As part of the MacArthur digital media and learning initiative for the past decade, I’ve been trying to understand how young people’s learning is changing in an era when there’s this complete abundance of social connectivity and information. Young people are learning how to organize and how to collaborate online and outside of school.

When my daughter was a sophomore in high school and was having a rough week at school, struggling to get through her accelerated academic work, she decided to stay off Tumblr for a week. She’s pretty active on Tumblr, her social media platform of choice. When she tells me her plan to avoid it for a week, I say, “great idea.” But, an hour later, I see her on her computer updating her Tumblr profile; so I inquire. She rolls her eyes, saying, “I’m getting off for a week, Mom. I need to cue up automated daily posts for the next week, so I won’t lose my followers.”

As a researcher who studies how young people are using social media, my daughter is constantly teaching me that Tumblr actually is a site where she’s learning how to navigate a complicated online audience and developing a set of skills, not only writing and engaging with the audience, but also understanding how to market and build a following and a lot of skills that had been very difficult for a 16-year-old to have access to in a prior era. As part of the MacArthur digital media and learning initiative for the past decade, I’ve been trying to understand how young people’s learning is changing in an era when there’s this complete abundance of social connectivity and information. Young people are learning how to organize and how to collaborate online and outside of school. They’re learning complex technical skills, but they tend not to see that as learning that can be connected to schools or civic engagement. So, how do we, as educators, bring the research into educational practice and how can we best support our kids in their learning, given how much the environment outside the classroom has changed?

Connected Learning Principles

We could address this question in many different ways. At the University of California Humanities Research Institute’s Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, the Connected Learning Research Network and the Connected Learning Alliance, we are focused on how we can build stronger connections within school and out-of-school learning. This agenda is not new. It’s something that John Dewey wrote about many decades ago. It is the core of experiential learning and project-based learning and many other movements that have been around for a long time. For those of us engaged with the “connected learning” model, we believe that today’s social and interactive media offers a new opportunity to revitalize this longstanding vision of progressive education. Connected learning is realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is, in turn, able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success or civic engagement. This model is based on evidence that the most resilient, adaptive and effective learning involves individual interest as well as social support to overcome adversity and provide recognition.

Connected learning knits together three crucial contexts for learning:

  • Peer-supported: In their everyday exchanges with peers and friends, young people are contributing, sharing and giving feedback in inclusive social experiences that are fluid and highly engaging.
  • Interest-powered: When a subject is personally interesting and relevant, learners achieve much higher-order learning outcomes.
  • Academically oriented: Learners flourish and realize their potential when they can connect their interests and social engagement to academic studies, civic engagement and career opportunity.

Core properties of connected learning experiences are:

  • Production-centered: Digital tools provide opportunities for producing and creating a wide variety of media, knowledge and cultural content in experimental and active ways.
  • Shared purpose: Social media and web-based communities provide unprecedented opportunities for cross-generational and cross-cultural learning and connection to unfold and thrive around common goals and interests.
  • Openly networked: Online platforms and digital tools can make learning resources abundant, accessible and visible across all learner settings.

With the proper supports, new media and technology can make opportunities for connected learning much more accessible, through experiences of production, online publishing and organizing. My daughter’s activities on Tumblr are just one among a plethora of newly accessible kinds of engagements in public life that are available to this generation.

Youth Culture Change

According to the Pew Research Center’s ongoing studies on libraries, new media is not replacing older literacies, but augmenting them in ways that young people under the age of 24 are more likely to read more online and offline than any other age group. And, they are prolific writers. Andrea Lunsford of Stanford conducts research in this area, and her studies show that the volume of young people’s writing has expanded tremendously. She recruited Stanford freshmen for a study that collected their writing through their years at college and found that writing is much more social and participatory among young people and that they’re getting much more feedback along the way. In a study with Karen Lunsford, she compares today’s first-year student writing to the writing of 20 years earlier. The study found that the length of papers have nearly tripled, while errors are comparable in volume but different in kind.

What we’re seeing right now is a culture clash between the modes of instruction and the institutions of learning that we’ve perfected in a prior age…

The sheer volume of media immersion that young people have in their everyday lives has risen dramatically. Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that youths, ages 8 to 18 on average consume 7.5 hours of media per day. And, mobile media also marks an important shift in youth culture. It means that we can all be in a state of constant social connectivity. What we’re seeing right now is a culture clash between the modes of instruction and the institutions of learning that we’ve perfected in a prior age, one that was characterized by information scarcity, and this free-flowing networked, socially-connected learning culture that young people are immersed in today.

Offering Opportunity

Like anything in abundance, too much of a good thing is not always best. As a parent of two teens who supports their online activities and thinks gaming can be a good thing, I struggle with how to guide them in balancing the allures of their interest-driven digital engagements with other responsibilities. It is a time for tough choices. They are confronting an incredible abundance of opportunity in terms of media and social connectivity and engagement, at the same time as they are living through an arms race in educational achievement, where it’s become even harder to get a good job and there’s tons of competitive pressure. This is the world that my teens are facing daily, and they are the lucky ones. Helping equip young people to thrive in this environment of abundance, cultivating mindfulness and attentiveness are a new set of capacities for a new kind of landscape that we have to navigate as educators. This need is even more pressing for young people who are not growing up in a highly enriched environment like my own children have.

As educators, parents, policymakers and learners, we need to take a hard look at our own role in how to make the most of the opportunities for learning, especially those that come with our open, networked, online world. It’s critical that we leverage new technology to build stronger connections between our educational institutions and the world at large. Educational institutions need to connect young people’s learning to their social lives, their communities, their interests and their careers.

The Internet, social media and digital technology give us the potential to expand the capacity of our public educational system and to reach all youth in their diverse communities and with their wide-ranging interests. Realizing this potential will require concerted, proactive efforts for change on behalf of those of us who are open and committed to an expansive and equitable approach to public education.

Editor’s Note:  If you enjoyed this article, be sure to watch Ito’s video “Cultural Anthropologist Mimi Ito on Connected Learning, Children, and Digital Media produced by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, 2011.

Mimi Ito
Mimi Ito is a cultural anthropologist of technology use, examining children and youth’s changing relationships to media and communications. She 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. Her work on educational software appears in numerous academic and popular journals. She is Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at UC Irvine and Chair of the MacArthur Research Network on Connected Learning. In addition to her current work funded by the MacArthur Foundation, she has been awarded grants by the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, Intel Research, the Abe Fellowship Program, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and is the recipient of the Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies from the American Educational Research Association.