Q&A: Mimi Ito on Connected Learning for All
5.21.13 | Mizuko Ito is a cultural anthropologist who studies technology use and young people’s changing relationships to media and communications. She is Professor in Residence and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at the University of California, Irvine. Ito also serves as Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Hub at UC Irvine and Chair of the MacArthur Research Network on Connected Learning.
This post is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning has changed over time and where it’s headed. The conversations are being collected for an e-book that will be published by the MacArthur Foundation at the end of 2013. Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Spotlight: So where were you in your work six years ago?
Mimi Ito: I was at USC [University of Southern California] at the time, and John Seely Brown was organizing a set of conversations that were bringing the MacArthur Foundation together with researchers, who were doing work on learning and digital media. I participated in a couple of those meetings. I’d just come off having done a lot of research in education primarily around kids learning through videogames and participating on the Internet, which was, I suppose, the leading edge at the time.
Spotlight: How would you describe the thinking around these issues at the time?
MI: In educational research there was a real wall between technology studies and educational research. Most educational research is really focused on the classroom, and when it is about technology, it means technology in the classroom. My work has always focused on social and recreational contexts in which young people are learning with technology. John Seely Brown was one of the few people who bridged these conversations—and it’s probably not an accident that I had done my training at institutions that John had built, like Xerox Parc and the Institute for Research on Learning.
Spotlight: How would you describe the work you do?
MI: I’ve always been fascinated by how people learn, particularly self-directed learners. I’m not one of them myself, but my brother was. He didn’t like formal education, but he would just learn on his own. When he was interested in fish, he got to know the guys at the aquarium shop, and every day he would go after school and hang out with them, and that’s how he learned with whatever he would become interested in. It’s actually quite hard to learn that way. You have to be charming and extroverted and have supportive parents. He was a special case, but it made me wonder why we can’t support more kids to learn in ways that are more social and integrated with the real world.
Spotlight: What’s emerged from your work that’s surprised you?
There have always been people who are really passionate about their learning and interest-driven, but with the advent of new technology, this kind of learning becomes something that is not only more accessible but also, really, required.
MI: What I think is interesting is that my passion point has ended up having a broader relevancy as digital culture and the Internet have become more central to people’s lives. I’d say my work is about understanding how young people are really innovating and using new technologies to further their interests. There have always been people who are really passionate about their learning and interest-driven, but with the advent of new technology, this kind of learning becomes something that is not only more accessible but also, really, required. In earlier generations, if kids were into something, they could go to the library; they could find peers and mentors who shared their interest—there have been geeks in every generation. But what has made this form of learning much more important is the fact that digital networks are becoming ubiquitous and information and social connection are much more abundant.
Spotlight: So looking back over your work to date, what are you pleased about? What do people use as a model moving forward? And, on the other hand, what have you stumbled on? What hasn’t worked so well that we also ought to pay attention to?
MI: I think the thing that popped for people is how some of these learners are really thriving in the Internet age. People are really getting that. I think the rise of the Internet entrepreneur, as a kind of role-model geek, who didn’t do well in school, or maybe dropped out of school but has been amazingly successful in business—that’s really captured people’s imagination in a way that would have been hard to imagine 10 years ago.
I think the part that isn’t going so well, or that’s challenging, is the equity issue. When I started out, I just wanted to celebrate this kind of learning. The way people like this learn is awesome and inspiring—and a challenge to our institutions to make learning more compelling. As I got deeper into the research, though, it became increasingly evident that this kind of learning was mostly for privileged people. And that’s not because young people don’t have the resourcefulness, or the interest, or the ability to strive—but there are a whole host of social networks and social capital that young people need to really translate their interests into learning opportunities. There are kids who are interested, engaged, smart, and resourceful, kids who are learning amazing things—but unless they’re from a particular demographic these things aren’t going to make them successful in life necessarily. And that’s a big problem.
Spotlight: What is your thinking in terms of addressing this?
MI: I started my research with a youth-centered and somewhat antiauthoritarian approach. As I moved further along with my work, though, and after talking to people with different perspectives and being part of developing the connected learning model, I have a much greater appreciation for the role of institutions, including public schools, in providing the access, guidance, and pathways to opportunities that kids can’t achieve on their own through solely youth-driven programs. It’s become much more a part of my personal agenda to build bridges between the grown-up organizational world and the Internet-centered youth world. I think this is the key way to address this issue.
I have a much greater appreciation for the role of institutions, including public schools, in providing the access, guidance, and pathways to opportunities that kids can’t achieve on their own through solely youth-driven programs.
Spotlight: Looking forward, where does digital media and learning (DML) need to go in the future? What needs to happen next?
MI: I think the big challenge for us now is to move from the big ideas, research, and innovation to really making this work useful, relevant, and practical. A lot of more progressively minded research initiatives have not necessarily flourished because they’ve stayed within a relatively small and elite group of people; they’re not really changing the lives of people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to progressive education. We run the risk of replicating that in the digital world. I think our big challenge right now is to make the ideas for connected learning more broad-based and accessible.
Spotlight: Do you have a sense of what needs to be done to actually make this happen?
MI: There are a number of different opportunities, but at the core it’s about building networks and coalitions across many players who haven’t historically worked closely together. The diversity of the DML initiative helps with this. While I have been very youth and online focused, other folks with the DML initiative have been working with educational institutions including schools, libraries, and museums, as well as policymakers. The MacArthur Foundation has a lot of credibility and influence, and there are potential ways of bringing the principles of connected learning into the mainstream through educational policy and institutions.
Spotlight: But you’re also talking about players from outside the traditional education sphere?
MI: Yes, in addition to these existing players in education, we also have an opportunity to bring in new players from the tech and entertainment industries. The growth of online learning and social media has taken center stage lately in discussion of the future of higher education—people are beginning to realize that new media and online networks are game changers for education. This means there’s an opportunity to build new alliances that could really change the basic infrastructure and model for our educational system. This could include assessment and accreditation, as well as teaching and information access. In many ways, learning has already been transformed by these new media, but education is just at the beginning of a major shift.
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