The Internet offers today’s youth unprecedented opportunities to connect with peers and seek knowledge in almost any area of interest—and libraries are uniquely positioned to play a central role in this learning, according to Mimi Ito, professor and cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, and principal investigator for Connected Learning, a new education model funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative.
“As educators we can do much more in supporting, navigating, and curating this for young people,” she told attendees during “Libraries and Connected Learning,” her inspirational closing keynote address of The Digital Shift: Reinventing Libraries (#TDS13) webcast on October 16.
“Wild exploration is increasingly entering the lives of our institutions, whether schools or libraries,” Ito said, noting that, although schools do have a strong role to play in connected learning, “libraries are at the center between formal and informal learning….Libraries by mission are all about self-directed learning.”
After a thoughtful introduction by Kathy Ishizuka, School Library Journal’s executive editor, Ito addressed the significant shift in learning now taking place, and dismissed the notion that technology detracts from—or distracts from—kids’ learning. “Working in the field of youth and technology for decades and as a mom of two teens, I’m optimistic about new tools and technologies and where we’re going now,” she said. “It feels like we’re really at the beginning of the change of the broader cultural institutions of the adult world….Learning has been transformed.“
In fact, concerns about the risks of distractibility, bullying, and isolation due to kids’ growing use and fascination with technology has actually “deflected our attention from real risks that libraries can address, which is a profound equity gap between kids who are embracing technology and making productive use of it, and kids who aren’t,” Ito said.
Libraries have a real opportunity to help close this gap in educational attainment. “Libraries can uniquely contribute to some of the pressing equity issues that we really need to address,” she noted, explaining that, in the model of Connected Learning, the library can multiply the entry points and pathways for kids to find enrichment opportunities of all types, based on their interests.
As out-of-school expenditures have skyrocketed in wealthy families since the 1970s, spending in poorer families has stayed level, at the same time that art, music, and sports opportunities in the public schools have been dramatically cut back. That’s where the library can make a big impact, Ito said.
“You can imagine, say, an interest that classically a privileged family would [access] through extra classes—young people can now access that learning online,” explained Ito. “The ability to pursue a specialized interest with a guide on the side is a possibility without intensive resources.”
And for a library to thrive today, it must offer these activities that lower-income kids don’t have typically access to, Ito said. “There really is a strong argument to be made that we need strong institutions devoted to serving young people in directed specialized learning spaces.”
Mentoring and new media
Another gap that needs to be proactively addressed, Ito said, is that of the generations’ still differing attitudes about the use of technology. Ito’s most recent findings build on a foundation of a Digital Youth study she helped conduct in 2008. That research showed a big difference in how adults and kids viewed online participation—for kids, it was seen as necessary to connect with friends while adults thought it a waste of time. In 2013, these attitudes persist even as adults embrace social media more, Ito said.
Fortunately, what also persists is the “tremendous amount” of learning that kids can attain through the use of new media, even just navigating the Internet and using mobile phones, Ito said. The tech savvy required for these tasks—creating a profile, making a web page, and editing and posting photos, for example—“a few years ago would have been considered fairly sophisticated tech knowledge and now it’s so seamless with their social lives,” Ito noted of today’s kids. “They’re learning a lot of social skills, learning to be full participants in the digital age.”
But tech savvy only goes so far. Kids also need to build connections between their social and academic lives, and libraries can fulfill this by giving them the space to pursue more learning, either through a passionate interest, through their peers’ interests, or in more structured settings such as directed projects or group learning activities and clubs.
“Different kids engage differently with the same set of tools and opportunities,” said Ito. For example, more academically inclined kids are driven to seek out interest-driven connections, but most kids aren’t.
What can educators do to make this happen more?
Sometimes it’s just about creating open-ended opportunities and spaces aimed at exposing kids to new ideas, materials, and tools without tight organizational structure, Ito noted, citing the YOUmedia program in Chicago as one such example. In that program, kids can bring food, play video games, and check out what their friends are doing with technology without being required to produce specific projects. This creates an ambient—and positive—association to new ideas for possibly reluctant kids.
But “you don’t have to have a decked-out media lab and sound studio, just a few pieces of tech that kids might not have at home,” Ito noted. “Something as simple as scanner or a simple recording setup. What are the technology magnets that can lead to some production activities in the space? For a lot of young people that we’re trying to reach, they have mobile phone…so the ability to do digital media production can be augmented by some fairly simple tools.”
Another option is a pop-up model that’s not super tech intensive at all, where a library brings in a mentor in a specific interest area and makes her or she available to kids. Such programs offer ways that a library can incorporate more resources—including volunteers—from its community, or better engage its teen patrons in activities in their existing all-ages maker spaces.
Though “it’s a delicate thing with teens, definitely a dynamic to navigate,” Ito said, “young people welcome intergenerational participation if it is about the interest” and if the adults involved are “authentic representatives” of the interest area. “Maker culture is about everybody participating…if people are into something, getting together and helping each other learn, age shouldn’t be the ticket to be in or out.”