Mimi Ito on Learning in Social Media Spaces (Transcript)
Mimi: So my question is this, why do we assume that kids' socializing and play is not a side of learning? And on the flip side, why do we assume that schools can't have a spirit of entertainment and play as part of what they're doing?
Mimi: Last year I wrapped up a three-year study with a large team of researchers where we were looking at a lot of different examples of kids' new-media practice, ranging from sort of everyday hanging-out behavior on sites like Myspace and Facebook with text messaging, IM to what we were calling more "geeked-out" kinds of participation, like making YouTube videos, remixing videos, creating podcasts, engaging in fan fiction, and other forms of fan production.
Mimi: I think our most important top-level finding was that there was tremendous diversity in what kids were doing online and what kids were learning online. So most kids were engaged with what we were calling "friendship-driven participation," which was primarily about hanging out with their friends online. And this is stuff that's not so different from what older generations did or what kids are doing today in the lunchroom and hallways at school. And this is a really important side of learning, the sort of important social behaviors and what it means to grow up in a digital world and the sort of ways in which kids post, link, forward, comment, create top-friends lists. These are all negotiations that are incredibly important to kids growing up today. There was a smaller minority of kids who started using this baseline technical and media literacy as a jumping-off point to start developing more sophisticated kinds of skills, and this is what we called "messing around" or as a transition to more geeking-out kinds of forms of participation. And that's where we saw a much smaller cut of kids. It was really a minority, those kids that tend to be identified with more creative or geeky or intellectual pursuits at school, kids who have strong interest-driven orientations, and these are the kids who are using the online world, using new media-production tools, games as environments to really develop specialized interests and very sophisticated forms of technical and media literacy.
Mimi: So I think there's this question about how we look at the relationship between the friendship-driven sites or the hanging-out space, the messing around and the geeking out. And I think it's actually important to value all those activities, but the way we as parents and as educators approach these different kinds of participation is very different, I think. So overall, we found that kids aren't really welcoming of adult intervention in the friendship-driven space. I mean, I got so many questions from parents who were wondering they should friend their teenage daughter or son on Facebook, for example, or were worried about the peer interactions, and adults have a particular and complicated role to kids' peer relations, and it's actually profoundly creepy for grown-ups to be participating in a space where there's a lot of sort of dating and flirting going around. So for the most part, adults are not welcome in that space, but there is a role for education in the sense that kids need to start thinking critically about things like privacy and identity and all those things. And I think the adult world is quite aware of those concerns and issues and we've rehashed those quite a lot. I think the piece that we don't currently have real awareness that is shared or broad-based about is how we support kids' engagement in the more messing-around and geeking-out space. And this is space that really has the opportunity to foster kids' intellectual development, their civic engagement, their personal development in really important ways, and yet we haven't really worked as educators or parents to proactively engage kids.
Mimi: There really is a gap in perception and understanding between generations about the value of engagement with online activities. And so in the adult world, there was a general perception that when kids are in front of the screen or messing around with their computer, that it's a waste of time, that it's taking away from more productive activities, healthier activities, whereas kids ascribe much more value to those activities. And that's, in a way, not so different from, you know, an earlier generation trying to get your teenage daughter off the phone or trying to get your son to come in from playing with their friends to focus on their homework, but I think there's a more general perception in the culture around new media that is associated with entertainment media and other forms of just mediated activity that it is inherently a space that is hostile to learning. And that's the perception that I think we really need to work against. And part of it is understanding the differences between different kinds of online activities. So friendship-driven activities are very different from interest-driven activity, and if you lump them all together, you're actually missing the opportunity for learning that's in the space and also not recognizing the sort of baseline social learning that's happening in the friendship space.
Mimi: We know that the learning outside of school matters tremendously for the learning in school. So a lot of what we're trying to say about kids' informal learning with new media is part of an already existing set of understandings that educators have of the importance of the home environment, for the peer environment, for the community for learning that happens in schools. The question is, how can we be more active about linking those two together?
Mimi: And I think this is a tremendous challenge that a lot of these experimental efforts are dealing with. I think for teachers and schools and classroom learning, there's still an incredibly important role to play, which is about giving kids access across the board to a baseline set of standards, literacies, expectations about what they need to participate in contemporary society, to be reflective, and to also take opportunity of the fact that you really have kids and adults in a shared space that's safe, that's sanctioned, that gives kids an opportunity to reflect on things in their everyday life that's not just about them being immersed in it all the time. So I think that there are incredibly important functions for schools. What we're saying by evaluating informal learning is not that we should abandon formal learning but that we should get those working together in a much more coordinated way.