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Q&A with Mimi Ito: Facebook’s educational potential

Mimi Ito (photograph by Justin Snider)

Mimi Ito is a cultural anthropologist studying new media use, particularly among young people in the United States and Japan. She focuses on the changing relationship to media and communications among youth and is a co-author of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press, 2009).

Ito recently spoke about her work to Jennifer Oldham at a Hechinger Institute seminar, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, on digital media and learning in Santa Monica, Calif.

Ito, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, just completed a three-year study about youth digital media usage. She found that social networks and other online groups open up whole new worlds of learning that schools have traditionally failed to explore—and that time online is highly important for teenage development.

“Facebook is the biggest educational property we have in kids’ lives now,” said Ito, who is research director at the Digital Media and Learning Hub at UC Irvine. “I’m not saying it’s educational in the way you want it to be. I’m just saying it’s where they are doing most of their learning.”

Ito shared her biggest concern—that teens are facing fragmented learning environments. While most kids have access to cell phones or computers, they don’t necessarily interact with adults who can mentor them on the best ways to take advantage of these technologies, she said.

Kids from middle-class families tend to be more connected with online communities that further their interests, as opposed to youth from traditionally disadvantaged communities, who lack mentors steering them to online groups that can help develop their talents.

The Hechinger Report: How do you persuade parents and educators that technology isn’t evil and that it can help kids learn?

Ito: Parents and educators have the experience of learning and going online to find resources, or just e-mailing a friend to ask something. I think it’s mostly a matter of people recognizing how much learning they do in informal settings. It’s just a recognition that most of the learning we do is not in the classroom and more and more of that is happening through online communication and information access.  How many more times do you Google than you go to the library?

The Hechinger Report: Are you studying how to develop a program that would capitalize on kids’ affinity for social networks and become a formal part of a school’s curriculum?

Ito: There is work in Chicago that’s one model of this. Nichole Pinkard started with an after-school media production program that linked to school-based curriculum so kids could do digital media production for their school assignments. There are a lot of different ways you could link the in-school and out-of-school environments and have a wider range of expressive possibilities. Having after-school mentors in touch with teachers to coordinate those kinds of activities is one example.

The Hechinger Report: It’s difficult to imagine how you could standardize programs like this and keep up with everything teachers are responsible for under state assessment requirements. Are you working on how to expand programs like Nichole’s?

Ito: There needs to be relationship-building between people in the formal and informal sector. So you could imagine linkages between educators and libraries and museums and other places where there are adults who are being supportive and mentors for different activities. The MacArthur Foundation is supporting this model of regional learning networks that link together informal learning networks, institutions and schools. It’s still fairly experimental, but the idea is what would it be like if, say—whether it’s the natural history museum, or the science center, or whatever—that they have educational resources … to develop networks … that are much more transparent across the school curriculum and assignments and programs. So you could imagine kids doing work in these informal settings, whether it’s after-school clubs or something like that, that actually feeds into the learning they are doing in school more intentionally.

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