Mimi Ito: Opening Plenary at NMC 2010

The session begins with greetings from Susan Metros and Holly Willis of USC, delivered with charming Mickey Ears on their heads (Susan wears Minnie ears, Holly wears sorcerer’s apprentice ears). We then watch  video greetings from the head of the USC Cinema Studies program and from the CIO and vice-provost for IT (using an interesting solarization/rotoscoping effect). Then comes the crowning touch (couldn’t resist): Susan presents Larry with his own official high potentate Disney Mad Hatter hat, complete with lovely flowing orange hair at the sides.

A different tea party altogether.

I confess that it’s a little hard to concentrate as Larry delivers his NMC news in this, ah, bold get-up. 🙂 But the news is great: NMC is building on its Horizon Report with an initiative called Horizon Navigator. And what is Navigator? From the website: “Navigator allows users to fully exploit the Horizon Project’s extensive and expanding collection of relevant articles, research, and projects related to emerging technology and its applications worldwide, as well as the NMC’s expert analysis and extensive catalog of sharable rich media assets”

Now Larry’s introducing Mimi Ito, who’ll be speaking to us on “Learning with Social Media: The Positive Potential of Peer Pressure and Messing Around Online.” Mimi begins with Nick Carr’s essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and his new book “The Shallows,” to make a larger point about the rosy hopes and stark panics that shape the conversations at every new inflection point in digital technologies. Her conclusion: both sides are right, but only if one holds both positions simultaneously. “Google isn’t making us stupid; we have ourselves to blame for that.” Our mediated culture represents not only risk, but also a great opportunity for peer-to-peer learning–if we can rise to that opportunity.

Three principles:

I. Stocks of Knowledge vs. Flows of Knowledge.

Much of what we see around us is a networked world in which many of our comfortable boundaries are untenable. (In other words: if we’re to grasp the amazing promise of this networked world, we must organize learning around the networks, not around the models that preserve the boundaries of our current educational practices.) “We expect students to do original work, but we give them the same assignments and standardized assessment routines…. [A]nd then we get upset with them for copying others’ work.” (Indeed. Term paper mills can flourish because it isn’t hard to guess what kinds of rote, unimaginative assignments most classes generate.)

II. Originality and Appropriation.

Now we head to the Numa Numa dance as the beginning of internet lipsynch. (Amazing: I feel the glee and energy spreading through the room as we watch the video together. We all wait for the eyebrow–and there it is.) Next up: the Back Dorm Boys: Wei Wei and Huan Yixin (and one of my fellow bloggers is singing along in harmony–whoa). Same genre, but now collaborative and transnational and self-conscious and ironic: commentary and instance. Next: sfeder321 and a room full of webcams in “A Day At The Office.” A real-space band of lipsynchers, their performances cut together and at the same time choreographed in a single space. (In cinema terms, I’d call this a most unlikely mix of montage and mise-en-scene, as if Eisenstein and Bazin had a love child and called it, well, called it this: mise-en-montage. Did they really do this in one take, as they say they did?)

What we’re seeing here, Ito asserts, is the evolution of video ecology over the last five years. Now we educators must think about how to respond to this evolution and how to incorporate this outpouring of creativity into the ways we think about the learning events and environments we help to design.

More examples now from Jonathan McIntosh and identity remix videos: essays on politics by way of altered ads. We watch one biting satire on a Hummer commercial, the soundtrack stripped out and subtitles introduced that critique our culture of oil consumption and warns of climate change to follow. We see another remix (“Buffy vs. Edward”) in which gender stereotypes from Twilight are mashed up with empowered-woman clips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Clever, funny, rigorous, precise. (See more of Jonathan’s work at  rebelliouspixels.com, as well as at Criticalcommons.org).

Ito concludes we’re immersed in the flow, and we need new mechanisms for filter and focus. Education has to be more than transmitting stable canons of knowledge. It has to equip us for adaptability, and lead us to be much more than passive consumers of endless info streams. Ito believes that the “social wrapper of peer-based learning communities” is the key. Don’t fight the peer-based interaction; make it the mechanism for the filter and focus necessary to learning. See Snafu Dave, a webcomic artist. A self-taught artist at that: integrating math, design, and computer science. He embedded himself in a social community organized around webcomics, took online tutorials, built websites that hosted comics by other creators. Snafu Dave was “probably one of those kids who’d drive you crazy in class”–but that would be to overlook the ways in which real learning happens as the student constructs his or her own learning environment out of resources and expertise available on the web.

Some avenues of promise: P2PU (peer-to-peer university): a social, interactive “wrapper” around the experience; Howard Rheingold’s social media classroom; Michael Wesch’s digital ethnography at K-State.

III. Assessment vs. Reputation:

“In peer-based networks … we see kids jockeying for status and reputation within an ecosystem….” For example: kids who take existing anime footage, strip out the sound, and put in the music of their own choosing. How does this peer community assess its own work? It takes place within a social environment that motivates participation. Lots of opportunities for rating, opinion, competition (online and at conventions): “a highly expert community that looks to each others as learners and teachers….” (Great hybridity here, as the experience is local and global, online and face-to-face, individual and massed at special events and screenings.) Open flows of knowledge are not enough: people need opportunities to distinguish themselves within their communities–and these online communities do it very well.

How to leverage all these phenomena for learning? Because our own credentialing is so fixed and successful, faculty are not typically seeking new paradigms for assessment, accreditation, and reputation within the academic environment. (This is a crucial point, in my view, and cannot be overemphasized. What happens as a result all too often, alas, is that our own credentialed security becomes a hollow point of “authority” and enforcement when it comes to students’ learning, and the whole process generates enormous cynicism and degree-grubbing as they simply try to “get it done,” where “it” is their education. To a significant extent, students learn their cynicism about school from their teachers. I say this with sorrow.) She goes on to praise danah boyd (present in the audience) for the way she’s used social media to generate reputation and elicit conversation far beyond most of the researchers working in this field–simply because danah has pursued these new opportunities instead of relying primarily on academic credentialing and institutional affiliation to do that work for her.

Ito closes with a statement of optimism and hope, but hope that depends on our inventing new ways to think of learning as a networked phenomenon, and then harnessing the power of that network to drive intrinsically motivated learning. She’s delivered her critique of school practices and cultures in kind and measured words, but her call for change is unmistakeable and unmistakeably comprehensive. Can we do school by other means, with other attitudes and other practices than the ones that have grown up over the years? An urgent question, and one Ito will be working on as her research continues.

Many thanks to fellow conference blogger Barbara Sawhill for confirming the three principles with Ito after the talk was done–we all had pieces and parts, but in the heat of the moment none of us got the complete list. Don’t miss either of my fellow conference bloggers’ work: Barbara’s is here, and Natalie Harp’s is here. An honor to be among them.

9 thoughts on “Mimi Ito: Opening Plenary at NMC 2010

  1. Hi Gardner,

    I work with Mimi at the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub at UC Irvine. This is a really nice write-up of her talk and I was wondering if we could re-blog it at our website, dmlcentral.net?

    Either way, thank you.


  2. Greetings!

    I met you when you gave the keynote at the University of Wyoming for our e-volution technology event. I thought you were great!

    I’m one of the organizers of that event and I’ve been looking for keynote speakers for this year and I’m wondering what you thought of Mimi Ito. The goal here is to get someone who can speak to faculty and help them see how and why new medias can be used in teaching.

    What do you think?


  3. @Jeff Thanks for the kind words, and by all means re-blog the post at your website. Now that I know of the linkage, I’ll be following your work too. Great stuff.

    @Christi Thanks for *your* kind words, too! I had a great time in Wyoming and really enjoyed meeting you and the rest of the folks there. I hope your work is going well.

    Mimi’s talk was terrific. I think her work is an essential part of this conversation and I look to her as a leader in the push for educational transformation. She’d be a great keynoter for you. Her major emphasis is cultural, not pedagogical, but I know she’s working on how the changes she’s tracking and analyzing might be put to use in the academy, so I’m confident she’d be able to speak to faculty persuasively. Let me know if you get her and stream the talk–I’d love to hear what she has to say.

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  5. Wonderful sum up, Gardner. As always – perceptive, insightful and entertaining (all at the same time). I resolve: will go to NMC, will go to NMC, will go to NMC.

  6. @Robin Thanks very much, Robin–your assessment always means a lot to me. Listen to your resolution. It’s right. You must come to NMC. It’s a great conference that would be twice as good with you there.

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