Anthropologist Mimi Ito: Good Intentions Don’t Always Mean Equitable...

Digital Learning

Anthropologist Mimi Ito: Good Intentions Don’t Always Mean Equitable Outcomes in Edtech

By Tina Nazerian     Oct 8, 2018

Anthropologist Mimi Ito: Good Intentions Don’t Always Mean Equitable Outcomes in Edtech

Imagine you’re an elementary school student. Your teacher has told your class to watch several streaming videos for a class project. You might want to watch some of the videos at home, but your family doesn’t have high-speed internet.

That’s just one way technology in education can fail to serve some students. Cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito studies how young people use technology. Ito, who is the director of the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, says the problem is not necessarily that teachers or the people making edtech tools have bad intentions. She argues that understanding another person’s situation is tough if you don’t share that experience.

EdSurge recently sat down with Ito at the Intentional Play Summit to get her thoughts on equity in edtech, creativity and how kids’ relationships with technology have changed over the years.

To listen, you can subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or, you can read highlights from the conversation below, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: How do you think kids’ relationship to technology has changed, if at all, over the years you’ve been studying it?

Ito: That’s a hard question because I’ve been at this much too long. I first started studying kids and technology now about 20 years ago, and things certainly have changed. The big picture is that technology—digital technology specifically—has infiltrated just more and more aspects of not just children’s lives, but all of our lives. It’s also been moving steadily younger. Initially, a lot of the new technology was sort of more about grownups and work.

What was your own experience with technology as you were growing up?

I had the interesting advantage of having an older brother who was really into technology. He’s actually part of our world as well. He was an early internet entrepreneur and is now a director of the [MIT] Media Lab, but he just insisted on having the latest, starting with the Apple II. I remember connecting to the internet with a telephone handset coupled modem, doing a lot of early computer networking. Not necessarily because I was interested, or I drove it myself, but because I had a family context.

Even after I entered graduate school, I ended up doing graduate studies at Stanford when virtual reality was taking off. I ended up having a partner who was one of the original designers of the first generation of virtual reality. I’ve always been that person who’s kind of the curious outsider, but very intimately connected with emerging technologies. I’ve often taken this function of being a sympathetic, but somewhat critical, observer of emerging technology trends.

I’m curious to know more about those critical observations you’ve made about technology.

As an anthropologist, a lot of it is just reminding people who make the technology that not everybody is like them because the technology designers usually come from a narrower demographic than the people who end up using the technology. Also, just bringing a social scientific and humanistic perspective to technology design. Within educational technology, this becomes even more important because technology makers are not only serving ideally a diverse student population and serving these diverse students in equitable ways, but often trying to span the generational divide.

Of course, we were all children and teens at one point in our lives, but it’s really easy for the oppressed to become the oppressor. Age-based assumptions and differences are one of the most taken-for-granted forms of power dynamics in our culture. Especially when you look at teens, which is most of what I’ve been studying. Teens are at the phase of their life where they see adults as oppressive influences trying to control their lives more than they want to.

Schools are not necessarily places where young people feel a lot of ownership and autonomy. In a lot of ways, even though I study things that are nontraditional, I do take the traditional stance of an anthropologist in translating the perspectives and culture and interests of folks that are marginalized in society in ways that people who have more power and influence can understand.

You’ve written about how technology oftentimes sets out to serve a certain group of people, but it doesn’t always meet the initial goal it had in mind because of differences. Can you expand a little bit more about what you think those differences are and what makers of these technologies should have in mind?

A lot of what we see, at least in educational technology, is that most people are working in educational technology with really good intentions and trying to not only offer valuable educational experiences, but also equitable ones. Usually the problem is not so much people’s intentions, but the fact that you can’t just understand necessarily another person’s point of view without having gone through those same experiences.

Just a simple example. Educational technologies that rely on streaming video, for example, seem like a really good idea. It’s something that makes new kinds of learning resources available more widely, but [it] has the unintended and unfortunate consequence of marginalizing students who don’t have access to streaming video.

You’ve called attention to the digital divide and other barriers that keep some students from equal participation. What kind of divides, technological or otherwise, do you see for young people today?

There’s a gap in informal education.

When you look particularly at sort of fast-paced, new, creative areas, like coding technology, digital arts, [and] innovation, then so much of that learning now is happening through more informal peer-based, community-based kinds of contexts.

Actually, the formal system, even if it was playing an equalizing function, cannot fully give young people the opportunities to succeed in some of these newer areas. In fact, it’s the informal networks through communities, peer groups, families, and so on that is where coders and techies and Hollywood people are. I think educators of all stripes, including educational-technology makers, tend not to focus on those informal dimensions as much. That’s where I think the growing equity gaps are really becoming much more acute.

How do you think schools relationship to technology has changed over the years?

The technology that schools are using has obviously changed. More and more schools have some form of digital and interactive technology, but the nature of that relationship maybe hasn’t changed that much. It’s very interesting. One of my colleagues, Jim Gee, says that America has the best schools in the world and the worst schools in the world. One of the characteristics of the American school system is the tremendous diversity.

Often, schools reflect the demographics of the kids they’re serving. What we’re seeing is that there has always been a minority of schools that use technology in very student-centered and progressive ways, and those schools are still doing exactly that same thing with the new crop of technology. Then back even from the Apple II days or educational video, we’ve always seen that the majority of schools tend to domesticate technology to the traditional direct instruction modes that are prevalent in that school.

It’s very hard to get our arms around what that spread is, but my suspicion is that that breakdown is still probably not too different from what it was two decades ago.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up