Across classrooms and campuses, teaching and learning may be the core activity observable to the naked eye. But underneath the surface, a different, exceedingly valuable activity is also afoot: connecting. Given the myriad ways in which networks shape access to opportunity, the connections students forge in the course of learning experiences are assets we should be paying attention to.

A core premise of the Institute’s research on innovative approaches to building students’ networks is that all institutions are already brokers of social capital. But—to borrow a phrase from Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small—today, some institutions are “purposeful” brokers while many others are “non-purposeful” brokers.

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More purposeful steps to brokering relationships for students, however, are within reach. Building a more networked educational model may sound like a daunting task on top of the many demands schools already face. But our research has shown a wide variety of entry points that complement many of the strategic priorities already guiding schools’ work. By leveraging these existing efforts already afoot, schools and postsecondary institutions and programs can become better brokers of social capital for students.

1. Competency-based learning

With competency-based policies spreading nationwide, schools are starting to transform how and when learning takes place. Competency-based approaches don’t just open up time, space and flexibility for learning; designed with the right intentions, they can also do the same for connecting. As a result, competency-based systems can yield not merely richer academic outcomes via mastery-based learning, but more robust networks as well.

For instance, as school systems start to assess non-academic competencies, examining how students collaborate or forge caring connections with peers and teachers can offer a window into a student’s social experiences and assets, allowing educators to act as an effective broker for the flexible pathways that a competency-based architecture opens up. These pathways can unlock a system wherein a broader base of people and institutions—from local businesses to online providers, to community-based mentors—can have a role in students’ learning and provide a network of connections for students. And the more that competency-based systems successfully integrate a broader array of experts and mentors, validation of learning can move beyond academic credentials to include social ones: mentors and experts who are invested in, and bear witness to, students’ strengths and abilities, and who can vouch for them down the line.

2. Work-based learning

With politicians and employers frequently bemoaning the “skills gap,” work-based learning models—including job shadows, internships, and apprenticeships—have seen renewed energy in recent years. But data suggests that opportunity gaps don’t merely spring forth from gaps in achievement or attainment—they are based on exposure and are also social and geographic in nature. Opportunity depends not just on skills but, at least in part, on our inherited networks, which can propel some young people into certain careers but keep others out. Luckily, however, as work-based learning gains steam across secondary and postsecondary models alike, these models can deliver on more than just industry skills. Hands-on work experience could begin to disrupt the boundaries of students’ inherited networks.

Tools like CommunityShare or ImBlaze are aimed at allowing schools to better tap into local community-based opportunities and experts by cutting through the logistical hurdle of coordinating across the school-work interface. Nepris and Educurious allow educators to port online industry experts into classrooms over video and begin to supplement traditional lesson plans and projects with live chats with real people working in the fields that students are studying and industries they might eventually work in. These tools could help K-12 schools begin to address exposure gaps.

Still other innovative approaches—like Braven—aim to help higher education institutions address stubborn opportunity gaps that tend to persist even as older students get closer to entering the workforce. Braven partners with universities to provide an “Accelerator Course” to arm first-generation college students with skills, internship experiences, and networks.

And gig work provided through micro-internships has immense potential to efficiently diversify and expand networks and experiences, especially for low-income students, in a manner that buffers against the unknowns of a fast-changing labor market and expands students’ longer-run options. Combining promising ingredients for access and scale with the right measures and supports could mean that gigs aren’t just good but great levers for expanding pathways to opportunity.

3. Social-emotional learning (SEL)

The past decade has seen a field of researchers and practitioners coalesce around the promise of arming learners with the intra- and interpersonal skills needed to learn and thrive—often dubbed “social-emotional learning.” As schools make strides to integrate SEL into teaching and learning, it’s important to note that while teaching social skills is important, SEL efforts could also offer a platform for schools to start brokering new and authentic relationships. Promising SEL practices can begin to integrate principles of social capital and new relationship development into the fold of social-emotional skill development. For example, a new frontier of edtech that connects is emerging with technologies that wrap real human relationships around online simulations for low-stakes social-emotional skills practice that still provides students with access to real relationship building.

Particularly for SEL advocates with an authentic agenda to address opportunity, access to new relationships can go hand in hand with SEL interventions. One example of this already afoot: Circulos Advanced Learning Academy in Santa Ana, Calif. is taking popular SEL circles protocols and expanding their diameter to include community and industry that might otherwise not connect with students.

Additionally, if schools get specific about which SEL competencies align with relationships (e.g. empathy might not yield better student outcomes as measured by test scores but it might be critical for developing positive social capital, especially across perceived lines of difference), schools could bring new relationships to bear in students’ lives with a grounding in the skills needed to maintain quality relationships.

4. Holistic student supports

Oftentimes, wraparound services and student support offices focus on co-locating services or creating a litany of important but disconnected interventions to help students get by. But exciting models are also starting to shore up a coherent web of support for students.

For example, City Connects integrates a range of targeted poverty relief and afterschool services into schools. It has shown impressive academic gains among students, with those gains persisting well past the years students are accessing services. The founder of the model, Boston College professor, Mary Walsh, attributes part of its success to connecting teachers to the program. In Walsh’s estimate, City Connects not only provides crucial services, but also directly informs teaching, since teachers’ academic decisions can be sensitive to the non-academic factors present in students’ lives.

Other models are emerging to furnish postsecondary students with supportive relationships that can coach them on how best to leverage on-campus supports. Beyond 12 is a nonprofit that offers virtual one-on-one coaching to low-income, first-generation, and historically underrepresented students to support them through college. The model has arisen in an era of unprecedented college enrollment among traditionally underserved populations, but also amid troubling and persistent gaps in degree attainment. What makes Beyond 12’s model exciting is that it’s able to provide high-touch relationships to students, at scale, thanks to the backbone technology behind Beyond 12’s MyCoach app. Beyond 12’s team is building out sophisticated data analytics and chatbots that amplify and scale student-coach relationships.

5. Extracurriculars

Finally, schools can provide an onramp to building students’ social capital by expanding and codifying the social networks on offer through extracurricular classes and activities.

Take Outschool, a marketplace of online learning experiences where vetted teachers offer thousands of out-of-school, small-group, virtual courses and even brief lessons for K-12 students’ enrichment. The model bucks the MOOC-like image some people conjure when they think of learning online as distinctly antisocial. Instead, with small class sizes (capped by the educators on the platform themselves) and a live video chat format, Outschool students are building relationships with one another and with educators from around the world. The small-group approach also creates lower price points for families compared to expensive one-on-one tutoring, not to mention often cost-intensive face-to-face extracurriculars.

Another tool, an app called trovvit, helps students build their social, emotional, and learning capital by capturing what they are learning and sharing their progress with their network—think LinkedIn meets Instagram for students. Like Instagram, trovvit allows students to create a visual record of their work and share it. Like LinkedIn, trovvit helps students build a network for feedback and to discover new opportunities. However, trovvit is specifically designed for students: to help them memorialize the work they create over time and build a network of people invested in that work.

Becoming more purposeful brokers

Schools and youth-serving programs already have a number of relationship resources in place, like teachers and faculty, community members, mentors and industry experts, and peers and near-peers. The question for many programs is whether, as they set out with noble intentions to improve their learning environments, they are leveraging those relationship assets to optimize for social capital gains. Designing with that express purpose can transform programs into vibrant hubs where students are at once learning and also deepening and diversifying their networks.

About the Author:

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.


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