Connected Learning in a Networked Age

Presentor: Mimi Ito

Event: American Association of School Librarians (AASL) 2011 Conference - October 27, 2011

Closing keynote address for the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) 2011 Conference

  • It’s great to be here at a school librarian event and to connect with people within education who share a set of values around student-centered and inquiry-driven learning.
  • There’s particularly a tie because we are seeing an economically driven contraction in the support for enriched educational experiences in the public sector.
  • We need to build more alliances.

We are in a time of both opportunity and risk. There’s a lot of talk about kids these days —  distractibility, dumbing down, risks of social isolation. There’s a lot of fear about the dehumanizing effects of technology, but there is also a sense of promise. Risks are not about the individual risks of distractibility, dumbing down, addiction, or social isolation. Real risk is the social risk of a profound and growing equity gap between the educated and uneducated, between those who are taking advantage of the opportunities and those who are not. I know that all of you are in the trenches with young people everyday working to turn risk into opportunity and to guide young people to the productive forms of learning that our new networked and digital age has to offer.

My central argument is this: School libraries are the interface between interest-driven and knowledge-driven inquiry and formal educational accountabilities. School librarians are ideally poised to be the brokers that link schools to broader online social and knowledge ecosystems. But doing this requires building a broader network of alliances.
The Digital Youth Study was funded as one of the first projects of the Digital Media and Learning Initiative.
Digital media and learning began based on the idea that how kids grow up and learn is changing because of new media. Digital media and learning is different in that it looked at learning and not education. It is not restricted to formal institutions of schooling. The Digital Youth Study is the first broad fact-finding mission on learning with new media in out-of-school contexts –- social and recreational. It is the largest study of its kind in the US.


  • Kids are learning an extraordinary amount in their everyday use of new media.
  • What is taken for granted is the technical literacy of getting around in an online world.
  • What would have been considered technically sophisticated 10 years ago is taken for granted now.
  • Social competency of how to hang out, date, and get along with their friends.
  • Some kids are going a step further and doing highly engaged forms of learning, creative work, and civic engagement online. These are who you hear about as “digital youth.” They are the minority, but it’s important because they show the potential that all kids could achieve.

The availability of online interest groups has changed the accessibility equation for kids who want to engage with peers who share their passionate interests.The social relationships that young people are thrown into at school are not necessarily the relationships that will further their creative, civic, or intellectual interests. We have to actually build environments and occasions for those social connections to occur. The question is how do you pull kids’ attention from the kinds of popularity, dating, and friendship negotiations, which are so central to their growing up, to consider identities and affiliations that center on knowledge and skill development. How do we pull them off Facebook and into communities of expertise?

The other major finding of our study was the generation gap in perception of the value of new media engagement. This generation gap is one of the big barriers that stand in the way of more kids taking advantage of the opportunities for learning that the networked and digital world have to offer. There is an abundance of opportunity and scarcity of adult guidance.

Most of you probably know what happens in a Wi-Fi-enabled lecture hall. If you’ve grown up with Pokemon, and if you spend most of your waking hours connected to your peers in a constant stream of social exchange, then what does it feel like to be asked to focus on a single source of knowledge for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, one hour? In fact, how many of you have checked your iPhone or Blackberry in the first 15 minutes of this talk?

I want to show you a video that Michael Wesch at Kansas University put together with his students.

What we’re seeing today is an intensifying culture clash between the modes and institutions of learning that were perfected in the Industrial Age and today’s networked learning culture. It’s not simply that kids are resisting the authority of their parents and teachers. Kids have done that for generations. It’s that the world around the classroom has also changed dramatically. Established cultural institutions like the textbook, the teacher, or the encyclopedia aren’t the critical passage points for knowledge anymore. Kids are immersed in a networked knowledge economy of free flowing information and constant social connectivity.

In this context, traditional authoritarian responses are going to elicit new forms of resistance. Let me show you two videos that illustrate this kind of student response. The next two videos are from YouthLAB teens at 24/7: A DIY Video Summit.

Now that kids are carrying camera phones in their pockets, and they have the ability to easily post information on online networks, videos like this circulate freely on the Internet. Another popular genre of student video is talking back to the stay-in-your-seat, listen-to-what-I-say, I’m-always-right attitude of authoritarian classroom instruction.

Videos like this are indicators of the culture clash between traditional top-down, individualized and standardized educational formats, and the peer-based sharing that is flourishing through online networks. Some of this youth voice can lead to greater teacher accountability. More often, they are simply fodder for kids to bond with one another against a common enemy about their shared conditions of oppression.

Left to their own devices, most young people will use social media to immerse themselves in youth culture and hang out with their friends, disconnecting from academics and intergenerational connection. It takes principled design and intervention to support and fuel social engagement that is intergenerational and knowledge-driven.

  • Genre of lipdubs first started in universities but spread to high schools and workplaces all over the world.
  • Single shot, one song, celebratory, faculty participation, whole community turns out.
  • Friendly rivalry, shot in reverse.
  • Media production that is collaborative and is tapped into a broader ecosystem of open innovation on the Internet.
  • Completely different from the snarky, in-your-face, hostile to school attitudes you saw in the prior videos.
  • It shows that given the right adult supports, new media and internet circulation can be a site of community and intergenerational bonding, not hostility.
  • Lipdubs as an integration of peer relationships, creative production, and adult guidance.


Let me give you one more example from the Digital Youth Study to look at these dynamics from a youth-centered perspective. I’d like to describe the experience of another teen in our digital youth project who was part of CJ Pascoe’s study of kids online. I want to start with Clarissa. Clarissa is a teen who CJ Pascoe (2007) has written about. She comes from a working class home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she aspires to be a writer.

This is some text that I excerpted from the rules of another role-playing board. What I want to highlight here is the ethic of reciprocity that you see in these peer-based learning environments. Participants are both writers and critics of each other’s work.


That you should generally follow but are not necessarily required to follow.

Take criticism constructively and give it out the same…

Compose your writing to the best of your ability. Do your best to be understandable and to spell all words to the fullest with conventional letters. It’s easier to read for people and generally earns you respect…

Clarissa and her role-playing friends take their writing very seriously and constantly critique each other. Here, she indicates some of the ways in which her writing for role playing is not the same as writing for school. Online, she is not doing it for a grade. Instead, she is driven by her own interests and passions and a nurturing creative community that respects her and appreciates her work. The evaluation and appreciation by peers who share her same passionate interests feels both more authentic and consequential to her.

It’s something I can do in my spare time, be creative and write and not have to be graded… You know how in school you’re creative, but you’re doing it for a grade so it doesn’t really count?

At the same time, the skills she has picked up in the role-playing world have served her well in school. For one of her school assignments she chose to write a 100-page screenplay based on one of her characters she developed on Faraway Lands, and in her college applications she writes about role playing as preparation to be a screenwriter.  In her applications, she submitted creative writing samples based on her role-playing writing. She was admitted to both Emerson and Chapman, and she feels these writing samples were a big part of why she was accepted.

Connected Learning

  • We are developing a model of ‘connected learning’ in digital media and learning to move the research into a learning theory and a set of design principles.
  • Connected learning is about bringing together peer and community support for interest and passion-driven learning, and translating and linking that learning to sites of power — political, academic, career/economic.
  • Good connected learning is the same whether it is a teenager learning how to write, a 10-year-old learning how to play the violin, or a college experience that sets a young person out into the world equipped not only with social connections, expertise, as well as a disposition for lifelong learning that will serve them well in career, life, and civic and political engagement.

Our research has shown us some of what goes into supporting connected learning. We are in the phase of our work of trying to work with partners in various sectors to refine the model and to understand how we can start building design and instructional principles around it keyed to specific partners. We have been working with partners in the public libraries to develop this model, but we are still very early in the process. We would love to learn from all of you to refine and test and build more alliances. We can use AASL standards for 21st-C literacy and the Learning 4 Life initiative as a site of intersection.

Let me walk through what I see as some potential opportunity areas. First in the interest-driven space we are seeing a tremendous expansion of online learning resources. Khan Academy is getting a lot of play. But of course academic videos were out in the networked ecosystem long before Khan came around. He just put it in a learning system for kids that has made esoteric content much more accessible and easy to navigate.

When we move out of strictly academic offerings we are seeing an explosion of sites that are helping to bring teachers and learners together by using today’s new media.

The platforms backing this kind of more demand-driven and non-institutionalized learning are getting more and more sophisticated. It’s not just about putting course syllabi and videos on the Internet any more. It’s about building interactive and adaptive learning systems around that content, as well as building social communities. I know that libraries and librarians already function as guides for young people in information access. As the knowledge resources outside of the classroom walls expand, the function of trusted adult guides that can direct kids towards productive forms of online knowledge become more important than ever. Challenges at the policy layer need to be overcome.

Let’s turn to the friendship and community layer. Now that young people’s access to knowledge is completely inseparable from their social communication, how can we leverage that social connection for productive learning opportunity? There are a growing number of platforms addressing this social layer of having young people connect and build peer relationships around their areas of study and interest. P2P U is one experiment in this space, which is working to collect learners around open courseware in a peer learning model. Howard’s social media classroom is another example. Open Study is an experiment for how to make student-centered peer engagement a driver, rather than a distraction, from high-quality learning.

This can happen online as well as in real life contexts and contexts that hybridize the online and offline:

  • After school centers focused on digital media production.
  • More recently, 5,500 square foot space on the first floor of the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago.

In this space, teens have access to laptops, high-end computers, a recording studio, a performance space, game machines, books and adult mentors and workshops. Just months after the space opened, it’s been buzzing with activity, and the librarians have seen a dramatic increase in the circulation of books as well as the laptops and other media.

  • MacArthur Foundation and Institute of Museum and Library Services to create 30 more across the country.
  • Apprenticeship and mentorship for a digital age, in a context that reimagines what interest-driven and informal and enrichment-oriented activities look like and the kinds of institutions that could serve these aims.

In addition to running programs in school, after school, and in the library that supports kids interests in media production, Nichole Pinkard has created an online social network site that is centered around these interests.  These are spaces that are centered on peer interaction between youth, but these spaces bring in other adults and mentors who share their passionate interests and who can help mediate the gap between in school and out-of-school learning. Getting social and interest spaces to feed into intergenerational connection and accountabilities in formal education. This is clearly a place where all libraries can shine, and in many ways school libraries are even better positioned than public libraries to interface with the formal curriculum.

Assessment, Accountability and Access

The last area is assessment, accountability and access. How can we support young people bringing their interests, passions, and social communities into conversation with sites of power – political and civic, career and academic. It’s not enough to have passionate interests and social connection if it doesn’t translate to gains and access to the adult-facing world.

Here we are getting into the controversial area of assessment and accreditation. It’s thorny but I think it’s critical to be working proactively in this space. In the higher education space, we are seeing an explosion in online universities and distance education that promise people all kinds of degrees and credentials. And even traditional universities are increasingly responding to their demand through distance extension offerings of all kinds. And in new and fast changing fields like software development, we are seeing various sites crop up to providing ways of assessing and credentialing that are decoupled from courses and educational offerings. This is a general issue with workplace relevant skills, and the online world is stepping up to meet this assessment and credentialing demand. Colleagues of mine in the digital media and learning initiative have been circling around these issues for a while and have recently taken the leap to supporting a grants competition to foster innovation in this space.

We acknowledge that we are early in our innovation cycle on this, but it’s critical that we get this piece of the ecosystem right. We are partnering with Mozilla, who is building an infrastructure for badging to be done in an open and distributed way. So whether it is the college essay or resume or getting activities done in the interest space to count for school, I think we can do a lot more in building connections across the formal and informal. A Badging system is just one of many possibilities in this space.


We are clearly at a time of transition – transition to new kinds of learning and new kinds of knowledge infrastructures and ecosystems. I share the commitment of all of you here to making sure that librarians are central in guiding us all in productive learning experiences in the digital age. All of this comes at a time when many of our treasured institutions of learning are under duress, which makes it even more imperative that we work in an allied and integrated fashion to retain a commitment to inquiry-based, empowered, and learning-centered models. I know many of you are already engaged in your local institutions as well as through AASL Learning 4 Life. I would encourage you all to reach out to even more diverse partners to realize your vision of the 21st Century library and librarians.

I firmly believe that if enough of us seize the opportunities that the digital and networked world have to offer us for intergenerational connection around passionate knowledge-based inquiry, we will not fall into the doomsday scenarios of technological determinism that are plaguing our public discourse today. The digital world is shaped by our own agency and determination, and I hope I’ve convinced you that it can be a powerful ally in realizing your own goals as passionate, innovative and inquiry-driven professionals.

In closing, I want to underscore that much of the work I have talked about today comes out of a highly distributed and collaborative network that I have been involved with as part of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative. I look forward to working together with all of you as well in creating this new culture of learning that really takes advantage of what today’s new media environment has to offer for all young people.

Network Members