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Free Range Students and Online Learning

I recently discovered an article entitled, "Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Free Range Students." Written by Jamie McKenzie in 1998, it describes the then new generation of students with web access, exploring and learning on their own via the Internet. McKenzie addressed the rush to bring the Internet into K-12 schools. The infrastructure and computers were new to the classroom and there were, and still are, challenges to be met. He urged school leaders to "take advantage of these electronic networks to raise a generation of free range students – young people capable of navigating through a complex, often disorganized information landscape while making up their own minds about the important issues of their lives and their times." For me, the article struck gold and provides observations and suggestions that have stood the test of time.


What is free range learning?


McKenzie describes Internet Competencies (the skills required of free range learners), as elements of "grazing". This set of skills includes 20 components, such as "navigating in the mud," "exploiting serendipity," and "collecting on the run." These elements are not unfamiliar to those engaging in research and practice with online learners today:

  • Student inquiry: Learners initiate research ideas and questions as they explore and discover information in pursuit of their own answers, suggesting and testing various hypotheses along the way.
  • Networked connections: Students are electronically connected to their peers and work together to identify and draw attention to critical issues.
  • Evaluation and assessment: Of course not everything found via the Internet is of value. Learners must be able to assess content for accuracy and relevance, and consider a host of other variables such as currency, source, potential bias, and audience.
  • Filtering and aggregating: The immediate access to information offered by the Internet requires skill in not only assessing levels of quality, but also selecting and collecting items for use and later reference. Free range learners find themselves on the front lines, not always relying on others (i.e. teachers and instructors) to do the filtering for them.
  • Problem solving: In the age of information, where so much is immediately available, there aren't always clear cut answers to problems, and there are often multiple acceptable solutions.
  • Reasoning: Creating meaning out of the information found and knowledge gained is part of the learning process. McKenzie identifies three types of thinking that "operate concurrently and recursively" to help us construct meaning: envisioning what is possible; inventing, or innovating, possible courses of action; and rearranging ideas and information to create new possibilities.

All of this could, and does, take place anywhere and at any time in the context of informal learning. It is also considered in the design and development of formal academic courses. Translated into a skill set, it's not all that different from the critical thinking and other professional skills valued in today's workforce. 


Free Range Learning Today


The description of the characteristics and skills of 1998's free range students has a lot in common with current discussions centered on digital, media, and information literacies. The Internet opens a window to the world that provides equal access to both helpful and harmful resources. Today's student, free range or otherwise, must learn to navigate these resources successfully.

P2P University's new course, entitled "How to Teach Webcraft and Programming to Free-Range Students," is just one example of how this kind of learning is being recognized and even planned for, because "for everyone who is [learning web programming] in a classroom, there are a dozen free-range learners." The course description includes questions for participants that perhaps all of us should consider as we move forward in the pursuit of successful online learning options for a variety of students:

  • What does the research tell us about how people learn?
  • What best practices in instructional design are relevant to free range learners?
  • What skills do people need in order to successfully learn on their own?
  • How are grassroots groups trying to teach the things free range students want to learn?
  • What's working and what isn't?

In the more than a decade that has passed since McKenzie's article was published, the Internet as expanded substantially, moving into our homes and workplaces and allowing entire educational programs to be offered completely online. The concept of free range learning continues to be relevant and applied in a variety of ways as we all become curators of web content – conducting Internet searches on a wide variety of topics, evaluating the results for value, and learning from what we find.