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Professor: New Digital Ecosystem Demands New Ways of Learning

January 27, 2015 – In a time marked by “an absolute abundance of information and social connectivity,” youth are creating their own learning pathways and higher education must re-envision itself to meet that need, a University of California cultural anthropologist said at Georgetown yesterday.

Mimi Ito, MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at the University of California, Irvine, spoke at Georgetown yesterday as part of a Designing the Future(s) of the University initiative speaker series.

The initiative is designed to engage the Georgetown community in exploring challenges to higher education and experimenting with new ways of delivering the university’s signature education.

“Our institutions of higher education were founded in an era when information scarcity, contact with experts, with expertise, was much more bounded by our local communities, our institutions and our classrooms,” Ito said. “And in many ways, our values around education, about learning haven’t changed, but the world outside of the classroom has changed tremendously in terms of the opportunities ...”

Ito emphasized that the real problem with modern higher education isn’t technology, it’s when learning – whether digital or traditional – is “disconnected from meaningful inquiry, from purpose, from problem-solving.”

The cultural anthropologist said now that new digital ecosystems allow for content delivery through means other than a lecture hall, the focus for college learning should be on giving students opportunities for significant connections with faculty mentors and for hands-on, real-world projects.

This in turn can help students find their place in the world through building relationships, garnering social capital and making “meaningful contributions to the communities they care about,” she explained.

Ito has devoted much of her career to advocating for what she called “connected learning” –  a digitally-rich, interest-driven education that encourages students to build affinity groups and develop skills and knowledge around their passions to create academic, civic and career opportunities.

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, who moderated a question-and-answer session with Ito after her remarks, asked for insights that may help Georgetown “integrate the formal kinds of things that characterize a traditional university and the opportunities that are emerging in this moment.”

Ito said both learners and university leaders must change their mindset about teaching and learning, and that students should develop skills to advocate for their own interests and to recruit mentors to “create space” at the institution for the person they want to become.