Bookmarked Affinity Online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning by Connected Learning Alliance (Connected Learning Alliance)

New book, Affinity Online, explores how online practices and networks bridge the divide between in-school and out-of-school learning.

Ito, M., Martin, C., Pfister, R. C., Rafalow, M. H., Salen, K., & Wortman, A. (2019). Affinity Online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning. New York: NYU Press.

Ito et al describe the ways in which online affinity networks can be conducive to Connected Learning, explicating an updated model of Connected Learning in the process. This book is the output of the Leveling Up study; it is a collaboratively authored text identifying themes that were shared across multiple ethnographic studies in a variety of online affinity network contexts.

Connected learning “both describes a form of meaningful and opportunity-enhancing learning and guides design and policies that expand access to this form of learning” (p. 3).

It “is centered on young people’s interest-driven learning and is agnostic as to the types of relationships and institutions that can support this learning” (p. 3).

Some of the questions they seek to answer:

“How do relationships and networks provide social support, information, and connections to opportunity?… What kinds of relationships and networks support connected learning? Can online affinity networks help develop social capital, learning, and opportunity?…what kinds of additional relationships and supports do young people need to connect their learning in affinity networks to academic, civic, and career opportunities?” (p. 4)

“Why do some young people go online primarily to hang out with existing peers and to browse entertaining YouTube videos, while others dive into online tutorials, courses, and communities of interest that drive more specialized forms of ‘geeking out’ and social organizing? What role can educators, parents, peers, and the developers of online resources play in shaping these dynamics? What kinds of institutional practices, policies, and infrastructures can build stronger connections between youth interests and sites of opportunity, particularly for less privileged groups? What kinds of cultural barriers and assumptions inhibit or facilitate the building of these connections?” (p. 7-8)

How do online affinity networks connect to educational, career, and civic opportunity?

While educational technology (“edtech”), and especially specific edtech tools, have both proponents and detractors, their approaches fail to consider that “Technologies and techniques…. Take on different characteristics depending on the cultural and social settings they are embedded in” (p. 6). Without attention to the cultural and social environment, new technologies “tend to amplify existing inequity” (p. 6).

…access to social, cultural, and economic capital, not access to technology, is what broadens opportunity.” (p. 6) (emphasis original)

A history of this work:
The Macarthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative funded research conducted by, among others, members of the Connected Learning Research Network.

One of these projects was the Digital Youth Project. Fieldwork for this project was undertaken in 2006 – 2007, when “teens were flocking to MySpace… YouTube was just taking off… before the mobile internet and texting had taken hold in the United States” (p. 8).

The output of that project was the book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (Ito et al 2009). The model described in that book was designed to describe how children and teens interact with new media, but “was not designed to directly inform educational practice or design” (p. 9).

Affinity Online is an output of the Leveling Up project, another project of the CLRN. Contrasting with HOMAGO, Affinity Online is explicitly designed to inform “the design and deployment of learning technologies and related programs” (p. 10). The project came about because “…large-scale adoption of new media created an imperative to investigate the potential connections between young people’s online activities and meaningful opportunities in education, civic institutions, and careers” (p. 10).

“Critique of existing practices is necessary but not sufficient; we believe that those of us practicing ethnography and social science also have a role to play in presenting alternatives.” (p. 10)


This text provides a “cross-case analysis of in-depth qualitative research in networked settings” (p. 12), specifically “a variety of affinity networks that make use of online spaces” (p. 13). Data collection methods include “questionnaires, surveys, semistructured interviews, observation, and content analysis of media, profiles, videos, and other online artifacts” (p. 13).

Networks were chosen by seeking out “examples of practices already existing in communities that can be spread and scaled to address systemic problems” (p. 14), an approach from the public health field called “positive deviance” (Pascale, Sternin, and Sternin 2010).


Ito et al identify common characteristics of online affinity networks that support connected learning:

  • Strongly shared culture and practices
  • Varied ways of contributing
  • High standards
  • Effective ways of providing feedback and help (p. 17)

“…an interest cannot be separated from its culture, people, and places.” (p. 18)

“Connected learning is not limited… to a particular pedagogical approach… the focus is on building relational, practical, and conceptual connections across settings and experiences, centered on learning interests and affinities.” (p. 19)

“…connected learning is more appropriately conceived of as the growth of a network of connections than as a linear pathway or an internalization of skills and knowledge” (p. 21)

“Transformative and resilient forms of learning are embedded in a web of social relations, meaningful projects, and shared activities with which a learner feels a sense of affinity” (p. 166)

“We see connected learning not as a journey of individual development that is transferrable across different settings that a person moves through, but as building stronger, more resilient and diverse social, cultural, and institutional relationships through time” (p. 167)

This idea of network-building as opposed to pathway-traversing is similar to the contrast Martin (2012) draws between traditional, linear models of information literacy and her new, more networked model of information literacy. It also has implications for people who are trying to identify pathways to connected learning, such as Bender & Peppler (2019). Should people asking questions like Bender & Peppler’s be investigating networks rather than pathways?

KEY FINDING: Online affinity networks rarely overlap with school or local networks or career networks.

“Building these connections requires concrete forms of sponsorship, translation, and brokering in order t oconnect interests to opportunity.” (p. 167-168)

“When we consider the resources and supports that young people need to connect their interests to their opportunity, equity becomes of critical concern.” (p. 168) Youth need programs and mentors with social capital to broker connections; if brokering is treated as a market-driven process, this exacerbates inequity.

“The responsibility of providing mentorship, brokering, and connection bulilding to link youth interests to opportunity is a collective one and cannot be shouldered only by families, nor only by schools and other public educational insitiututions. It entails a broader cultural shift toward recognizing the new learning dynamics of a networked era, paying more attention to learning and equity in online communities and platforms, and providing more educational supports in both formal and informal learning environments.” (p. 169

Barriers to “having a shared understanding and public agenda for how the adult world can harness online affinity networks for educational opportunity and equity” (p. 171) include the Digital Culture Generation Gap and Compartmentalized Social Networks.

Re: the Digital Culture Generation gap – “lack of understanding and visibility around what digital youth culture is about” (p. 172) and “cultural values and negative stereotypes” – e.g. gaming and fandom in particular are stereotyped as addicitvie and frivolous, respectively.

Re: Compartmentalized Social Netowrks – “online affinity networks can support bonding social captiial, but they have few avenues for bridging social capital between onlien relationships and local ones, limiting connections to academic, career, and civic opportunity” (p. 173).

Design Principles for creating Connected Learning Environments/Experiences:

Shared culture and purpose

  • “Purpose-driven participation” (p. 174)
  • “Diverse forms of contribution and participation” (p. 175)
  • “Community-driven ways of recognizing status and quality of work” (p. 175)

“In learning environments that are less interest-driven [esp. Schools], it is more challenging to develop this sense of shared community values, culture, and purpose” (p. 176). Schools tend to foster this more in extracurriculars and electives. These activities offer a potential site of connection between online affinity networks and local networks.

Project-based and production-centered

  • “Competitions, creative production, and civic engagement” (p. 178)

Openly networked

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  • Sam Bardarik