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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Thinkers: Mimi Ito on Learning with New Media

The cultural anthropologist discusses kids' everyday participation with new media and how learning is happening in informal settings of socialization and play.

Big Thinkers: Mimi Ito on Learning with New Media (Transcript)

Mimi: We recently completed a three year ethnographic study of what kids are doing with the new media focused on gaming, online communication and digital media production and the goal of the work was really to understand the online and digital world from a youth centered perspective. So our focus was really on the social and recreational lives of kids and not so much on school and structured environments and we were really just trying to understand the kinds of motivations and passions that kids were bringing to this new media environment.

I think the big take away from our study is just really understanding the main categories that kids were engaged in, in terms of their everyday activity with new media and we divided up into hanging out, messing around and geeking out and really trying to understand the fact that the hanging out behaviors which we call friendship driven activity is really quite different from the geeked out behavior which we call interest driven activity. A lot of times when we talk about kids and new media, we kind of assume that kids are doing the same thing. But there’s actually such a wide range of things that kids are doing with new technology and I think it’s really important especially when we’re talking about learning that we’re being clear in what we mean. So in the hanging out space there’s a lot of learning going on, but it’s a really different kind of learning, it’s about social behavior and getting along with friends and learning those hard lessons about how you deal with popularity and romance and things like that and in the geeked out and interest driven space it’s really about kids developing the capacity to geek out on a specialized interest to pursue self directed learning around things that they’re passionate about and it’s a very different space for learning.

On the hanging out side this is really the stuff that the majority of kids are engaged in, so this is using MySpace and Facebook, I AM, text messaging to keep in touch with their friends and so if you look at a group of kids, most kids will be engaging in this kind of hanging out stuff and what’s happening there I think is that there is sort of a generation gap and perception where adults are feeling a little bit uncertain about the value of it, they’re feeling a little bit frightened at times about the kind of trouble that kids might be getting into online and it’s part of this whole thing that’s been around for generations which is that the peer group is starting to take over and kids are really motivated by the peer interaction and parents have always had a complicated relationship to that. But I think what’s happening that’s different is that kids are doing this hanging out with their friends that’s a lot like what kids have done generations before, but one side effect of it is that they are becoming very fluent in online communication, the use of digital media, posting, linking, forwarding, remixing media. This is just part of what they pick up as part of being a participant in peer culture and that’s what’s very different and I think the important thing for adults is really just to recognize that there is all kinds of learning happening, both at the social layer and at the technical media layer when kids are engaged in what looks just trivial kid social life.

On the geeked out side I think that adults may have a much more active role to play. So what we’re seeing right now is that there’s so many resources online for kids to search for things, just simple searches for information that wouldn’t have been accessible before to find communities of interest and expertise online to really sort of develop collaborative relationships so we saw instances of kids doing collaborative writing and video editing through online communities, gaming is another example of a group that’s really highly mobilized online. But we tend to think of these activities just like with the hanging out side we find that a lot of parents don’t necessarily value that kind of learning and while more importantly they don’t know how to support it, even if they do value it. So I think we have a model as an earlier generation of oh if your kid’s interested in soccer, you join a soccer league or if they’re interested in science, you might get a science kit or give them language lessons or whatever. We have models for supporting learning outside of school. But we don’t have models for saying look there’s an interest in video editing or music making, we can’t really afford the time or the money to do this really specialized program. But there’s actually a lot that you can find online to support these interests and where should we go, how do you support that, both teachers and parents. Those are sorts of models that we need to develop I think.

There are so many more resources out there and I think we saw in our study a lot of productive cases when parents and kids were engaged in collaborative activity around new media and what’s really interesting about that is that you’re seeing the shift in expertise and authority so that kids may know a lot about certain things. But parents can also bring really important expertise to the table and that’s when you see a really productive shift in power dynamic around learning. So whether it’s building a web page together as a family or geeking out on some gaming interest that’s when a parent really decides to engage in an area of interest and can support it through their own participation and we saw some really productive examples of that.

Kids have been pushing the envelope on a lot of these issues around copyright and fair use and distribution issues with file sharing and remix and mash up and it’s really about living through this moment where there’s a huge upheaval in our cultural norms and our industry models for how to deal with the stuff. So yeah I mean we’re living in a period when a lot of what is just natural in kids every day peer culture is not strictly legal and I think we really do have to come to some sort of compromise where there are a set of social norms in place that are actually realistic that kids could follow. I mean it’s not realistic to say that kids aren’t going to get content and redistribute content or mash up content. There aren’t guidelines for reuse that are actually in step with what kids actually want to do with media and I think it is really important that we understand the practices of this new generation that are going to become the dominant voice in a few years and how out of step it is with the way the industry has codified the laws around this and arrive at some compromise that enables both sides to survive somehow.

If anything what we’re trying to say is that we think that adults should have an appreciation of the fact that learning is happening in a lot of other settings other than school and it’s not necessarily about transforming school practice. In order to support productive learning through digital media the question should not be how do we change schools or should not exclusively be how do we change schools, but it’s how do we understand this broader context in which kids are learning and in which school is an important part. But we’ve spent much less attention thinking about how we can optimize and support and facilitate learning outside of school and how it might link to school and so I think what we’re trying to contribute to the conversation is to say school is important but this other stuff is important too and how can we develop a mutually respectful and productive relationship between those different kinds of learning.

There really is a generation gap in the understanding of the value of online participation and the understanding of the specifics of it. So parent’s ability to guide kids and mentor kids in their participation with these online spaces has really been radically curtailed. We don’t have the experience growing up with these technologies in the same way and even me as a researcher who studies these things; it’s really hard to keep up because I don’t have the same intensity about participation. So simple things that you could take for granted like you kind of knew who your kid’s friends are because you pick up the phone and they’re there or they’re going in and out of the house. You don’t see that interaction anymore when kids are on text messaging. You never look at your kids text messages, I mean that would be a violation of privacy and the whole tension about whether parents can look at Facebook profiles, it’s become much more challenging for parents to have that sort of ambient awareness of what kids are doing with their friends and it is a real new parenting challenge and I think we haven’t quite figured out how to monitor and supervise and mentor in ways that aren’t really oppressive to kids because I think it is a problem when parents go in with these really ill informed rules like oh you can only be on the computer for ten minutes that doesn’t really solve the fundamental problem which is that kids need guidance in working through their social development.

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Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Coordinating Producer

  • Lauren Rosenfeld

Production Support

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Production Assistant

  • Doug Keely

Camera Crew

  • Sam Painter
  • David Mitlyng

Senior Video Editor

  • Karen Sutherland


Remixing: The process of taking samples from preexisting materials to combine them into new forms.

Mashup: A derivative work consisting of two or more pieces of media conjoined together, such as a video clip with an unrelated soundtrack.

Sources: RemixTheory.net, Wiktionary.org

Discussion Questions

1. Hanging Out: What social skills are kids practicing with today's digital tools? Is this really new? What is the learning value in these activities?

2. Messing Around: How can you support kids interest in using digital tools for collaboration and creativity?

3. Geeking Out: What role should adults play as kids use digital media for self-directed learning? How can we leverage the deep knowledge that kids are acquiring on their own?

Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ike Okonkwo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

1. Dr. Mimi Ito has eloquently shared with us the findings of a three year study of how kids use the multi-media outside the school or classroom structure. As an anthropologist, her study focused on the social aspect of the impact of media technology on the kids parents and the community in general. Hanging out with friends in no longer a localized event that parents used to do. It is now a highly mobile relationship which knows no distance and no boundaries. Even though the kid may be romanticizing with a kid in the other side of the globe. he is able to keep up with as many of them as could log into "MySpace," at the same time. Unimaginable to parents who are digital immigrants! That is what makes it new. In the interest of the kids ability to participate in the cultural changes that are the results of fast moving technological innovations, digital learning is definitely taking place during such hanging outs. the adults have to recognize that this "Romeo and Juliet thing" is actually helping to prepare the kids for the future in which they will find themselves.

2. Yes, as a parent I have to in order to eliminate unwanted complications in my relationship with my kids. As a good role model and a responsible parent I should respect their privacy. By collaborating with the kids we will be able to direct them to more 'ethical' use of the media to their benefit. As educators and parents we should engage them and not enrage them, by viewing their curiosity as an attempt to gain rigor, relevance and relationship, as they explore the media.

3. We as adults should encourage the kids to use media technology for self-directed learning, to enable them study what they feel most passionate about. By so doing we would be helping them to develop the capacity for being creative in specialized interests of their own. We should not be afraid or fell intimidated because the kids are more adept and knowledgeable than us in this ever changing world of cyberspace. We must realize that these kids are born into the digital age, and it is our duty to encourage them to be digitally literate, by using Blogs,wikis,google, webquests, virtual tours, On-Line Learning, E-Portfolio, etc to teach them, so they can become fluid in media technology.

Sanford's picture

I love my geeks, and they are much better than I at discovering new tools, using them, and teaching one another (and sometimes me). I see my role as a facilitator: It's important that we have conversations about what they'd like to try doing and why; it's also important that they understand my goals for their projects, learn how to determine whether a source is reputable, and learn to attribute material used to the source from which it came.

Janey Haynes's picture
Janey Haynes
FL Dept Head, Tech Committee Chair, German/French/Russian teacher

Comment on Dr. Ito's presentation.
1. Hanging Out: What social skills are kids practicing with today's digital tools? Is this really new? What is the learning value in these activities? --Adolescence has always been a time of discovery, especially in the social arena, so socializing via technology isn't really new behavior.
It's the same behavior but applied differently. One thing I worry about is the lack of face-to-face interaction and the social norms that THAT particular skill requires being lost by the wayside as this generation uses electronics to communicate, even collaborate. I see in my classroom some kids who are socially awkward in face-to-face presentation situations; these same kids are whizzes with their smart phones, tablets, and laptops. With so much technology at their fingertips, project-based, research-based, and presentation-based learning is more fun, exciting, and often more creative than in the past non-technological classroom.
2. Messing Around: How can you support kids interest in using digital tools for collaboration and creativity?--In a limited fashion, using sites such as Classjump or Edmodo has created a virtual classroom where posts, comments, messaging, and even uploading assignments is made possible. My kids get excited when I post a comment or a reminder and they get it on their phones. Unfortunately in our district we have many, many kids without Internet at home, without computer skills, without smart phones. For those who have them, it's a great addition to their learning toolbox and we should support their using them...as tools, not as an end in themselves. In the classroom when I am teaching a new skill, I want their attention on developing that skill. Mastery can take many forms, including their discoveries via their personal technologies. In German, for instance, I received a wonderful "Family" project (video)with a German song included. Good mashing, I say.
3. Geeking Out: What role should adults play as kids use digital media for self-directed learning? How can we leverage the deep knowledge that kids are acquiring on their own?
--I love self-directed learning. If my students get turned on by a piece of music I play in the foreign language, they usually dig right in, finding more of the same, incorporating it into their music libraries, which immerses them in the language even more. I see my job as more of a facilitator--taking students to sites that pique their interests, whether it's music (very popular), sports, cars, whatever. They can surf until they find what they like then use that to report back to the class, making use of their "geeking out" and their language skills together. It's a wonderful partnership.

Eileen Callejas's picture
Eileen Callejas
Founder of Helpertunity.org

I appreciate the research and work of Mimi Ito, and I think that as technology advances and we older generations of adults and seniors "catch-up" with ways to use technology "outside the office" - for leisure activities ourselves, we will see even further advances in the variety and valuable uses of educational and interest relevant media. Even since 2009, the rapid growth of Facebook to hosting 1 billion daily users, the growing popularity and value of Pinterest in sharing tips and ideas, and the emergence of Google+ Hangouts for both casual communication as well as education and business applications, have all been extraordinary! I see the value that advertisers are finding in targeting consumers' interests in their online marketing efforts, and the benefit that it has to generating revenue streams for small educational media makers, such as "Preferred YouTube Channel Hosts" who gain a few pennies every time their video is viewed; paid for by today's less obtrusive pop-up ads and side-bar marketers' dollars. It further opens the door for industry to be able to "pay" for access to potential customers and product buyers, rather than buyers needing to "pay" for copyrighted educational and entertainment media content, and in that, I think we are beginning to come closer to a modern "compromise" in media rights and ownership which benefits all sides.

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