The latest research from the Connected Learning folks comes at you like a fire hose of ideas, case studies, academic research and questions about what we're doing and whether we should be doing it differently when it comes to preparing students for the 21st century.

But what it comes down to for me, is one basic message: We've got a lot of work to do.

The latest effort from the MacArthur Foundation-backed researchers is certainly a conversation starter. And though it doesn't say so anywhere in the group's 99-page report, what I see between the lines is the notion that Silicon Valley and its allies have tackled the easy stuff when it comes to modern-day learning.

We've already invented the Internet; built a network of digital pipes; developed all manner of mobile devices; created online courses; published digital textbooks. Now comes the real challenge: Just what do we do with this stuff?

"There is this huge opportunity with new technology," says UC Irvine professor Mimi Ito, a lead researcher on the project, "but unless we take it up in ways that are informed by values of social equity and by a learning philosophy that really empowers young people to make the most of what is out there, it's just going to make things worse in terms of equity and the stress that young people are experiencing."


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The worry comes down to what Ito thinks of as the new digital divide. This divide isn't about who has computers and who doesn't; or who does and doesn't have Internet access. This divide is between kids whose families have the means and know-how to layer an extra helping of education on their children and those who don't.

The old divide is closing with the wide adoption of smartphones and the growth of free access to the Internet through public Wi-Fi and, of course, public libraries. But the new gap has to do with how kids are using the Internet and who is available to guide them along their digital journey.

"The simple sort of hardware and connectivity gaps are not as dark as they were 10 years ago," says Ito, a cultural anthropologist who for years has been studying how young people use digital tools. "But the opportunity gap, it's more of the social and cultural and network support that are becoming more and more important."

The fact is a tremendous amount of learning goes on outside of school. And I'm not talking homework here. Kids live online today -- Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, multiplayer games, fan fiction sites and the like. They congregate in vibrant communities of shared interest. They explore topics they're interested in and discover ones they didn't know they were passionate about.

The report points to case studies, like the teenage girl who found her writing voice on a fan fiction site and turned seeds of ideas from her writing there into class assignments and a successful college application. And there was the college freshman who taught himself how to produce Web comics, ultimately launching a business based on his new skill. But as encouraging as individual examples can be, wandering the Web aimlessly is not always productive. And so, the researchers say, most kids could use a guide or someone who encourages them to dig deeper, experts who can pass along knowledge, guides to help them separate accurate information from Internet hokum.

"The emerging hypothesis that undergirds our approach is that the majority of young people need more supports to translate and connect their new media engagements toward more academic, civic, and production-oriented activities," says the recently released Connected Learning report.

And as the world is now, who is least likely to get that kind of support? Not surprisingly, kids in families who struggle every day to get by -- the same kids who are more likely to be attending subpar schools in the first place.

Again, more study is needed, but the report points to past research that shows that professional and middle-class parents take a more active role in their children's out-of-school learning. They spend much more money on tutors and coaches (and the gap is increasing) then low-income families do. And they more closely monitor their children's media consumption. It stands to reason, the report says, that a similar divide will persist when it comes to encouraging students to use digital tools and networks in wise and productive ways.

The report is short on specific answers to what admittedly is a tough question: How do we close the new digital divide? But maybe a start would be for every kid, starting in middle school, to have an individual digital media learning plan -- a general manifesto that talks about a student's key interests, where he or she can find online support and mentors, ways to use social networks, and how all that will apply to the student's education.

Of course, the problem is more complicated than that -- and I've just created one more thing for teachers and schools to do. Think of it as one part of a solution that is going to need many parts.

But it is also a way to accelerate the conversation about the new world of learning -- a conversation that Ito and her fellow researchers know is just getting started.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.