Cultivating entrepreneurs and innovators through connected learning

Connected learning is an approach that seeks to combine personal interests, supportive relationships, and opportunities (Ito et al., 2013). It emphasizes that learning should be an integrated experience situated within a matrix of contexts including formal and informal, local and global, embodied and virtual, as well as distributed and integrated (Brown & Renshaw, 2006).

Prior research on connected learning has mainly focused on the educational context of youth (e.g., Ito et al., 2013; Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2014), although exploration of this concept has been applied in the tertiary education space (Brown, Czerniewicz, Noakes 2015,  Prestridge, et al., 2021; Bryant, 2022). Tertiary students, as adults, have different cognitive and behavioural patterns from children and teenagers. They are at a different life stage, focusing on preparing for the workforce. Thus, developing transferable skills and life-long learning capabilities is a priority for tertiary students (Bi & Collins, 2021).

Against this background, we initiated this study to investigate the application of connected learning in tertiary education with a focus on developing students’ entrepreneurial mindsets and capabilities. The research questions include:

  1. How can connected learning be applied in tertiary education?
  2. Can connected learning develop tertiary students’ entrepreneurial and innovative capabilities? If yes, how?

Methodology and Findings

Focusing on a strengths-based approach we undertook semi-structured interviews with 11 teaching award winners (6 won university awards and 5 won national awards), and 3 managers from the university centre for entrepreneurship (UCE) in a New Zealand tertiary education institution. The participants comprised the disciplines of business, education, science and law. Drawing on our personal domain expertise – namely business and education – we undertook a thematic analysis and identified the following five key findings.

Different languages on entrepreneurial capability are used across disciplines

When talking about entrepreneurial and innovative capability, business teachers and managers tended to have more focus on creativity, risk-taking, opportunity identification, business development and being comfortable with failure.

“I support creativity by not having simple yes/no answers, but also looking far beyond what is the problem we’re trying to solve that manifestation? And what are the underlying drives of that? And then using those to change behavior, change attitudes, change beliefs, and things like that.”


“In one of the new courses we’re doing, we explicitly talk about business experiments, but it’s about intelligent failure and failing to learn.”


In contrast, teachers in law, education and science tend to use terms such as analytical skills, problem solving, cope with challenges, confidence skills, team and communication skills, and critical thinking.

“We don‘t think of it [entrepreneurial capability] like that in law, but I want them to cope with challenges through the exercises.”


“In geology you often look at something that’s under the ground, and you can’t see what is under the ground. You have small data sets and you have to imagine.”


“Innovation is not the word that I’d normally use, but I think that is about creating social and environmental innovators in a way that that the possibility of change is built into the course.”

Effective pedagogies and assessments in connected learning

Examples of effective pedagogies foregrounded constructs of connected learning such as interest-driven, problem-centered and student-led.

“We get the issues that students are interested and keen on so they can apply the tools to those problems. Students feel more engaged rather than feeling like “it’s an academic exercise.”


“When we try to improve university teaching. I can’t make someone want to do their job. They have to want it. They have to love what they do. That’s those kinds of intangible that like you can be a great teacher in your own regard.” 


“We do experiment where we make fudge, which is like liquid chocolate. You melt the fudge, and then it crystallizes and changes. This is similar to lava, that when lava comes out of a volcano, it’s very runny and gradually crystallizes and becomes more and more sticky. I try to use fun ways to teach science concept.”


Authentic (real-life) assessment is also a key part of connected learning.  

“I ask students to assess each other’s’ assignments. This builds the connection between students, and also facilitate co-learning. And a lot of people say to me, I feel so uncomfortable doing this. And I say, well, just think about it that you’re actually helping that person get a better grade.”


This demonstrates how the principles of peer review, formative assessments, can be used authentically to develop students’ confidence.

Connected learning develops students’ relatedness, sense of belonging and divergent thinking

Specifically, we find connected learning can create relatedness, sense of belonging and divergent thinking. By reinforcing these fundamental principles, connected learning builds students’ confidence, creativity, problem-solving and risk-taking attributes.

Relatedness is manifested in the forms of using controversial issues to draw students’ interests, simulating the real world and provide integrated experience of a matrix of contexts, using problems to connect students with the practice and relevant examples to connect students with abstract concepts.

“In media law, one of the most important things I developed was a group learning exercise, which was meant to simulate the world the real work that students with the law degree might end up with. … And I wanted to disrupt the students and get them used to new experiences in coping with the challenge. So I’ve always done it by combining our class with another class, either from within the university or outside the university, such as journalism class.”


Sense of belonging can be established through teaching practices, such as field trip or simply use classroom to build community.

“We build connection between the students during the field trip. In the field trip, students live together, eat together and do everything together. So they build a very strong connection between students on field trips.”


“I try and use the classroom as a space to create a community. For a long time, we had korero sessions where after students have done the online learning at home, they came to class. We prepared food for the offline session. It’s a kind of way of bribing students to come to the classroom, but also like eating together creates community.”


Divergent thinking plays a critical role in creativity and by connecting students with diverse backgrounds together, it is more likely to develop students’ divergent thinking.

“In New Zealand, I think we silo teach far too much which limits the amount of learning students can learn from each other. Particular for innovation and entrepreneurship, being enterprising is actually understand diversity of thought in different ways of looking at things. And the only way to do that is to create diverse team and have a diverse cohort of students to work together.”

(UCE manager)
Pedagogical challenges and opportunities of digital technologies

Digital technologies have been a significant element in scholarly discussions of connected learning. In our research, we noticed pedagogical challenges faced by teachers when using digital technologies, such as losing the subconscious feedback from students, and impeding students’ interpersonal skill development. One teacher mentioned students’ increased expectations of immediate gratification due to the prevalence of social media and other digital tools, which creates difficulties in resetting the expectations.

“Students right now have expectations of immediate gratification and that becomes a generational thing. Doing something for the reward in the future is not common anymore. It’s really hard to train it out of them.”


Despite these challenges, teachers also pointed out a number of opportunities. The online environment facilitated peer-to-peer learning and can support frequent and informal communications.

“I think there is definitely some use of digital technology support frequent touch points with students. It reduces the overheads of short interactions, because if you have to walk 30 minutes across campus and have a 10 minute conversation with your lecturer. It feels like a very expensive 10 minutes. Whereas if you have a quick meeting on Zoom, the burden to make that happen is much lower.”

(UCE manager)
Enabling environments can foster connected learning

Enabling environments provide contextual support to connected learning. For example, flexibility encourages innovative solutions, autonomy promotes students-led learning, safe environment increases students’ willingness to take risks, project-based learning develops students’ creativity and problem-solving, and role modelling for vulnerability help students get comfortable with failure and uncertainty. For example,

“In this assessment, there is only a data seed. Students can do anything they like. It ends up with many interesting projects and the creativity is great.”

(Statistics and Mathematics)

“If you want students to be innovative, you’ve got to enable them to take risks in a supportive environment where it doesn’t matter if they fail or not. Otherwise they’re never gonna be innovative.”

(UCE manager)

“We talk a lot about growth mindset and things like that as part of creativity. And in acknowledging you don’t have all the answers and sometimes it’s a bit of a vulnerability. You have to acknowledge that. So in the class you actually model back for the students, saying I don’t have all the answers and all that sort of stuff.”


In addition, UCE plays the role as a hub for connected learning as it has resource outreach, and bring students with diverse backgrounds together, provide a non-traditional environment and can provide longer and multiple supports for students’ interest-based learning. For example, as one of the mangers mentioned:

“UCE isn’t [a] classroom, it is different. We think part of what the students really get out of it is actually having to engage with other students and who might have different backgrounds and different opinions about the way the world works in a way that is actually quite rare.”

(UCE manager)


In conclusion, this study confirms that connected learning principles can be and have been applied in tertiary education through a variety of effective pedagogies and teaching practices.

Connected learning has the potential to develop tertiary students’ entrepreneurial and innovative capabilities by creating relatedness, sense of belonging and divergent thinking. Although there are a number of pedagogical challenges of using digital technologies in this space, opportunities exist to foster peer-to-peer learning and provide continuous support to students’ learning. In addition, we find enabling environments greatly support connected learning and having a university centre for entrepreneurship played a critical role in the ecosystem.


Bi, Q. C., & Collins, J. (2021). Proactivity, mindsets and the development of students’ entrepreneurial self-efficacy: behavioural skills as the catalyst. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 1-13.

Brown, C., Czerniewicz, L., & Noakes, T. (2016). Online content creation: Looking at students’ social media practices through a connected learning lens. Learning, Media and Technology41(1), 140-159.

Brown, R., & Renshaw, P. (2006). Positioning students as actors and authors: A chronotopic analysis of collaborative learning activities. Mind, Culture, and Activity13(3), 247-259.

Bryant, P. (2022). Transforming Business Education Through Connected Learning – Part 1.

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., … & Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Kumpulainen, K., & Sefton-Green, J. (2014). What is connected learning and how to research it?. International Journal of Learning and Media4(2), 7-18.

Prestridge, S., Jacobsen, M., Mulla, S., Paredes, S. G., & Charania, A. (2021). New alignments for the digital age: insights into connected learning. Educational Technology Research and Development69(4), 2171-2186.

Feature image: Photo by Visual Tag Mx

About the author

Dr. Qingqing Bi (Claire) is a Lecturer in the Department of Management, Marketing & Entrepreneurship, University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Her research interest focuses on entrepreneurial cognition, behavior and decision-making. Dr. Bi’s research has been published in mainstream entrepreneurship journals and conferences, such as Journal of Business Venturing, Journal of Business Research, Annual Meetings of Academy of Management Proceedings, and the Australian Centre for Entrepreneurship Research Conference. Her teaching philosophy is to cultivate future entrepreneurs and innovators through connected learning. Her recent project on entrepreneurship education explores the innovative pedagogies and teaching practices from multiple teaching award winners.

Associate Professor & Co-Director Te Puna Rangahau i-Ako | Digital Education Futures Labin the School of Educational Studies and Leadership, University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She has worked in higher education in South Africa, Australia, and now New Zealand. Her research focuses on how inequality influences University students’ digital experience and consequently their digital identities. She is currently exploring the role technology plays in students’ learning and in the development of their digital literacy practices, particularly in resource constrained contexts and is co-editor of a book on Wellbeing: Global Perspectives and Policies.

One thought on “Cultivating entrepreneurs and innovators through connected learning

  1. I suggest entrepreneurs and innovators can be cultivated through old fashioned group project based teaching. This is best done with your friendly local start-up center (most universities have at least one, or better still a joint one with government, business and other institutions). The students form a team and work on an innovation. They learn ideation, and pitching, then are assessed on what they did. I have seen everyone, from school kids to professors, go through this process.

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