George Lucas Educational Foundation

Mimi Ito on Learning in Social Media Spaces (Big Thinkers Series)

Mimi Ito, an expert in young people's use of digital media, shares her research on informal learning in online communities, where students can build technology skills, learn media literacy, and create and share their work.
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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.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography: Drea Cooper
  • Second Camera: Joe Rivera
  • Editor: Drea Cooper
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

This video was originally produced by Mobile Digital Arts for the New Learning Institute, from the Pearson Foundation.

Big Thinkers Video Series

Some of the most compelling visionaries in the world -- from Sir Ken Robinson to Jane Goodall to Martin Scorsese -- are focusing their attention on how to improve education. From innovative classroom concepts to suggestions on how to foster creativity and collaboration, they share their valuable insights for teaching and learning and illuminate new solutions to old problems.

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Mimi Ito is the research director at the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub. She is chair of the MacArthur Research Network on Connected Learning. Mimi is a professor in residence at the University of California Humanities Research Institute. Keep up to date with Mimi Ito and the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub on Twitter.

Visit the Big Thinkers series page to see more videos.

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jane Allison's picture
Jane Allison
Computer Technology Teacher

I just started using Kid Blogs with my first graders. They love it! And their parents are starting to post comments to their children as well. Right now they're just "playing" with it, but I'd love good ideas on how to use it more substantially. I plan to post discussion questions and also have the kids upload their graphics and other work for parents to see.

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Jane, I *love* that you're using blogs with such little ones! Here are three great Edutopia articles from the archives that may help as you dig in to this -- some targeted to older kids or ELLs, but you should be able to extrapolate to find some tips that are useful for all kids...

Blogging in the 21st-Century Classroom

New Teacher Boot Camp Week 5 - Using Blogs

Using Blogs to Engage English-Language Learners

If you have some specific questions and want to get a discussion started, try posting on our literacy discussion page -- -- and see if you can get some more ideas for your young bloggers ;-).

Best of luck!

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator & Trainer, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI #GoogleET

Hi! One of my second grade colleagues has been blogging successfully for years. Her class writing blog is: The kids use the blog as the 'presentation' for their writing which is honed and crafted the old fashioned way on paper and pencil - but you can't believe how excited the kids are to blog it! It's easy to see why - their peers and family members LOVE to read and comment. They love the authentic audience and the fact that their work is seen WORLD-WIDE (the blog tracks visitor traffic and it always blows their mind to see where the hits are coming from.) Using this as an example, why not have the kids post their writing (after finalizing of course)? Keyboarding skills will hold them back, so, limit the length, but, definitely showcase their work! Good luck!

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator & Trainer, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI #GoogleET

Also see Kathy Cassidy's amazing first grade bloggers - should have mentioned her first!

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

My first grade team uses KidBlog for their weekly writing homework. My teachers follow a similar model to yours, Jane, where the students answer a weekly discussion question. Here's an example from one class:

Jane Allison's picture
Jane Allison
Computer Technology Teacher

Thank you. They're great. Our blogs are a big hit so far. Quite a few of the parent logged in and made nice comments to their children. The kids also got a kick when our principal commented to a few of them. Now if I can only get their classroom teachers on board.... (I'm the technology teacher.)

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