Cultural anthropologist of digital culture and Professor in Residence at the University of California, Irvine Mimi Ito spoke about the importance of implementing digital learning and the educational opportunities presented by technology Monday evening in the Fisher Colloquium of the Rafik B. Hariri building.

The event, including a question-and-answer session moderated by Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, was a part of the 2014-2015 speaker series Designing The Future(s), a Georgetown initiative tasked with engaging the entire Georgetown community in exploring solutions to issues facing higher education.

Ito began the presentation by conversing with the audience about the statistics of media use in children, and she expressed how traditional literacy in the form of reading books and writing is consistent in our digital age.

“In many ways the values surrounding our education, about learning, they have not changed, but the world outside of the classroom has changed tremendously in terms of the opportunities offered,” Ito said.

According to Ito, students continue to seek information through digital delivery and new formats, including MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), made popular by venues such as Coursera and iTunesU.

“This is the challenge we are facing as educators — is that we are experiencing and living through a culture clash between the modes of instruction we have institutionalized and how young people are actually going about sharing and accessing information in an era of abundance and free-flowing information,” Ito said.

Ito then spoke about the university as an entity, a place for students to find their place in the world, as an anchor at the center of a connected learning network.

“The question that we are all struggling with is not this question of values or learning philosophy, but what does it really look like to have the university, our research, the courses we teach, the faculty-student relationships, really reflect an era of information abundance where the university is in an open network whether we want it to be or not,” Ito said.

Ito concluded by citing examples such as “#PHONAR” at Coventry University, a photography course taught with a hashtag, connecting courses in which professors at universities across the globe use MOOC technology to teach. This realization led Ito to co-found the Connected Courses project, an online course exploring connected learning in higher education.

“We are trying to catalyze a community of faculty to support one another and build an affinity network, find other people in their discipline who they can connect with to not only expand their professional practices… but also their educational practice,” Ito said.

Following the presentation, President John J. DeGioia asked Ito how connected learning can be implemented at Georgetown.

“The biggest personal ‘aha’ to me for connected courses was that faculty have to experience the connected learning through connecting with others online,” Ito said.

In response to DeGioia’s inquiry about how to recruit exceptionally talented and creative students, Ito emphasized that modern-day admissions criteria at traditional universities ought to be revised and experimented with to garner a more passionate student body.

“If you look at the roster of things young people are supposed to master to get into a good school, is that really reflecting what you are looking for in your freshman class?” Ito asked.
“Increasingly, the over-management of young people’s high school careers in order to meet admissions requirements is stifling the kind of problem-solving exploration, the ability to care about the world, that you are actually looking for [in admissions]. Is there anything in how you structure admissions that could maybe surface that more?”

Vice Provost for Education at Georgetown Professor Randall Bass said that Ito’s emphasis on connected learning and encouraging a passionate student body got at the heart of the Designing the Future(s) initiative and are issues the university should take a close look at.

“I think the question is whether we create enough space for students to pursue their passions,” Bass said.“Do we create enough space when students first get here to give them the room to pursue a passion, to connect to a community, to do the kinds of things that Professor Ito was asking? It certainly happens for some students. It certainly happens eventually, but could we be doing more by design for it to happen earlier?”

Zackary Abu-Akeel (SFS ’18) said he appreciated Georgetown’s commitment to look at new forms of higher education through garnering input from speakers like Ito.

“I know that Georgetown always prides itself in being a traditional university, and I am excited to see the ways that it can modernize teaching, taking into account its traditional values,” Abu-Akeel said.

Abbey McNaughton (COL ’16) said she admired Ito’s perspective on technology and its role in positively influencing education.

“I think Georgetown sometimes is hesitant to adapt a lot of technology-based learning because they are afraid it is going to sacrifice the classroom education Georgetown covets, but I think that Ito’s talk showed that it can actually propel discussions in the classroom and even make that conversation more productive,” McNaughton said.

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