Ito is the research director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, professor in residence, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation chair in digital media and learning at the University of California, Irvine. She is also the author of “Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design” and “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media.”
Remake Learning: You’ve probably been asked this a million times, but I’ve found whomever I ask has a different answer: What would you say connected learning is?
Mimi Ito: It’s like a Rorschach test. We may be looking at the same thing but we describe it in different ways. So it’s a fair question. I think of connected learning in terms of young people doing something they’re interested in with the support of their peers and where that experience is connected to a future opportunity—whether an academic pathway, a career path, or civic and community engagement.
Can you point to something you’ve seen lately that is an example of this?
I’ll give you an example from Crystle Martin’s research on one young woman named Maria who is a fan of the World Wide Wrestling Entertainment. She’s very active on the boards of her group. It’s a setting where people write stories together, taking on the roles of their favorite wrestlers. Through her involvement with the group, Maria got interested in creative writing, got a lot of helpful feedback, and gained a lot of confidence. So that’s an example of a person’s interests merging with a peer group to support learning and skill development.
What about the last part—the connection to real-world opportunity?
That’s often very difficult for young people to find. It’s really important that educators, parents, and learning institutions are mediating that. In Maria’s case, she confided in one of her teachers what she was doing and her teacher suggested opportunities for her in school, like writing for the school newspaper. Eventually, with the mentorship of her teacher, she pursued a degree in technical writing.
It sounds like that happened organically. How do you go about structuring things so that kind of opportunity happens more than just by chance?
How can our educational institutions support the kind of learning that happens in informal and peer-based settings?
That’s a really great question. How can our educational institutions support the kind of learning that happens in these informal and peer-based settings? It might be something as simple as an interest survey of students, or helping students run clubs mentored by faculty. Our partners at the National Writing Project have been great at helping young people write for and connect with online affinity groups.
So maybe the question is, where is connected learning in its life span? Is it a great idea that now needs to be built out in a structured way?
Connected learning is naming something that has already been around. When you talk to people who are doing things they love in their lives, they can generally point back to a learning experience where other people validated the thing they love and gave them opportunities to be recognized. So it’s not a new thing; but we believe that today’s technology provides a new opportunity to make that kind of learning more accessible. Maria could connect with people who shared her interests even though they weren’t in her local community.
So when you talk about peer affinity, you’re not talking about people of one’s own age group. You’re talking about people who share your interests.
That’s right. If you happen to love baseball or math or chess, those things are probably fairly well supported in most high school ecosystems. If you’re into chess, you might be labeled a nerd, but you can probably join a chess club and be mentored by an adult expert. But there are lots of other things kids are interested in. Also local peer groups can be such pressure cookers that some kids who wouldn’t join a school club would probably mess around in an online space.
I feel like this mentorship question is tricky. It’s a great idea, but how do you actually make it work? It’s expensive and it’s hard to orchestrate. What’s the reality? Is there a model for this?
Mentorship is critical. All the research points to this. If you can connect meaningfully with a mentor in your area of interest, it’s life changing. We know that, but how to orchestrate? The pain point is there needs to be a strong sense of shared interests and affinity to really realize the full benefits of mentorship. We know we need to provide it, but doing so programmatically is incredibly challenging. We see mentorship emerging organically in large-scale affinity spaces, like the wrestling boards I was telling you about. But that has very different properties from specific career mentoring or educational mentoring. It’s hard to nurture at that scale organically in the same way.
I hear the word “design” used a lot in talk about connected learning. What does design have to do with this?
I think design in this context is different from how you’d think of traditional curriculum design. It’s really about finding the points of connection between spaces and the overall balance of the learning environment and ecology.
So understanding the system.
Yes, that’s right. I’ve been peripherally interested in how product development has changed in the internet era. Now there’s rapid development, feedback, and innovation.
And putting the user at the center.
Right. And understanding you have to tweak and adopt and change as you move forward.
What do you see when you look at what’s happening in Pittsburgh?
From my vantage point one step removed, I think what’s exciting about Pittsburgh is that it seems to offer a range of educational offerings that are supporting connected learning at this more ecosystemic level within a city. Whether it is the Sprout Fund, Hive Learning Network, innovations from Carnegie Mellon University, or so many of the other programs related to connected learning—they seem to have connected fairly organically from the regional ecosystem. Maybe I’m just not seeing all the engineering that went behind building this ecosystem, but as an outside observer, it’s been very exciting to see it grow. When you talk to people who are doing things they love in their lives, they can generally point back to a learning experience where other people validated the thing they love and gave them opportunities to be recognized. What’s the end game for connected learning? What is the dream scenario? Or maybe one step below dream—what is the feasible dream scenario?
There are two pieces for me. One is it would be really great if we could start conceptualizing learning as something that happens across settings—if the conversation could be about how school relates to home and to afterschool programs. So a more learner-centered conversation. What are the supports each learner needs in order to achieve her potential? The other piece I would love is if the online ecosystem really supported learning for young people. There is space for fun, recreational social stuff, and a space for more explicitly educational stuff that is not particularly interest driven. I would love to see more alternatives in the middle.