Q&A with Connected Learning expert Mimi Ito

As children grow up immersed in information and technology, educators face new challenges in engaging their students. Mizuko “Mimi” Ito’s response: “Meet kids where they are, and push them to go further.”

Ito’s Connected Learning model reimagines the experience of education for the information age. It’s a hands-on, production-centered approach that draws on young people’s interests and friendships to help keep them engaged in academic pursuits.

Ito is a cultural anthropologist of technology use and is Professor in Residence and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at the University of California, Irvine, with appointments in the University of California Humanities Research Institute, the Department of Anthropology, and the Department of Informatics. She’s a co-founder of Connected Camps, which provides creative learning opportunities to kids, and co-author of “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Youth Living and Learning with New Media.”

Ito was part of this year’s graduate lecture series at the University of Washington. We spoke with her before her lecture on Jan. 28, 2016.

Q: How would today’s schools look if they adopted a Connected Learning approach?

A: You can imagine a whole school that is a Connected Learning school, but I think more typical would be that schools are just more porous to the outside world, so that schools shouldn’t feel like they’re shouldering the whole burden of education on their own. There are a lot more openings for them to connect with the resources online and in their community, and to broker connections to other things happening in kids’ lives, whether it’s at home or their community or online.

So this could take the form of maybe a slightly different kind of guidance counselor who connects kids to online communities and to museum-based programs and library-based programs. And it could take the form of more youth-initiated afterschool clubs. It could take the form of members of the community being welcomed into the schools to run workshops or run clubs. So these are little changes on the edges that any school can adopt. That’s sort of the realistic model – that schools can still deliver the core of what they do, but there is a much richer set of openings to other things happening in kids’ lives.

Q: What do you see as teachers’ role in Connected Learning?

A: I think there’s still always going to be a role for teachers to be content experts to some extent. It depends so much on the age and the specialty of the subject and so on. I think the most important thing is to have teachers there as caring adults in kids’ lives, who have personal relationships with them. There’s nobody else who is tasked with that. That’s the one thing that will never change – to have a caring adult who has a sense of who the kid is, what they’re capable of from a learning perspective, and can guide a kid into learning opportunity. I think that role is more important than ever and will never go away.

Q: If kids pursue their interests in learning, do they still get a well-rounded education?

A: I don’t think it’s necessarily about kids finding their passion and interest, but about kids finding their place in the world. So I think some kids are motivated by their peers, some kids are motivated by interests, and some kids are motivated by traditional achievement. There’s the kid who’s only going to do something if it’s cool and popular with their friends, and there’s the kid who’s like super-nerdy and maybe more challenged to find peers who support their interests. The core of the Connected Learning model is that kids can enter from any point. You want every kid to be able to butt up against those different spheres of learning. You don’t want the nerdy kid to be isolated. You don’t want the popular kid not to have interests. I think the role of school, caring adults and parents in kids’ lives is to try to keep connecting those different spheres and finding places so that they don’t become one-trick ponies.

Q: You’re involved with camps that use Minecraft. What do you see in it as an educational tool?

A: Minecraft is my current favorite thing. I do think it’s a great game and there’s a ton of opportunity and the fact that you can set up your own servers and communities gives us a lot more space to work as educators compared to World of Warcraft and these other corporate-run online gaming sites. I work with educators who are Minecraft nerds and can scaffold a really productive learning environment that’s still about having fun with Minecraft. So we’re trying to fill that gap because even teachers who are committed to it, you have to be really nerdy to get in there and design a program in Minecraft. Your standard teacher is not going to invest in that, much less a busy parent. Free-range Minecraft is great and fun, but there’s so much opportunity there to make it more, so that’s the space where I feel like there’s a really interesting gap for educational programming.

Q: What do you see as libraries’ role in Connected Learning?

A: I think there’s huge potential with libraries. I love working with libraries because their mission is interest-driven learning. Museums are, too, but libraries because they’re really strong access points for lower-income communities, and lower-income communities often have a more positive relationship to their libraries than schools. The voluntary and interest-driven nature also means that they don’t have captives, which also creates interesting challenges for getting youths. The same with museum-based programs; if you’re inherently functioning on a voluntary and interest-driven model, then it’s harder to kind of push kids into new things. I think there are trade-offs to each setting, but there are huge advantages to libraries because they see themselves in this kind of brokering role that’s so fundamental to connected learning to begin with, to really serve youth interests. The interest of youths comes first, so there’s a lot of cultural alignment with the model.

Q: How do you think schools will look in the future?

A: I think that a lot of the early education would still look a lot like what really good, progressive early education looks like today – creative, hands-on, kids having fun and learning basic skills, and being protected by caring adults. But I think that as kids move to the older age groups, there will be a lot more space for personalization, specialization, connections to the real world. Why shouldn’t a high school student be taking a university-level class from a world-renowned physicist, but still having the support from the school to make that happen? So, I think there will be much more porousness.

And higher ed will be completely different. I think it’ll change much faster than K-12, allowing for much more customizability and hybrid formats and life-long learning than we see right now. It’s already happening. Universities are run more like businesses than K-12 is, so they’re more market-driven and adaptive in that sense. I think K-12 is much harder because it’s a much more enclosed kind of system, more resistant to change.

Q: Should parents try to steer their children toward more productive interest-driven activities?

A: I wouldn’t say they’re more productive, but they are the ones that tend to orient kids toward specialized skills and expertise. So in a way, the friendships and the peer groups are kind of the emotional foundation for kids. They have to have that. This is where the Connected Learning model is challenging, because it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. It’s really about understanding the kid and their disposition and the balance they need in their lives. I think you’ve really hit that spot with kids when they’re really into something AND their friends are supporting them. That’s the magic of the Connected Learning model.

Most of our lives are spent fulfilling obligations, but you want every kid to have at least some experience of when all those things come together. It’s finding that experience of saying, “Wow, the world recognized me for doing something I love.” That’s just an amazing thing.