(Cross posted at the ASCD Whole Child Blog, here is a snip from my new book, co-authored with Rob Manabelli, which comes out in May.)

Seventh/eighth grade teacher Clarence Fisher has an interesting way of describing his classroom up in Snow Lake, Manitoba. As he tells it, it has “thin walls,” meaning that despite being eight hours north of the nearest metropolitan airport, his students are getting out into the world on a regular basis, using the Web to connect and collaborate with students in far flung places from around the globe. The name of Clarence’s blog, “Remote Access,” sums up nicely the opportunities that his students have in their networked classroom.

“Learning is only as powerful as the network it occurs in,” Clarence says. “No doubt, there is still value in the learning that occurs between teachers and students in classrooms. But the power of that learning is more solid and more relevant at the end of the day if the networks and the connections are larger.”

Without question, Clarence imbues the notion of the “connected learner.” Aside from reflecting on his life and his practice on his blog, he uses Twitter to grow his network, uses Delicious to capture and share bookmarks, and makes other tools like Skype and YouTube a regular part of his learning life. In other words, he’s deeply rooted in the learning networks he advocates for his students.

“It’s changed everything for me as a learner,” he says. “I teach in a small school of 145 kids, so I don’t know what it’s like to have a lot of colleagues. I can’t imagine closing my door and having to generate all of these ideas on my own.”

So Clarence helps his students create these networked interactions at every turn. A few years ago, his students collaborated with a classroom in Los Angeles to study S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders, using Skype for live conversations and blogs to capture their reflections on both the story and the interactions. More recently, his students studied The Book Thief by Markus Zusak with a class of Ontario students, listening online as their teachers read the book aloud while conducting a chat in the background filled with questions, reflections, and predictions as to what would happen next. Over the years, his students have worked with kids in Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and China, just to name a few.

But here’s the thing. While Clarence may be the conductor of these connections at the outset, most of the networking quickly starts coming from his students. As he was beginning to explore the idea of the “thin walled” classroom back in 2006, he wrote on his blog:

The connections have had very little to do with me. I’ve provided access, direction, and time, but little else. I have not had to make elaborate plans with teachers, nor have I had to coordinate efforts, parceling out contacts and juggling numbers. It is all about the kids. The kids have made contacts. They have begun to find voices that are meaningful to them, and voices they are interested in hearing more from. They are becoming connectors and mavens, drawing together strings of a community. They are beginning to expect to work in this way. They want to know what the people in their network are saying, to hear about their lives and their learning. They want feedback on their own learning, and they want to know they are surrounded by a community who hears them. They make no distinction about class, about race, about proficiency in English, or about geography. They are only interested in the conversation and what it means to them.

That’s a very different picture from what happens in most traditional classrooms, but it captures the essence of what student (and teacher) learning can look like in schools these days. “Thin walls” expand the classroom, and in the process deepen our understanding and practice of all of those “21st Century Skills” that we examined earlier, the critical thinking, the problem solving skills, and the rest. And as students begin to experience the powerful pull of connection to other students and teachers outside of their physical spaces, they also begin to see the world writ large as a part of their daily learning lives. Just as Clarence says that these networks “changed everything for me as a learner” they also change just about everything about our interactions with the kids we teach, the way we think about classrooms, and the way we see the world. Those are big statements, but these shifts are being played out every day in profound ways. And more and more they reflect the real world of learning that our students will graduate into, whether we help them get there or not.

No doubt, all of this has huge implications for us as educators. In fact, even those of us living at the heart of these changes feel some discomfort trying to think through all the ways that the Web challenges the traditional structures of schools and classrooms and learning. But here’s the thing: given these opportunities for connection that the Web now brings us, schools will have to start leveraging the power of these networks. And here are the two game-changing conditions that make that statement hard to deny: right now, if we have access, we now have two billion potential teachers and, soon, the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips.

That, in no uncertain terms, is different.

Most schools were built upon the idea that knowledge and teachers are scarce. When you have limited access to information and you want to deliver what you do have to every citizen in an age with little communication technology, you build what schools are today: age-grouped, discipline-separated classrooms run by an expert adult who can manage the successful completion of the curriculum by a hundred or so students at a time. We mete out that knowledge in discrete parts, carefully monitoring students progress through one-size-fits all assessments, deeming them “educated” when they have proven their mastery at, more often than not, getting the right answer and, to a lesser degree, displaying certain skills that show a “literacy” in reading and writing. Most of us know these systems intimately, and for 120 years or so, they’ve pretty much delivered what we’ve asked them to.

But, what happens when knowledge and teachers aren’t scarce? What happens when it becomes exceedingly easy to people and content around the things you want to learn when you want to learn them? What happens when in the next decade or so, almost everyone gains access to these profoundly different learning spaces, filled with teachers and content outside the walls through the devices they carry in their pockets? What happens when we don’t need schools to manage the delivery of content any more, when we can get it on our own, anytime we need it, from anywhere we’re connected, from anyone who might be connected with us?

In a word, things change.

For each of us as learners in the world at large, the fundamental change is that we can be much more in control of the learning we do. It’s not about the next unit in the curriculum as much as it is what we need to know when we need to know it. And it’s not so much even what we carry around in our heads, all of that “just in case” knowledge that schools are so good at making sure students get these days. As Jay Cross, the author of Informal Learning, suggests, in a connected world, it’s more about how much knowledge you can access. “‘What can you do?’ has been replaced with, ‘What can you and your network connections do?’ Knowledge itself is moving from the individual to the individual and his contacts.” If we have access to our networks, we’re a lot smarter than we used to be. In fact, “connection with others in a network is of prime importance in having access to a wide repository of knowledge,” according to Vance Stevens of the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi. In other words, if we want to make the most of our brains these days, we need to connect online.

What hasn’t changed is this: learning, online or off, is still social, and that’s good news for all of us. If you’re seeing a vision of students sitting in front of computers working through self-paced curricula and interacting with a teacher only on occasion, you’re way, way off. That’s not effective online learning. What is possible, however, is that because of the connections we can now make on the web, there is as much potential (if not more) for meaningful learning to occur in the interactions between people online than in their face to face places. Why? Primarily because online, we can connect to others who share our passions to learn in extended, deeper ways that in many ways can’t occur offline. That’s not to say that face-to-face learning isn’t important or valuable. It is. But so is the learning we can now do on the Web. And it’s the melding of the two that will shape our schools in the 21st century.

Excerpted with permission from R. Mancabelli & W. Richardson (in press), Personal Learning Networks, Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.