple of times. She's extraordinary. Straight from Kabul to Chicago.
Q: What would you say to young women who want to be leaders in whatever field they choose?
A: Really follow your passion. Success and leadership is a long grind, and you really have to be passionate about what you're doing. Never be afraid to fail. That's where we learn the most. Have a set of peers, a support group. Make sure you have a set of friends and colleagues who you're supporting and you're supporting them. It's critical.
Q: What would you say to parents about this digital and technological revolution?
A. Don't be afraid of it. It's not bad. It's actually a really good thing. It's about how we engage it, not about whether or not to engage it. Be there with your kids, and help them be thoughtful and balanced about how they engage it. There are incredible benefits that can come from participating.
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