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Meeting students where they are

By Mimi Ito
July 1, 2016
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A few years ago, my then 12-year-old son was deep into Minecraft. One day, he ran up to me bright-eyed and glowing, announcing that he had been hired for his first job as a marketing and building specialist for a Minecraft map-building group. By then, he had already been playing in servers with expert builders, but being invited into this community was a milestone. He went on to master circuitry in Minecraft and recently built a calculator from the ground up using binary switches.

When young people get involved in a community of shared interests and expertise, learning happens as an organic side effect of creating, mobilizing and being part of the life of a community. The team captain models a play for new recruits. “Beta readers” in fan fiction groups review one another’s work before it’s published. Kids gather in the playground to debate the merits of  Pokémon cards and decks. How can educators connect with this enthusiasm for learning and knowledge?

I’ve puzzled over this question in many years of researching how kids learn in social and recreational pursuits. I’ve spent years marveling at how passionate fans of anime learn Japanese, organize conventions for millions of fans, and establish a massive volunteer network to subtitle and distribute anime across the globe better and faster than the commercial industry.

Recently, my team has been studying online affinity networks where young people are picking up valuable skills and knowledge as part of their interest-driven pursuits. We’ve looked at knitters mobilizing for political causes on, math and engineering expertise developed through gaming, and writing skills gained through fan fiction around professional wrestling and One Direction fandom.

When young people are able to connect their interests to achievement in the context of meaningful community engagement, the learning is profound and transformative. This is the heart of what my research community has been describing as "connected learning”– learning that bridges informal and formal learning and draws together young people’s interests, peer engagement and opportunities for achievement. Today’s networked world means that young people have more and more opportunities to explore specialized interests and connect with peers who share those interests. Yet, our research has found that very few of these social and informal learning experiences are tied to academic, civic or career-relevant opportunities.

If educators meet young people where they are, we can close the loop and make informal, social and interest-driven learning academically relevant.

My current passion projects center on how we can connect educational practice with the peer-to-peer learning and mentorship that’s flourishing in online networks. For example, we ran a teen challenge in collaboration with Wattpad and DeviantArt, the two largest platforms for young people to publish online writing and digital art. We brought in youth librarians and writing teachers to be part of the challenge through partnerships with the Young Adult Library Services Association and the National Writing Project. Over 2,500 teens submitted entries to the “Twist Fate” challenge, and a team of editors, who are professional writers and artists, are curating the selected finalists into a book that will be made available to libraries across the country.

I am also a co-founder of Connected Camps, a benefit corporation that seeks to make interest-driven online learning available to young people in all walks of life. We are creating an online learning community in Minecraft and offering after-school courses and summer camps to teach coding, engineering, architecture and game design online and in-game. Our servers are staffed by teen counselors who are Minecraft experts trained to moderate the server, work with younger children and teach courses and camps.

At first, our teen counselors needed some convincing to sign up as organizers and teachers. For them, Minecraft is about hanging out on their own servers with close friends. But, when we explained they would have a leadership role and it would be an opportunity to give back through a game they love and are genuine experts at playing, their frame of reference shifted. “You mean I can do community service and not have to be outdoors?” remarked one of our counselors with a grin.

To me, this is the essence of connected learning, that magical moment when something you do for fun and camaraderie leads to real learning, and an opportunity to be recognized and make a contribution to a community you care about.

Mimi Ito is a cultural anthropologist of technology use who examines youth’s changing relationships to media and communications. She is a professor in residence and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation chair in digital media and learning at the University of California, Irvine, and an ISTE member.