Podcast and liveblog: Sonia Livingstone, “The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age”

Sonia Livingstone is a full professor in the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science. She is seconded to Microsoft Social Research for fall 2013 as well as being a faculty fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her talk will be based on her current book project, “The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age”, based on her ethnographic research with the MacArthur Foundation-funded Connected Learning Research Network. With a focus on young teenagers, Sonia will examine how powerful forces of social reproduction result in missed opportunities for many youth in the risk society.



Sonia’s in the middle of writing the book The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age. She’s been thinking a lot about connection, and connected learning. She shows pictures of various ads around Boston that use the term.

The notion of connection is becoming a core societal value. We’re celebrating connection; we think of connections as agentic and creative. We think about how they overcome barriers. Connection doesn’t necessarily mean digital, but it resonates well in the digital age. It’s easy to say connection is good, disconnection is bad. Sonia wants to challenge this simple opposition.

It’s been useful for various reformist agendas, including educational reform. It’s important in childhood studies and children. In late modernity, children are sequestered away from adult spaces, streets, everyday life, to keep them from being ”corrupted.” Keeping children out of the public has been a sign of affluence, so now many are trying to work to reconnect them to civics.

But Sonia has been interested in the perspective of the ordinary child. The risk society, anxiety, indeterminacy, are very strong, but participatory opportunities have not yet been realized. The class is set in ordinary life. In the Connected Learning network, it provides a ground-truthing of some of the ideas.

In the academy, we’re not thinking about connection alone. Government and commercial bodies are also thinking about how to harness the value of connection. How do we harness some of the beneficial values of connection for the public sector?

Sonia also works on child protection and safety. She won’t talk about it that much here, but the idea of protecting children has become increasingly visible. Ulrich Beck calls this the “risk society.” Beck or Giddens or Bauman were right about traditional structures fading away and new indeterminacies assailing us on all sides. But for now Sonia wants to keep a wide framework that includes uncertainty and risk, which also includes safety mechanisms for children, and build new forms of networks. There are agentic ways of thinking about this that could be child led, but government and commerce are also interested in this space.

Connected Learning in the Risk Society

In this talk, Sonia will focus on one class of children she’s been working with. It’s a concrete story to place in the larger framework of risk society, as well as the intermediate framework of Connected Learning. Connected Learning is part of the digital and media learning network that the MacArthur Foundation is funding. We can see DML as a response to concerns about the risk society and the falling away of school, home, and community. The critique of the school and home as broken, produces responses like DML, focused on rebuilding enabling practices and patterns.

There is a discourse that we have “20th century schools for 21st century children” and that families don’t know how to support children to navigate the present society. The MacArthur-funded work, led by Mimi Ito, can be seen as a way of trying to build alternative structures. Not necessarily structures to replace the ones built during modernity, but child-centered structures. Ways of building networks and connections that have structural permanence and enable new kinds of opportunities. This approach has been inside radical education movements for most of the last century but is gaining new life now that we have access to digital networks even in the homes of many of the poorest children (in the global north). We can link school, afterschool, community sites, that will be child centered and will harness the benefits of what children know as they go about their daily lives.

So there’s a vision, with a lot of effort behind it. But what does it look like in an everyday setting? A lot of it is associated with kids at the leading edge: they’re entrepreneurial, they’re hackers. It’s stimulating and exciting. But Sonia has been interested in the perspective of the ordinary child. The risk society, anxiety, indeterminacy, are very strong, but participatory opportunities have not yet been realized. The class is set in ordinary life. In the Connected Learning network, it provides a ground-truthing of some of the ideas.

This project is a partnership with Julian Sefton-Green. The project is ethnographic. They spent over a year in the lives of a class of 28 children, ages 13-14. They are the “Facebook Age,” they’re the age that parents groan about the most. It’s an age that is beginning to look forward, taking steps towards independence. In the UK, options begin to close down at this age. It’s called the “lost year” in the school system because they’re not doing exams that count for their future. That also made it easier to do a study.

Study Site

A British school is a problematic place to research DML, because the first thing you see when you walk in is all the ways tech is kept out of students’ lives. Sonia shows pictures of all the ways ICTs are prohibited: “ICT rooms are not open in the morning,” no cell phones, etc. This triggers questions about disconnection, although Sonia emphasizes it’s not that no ICTs are allowed at all. The school is so anxious about tech, they wanted the researchers to help them better understand their fears. “are you going to advise us on Facebook, how long they should spend on the phone?” and so on. The risk framework was a good way in for researchers, but terrible for open thinking about connected learning.


They took the model of connected learning, which says students can generate learning anyplace, often not in school. Connected learning works well when students are vilidated for what they’re spontaneously interested in. They took the places: home, school, and peer group, and mapped them onto phases of the study. In the first time period, they spent lots of time in school: classroooms, hallways, computer clubs, etc. In the second phase they went home: talked to them at home, with parents, with siblings, online. In phase three, they tried to get more into the peer group. This was difficult since the researchers are over 50. But they did their best to connect with the kids in their social lives.

[Sonia shows a map of the geographic distribution of the study participants. Mentions Tales from Facebook by Danny Miller.]

Young people, parents, and teachers see opportunities for connection at a time of heightened risk. People are preferring the safe structures, and retreating, rather than pursuing new pathways of connection that may be open to them. There are new sets of established practices, forms of support, that provide certainty in an uncertain world. Simple transition from school to career no longer applies.

Sonia turns now to several case studies. As her team was looking at young people’s lives, Sarah showed her mobile uploads on Facebook. She makes objects with Play-Doh, uploads them to FB, her friends like them. Sarah is harnessing affordances of digital media interactive, networked, visible. She’s learning some things, creatively connecting different spaces. It didn’t turn out to develop any pathway for her. It wasn’t the kind of creativity that could lead to more complex forms of creativity. It’s typical of many of what they saw: blocked pathways, interests that weren’t followed up. Young people had interests, but they didn’t really go anywhere. It wasn’t clear who would be expected to step in and say “Hey Sarah, let’s connect you to a Makers Faire,” etc. This is typical. Nothing happens, the kid moves on. There are very subtle moments that got lost.

Q: Do you see this as a bad thing?

Sonia: Yes, I see the absence of a pathway as a problem. She was doing something she enjoyed, didn’t build on it.

Mass media and civil spaces

While in the school, taking notes in the back of the classroom, it was striking that old media, broadcast media, were constantly cited in the classroom to provide a way in to all kinds of lessons. She shows an image of a smartboard; most classrooms in Britain have one. In the image, the smartboard is being used to show the seating plan. This is typical. Something that could have been open and creative is often closed down. An interactive tool is used as a one-way medium. Smartboards are transformed into one-way communication Smartboards are often used to show bits of pop culture: clips from Hollywood films; something that was on TV as a prompt for creative writing, and so on. Popular culture was constantly referred to. Initially this bugged Sonia. Then she thought about civility. The class is divided by social class, and very divided by ethnicity. Kids are from many different backgrounds, no one dominates, including white English kids. At one point a teacher used a clip from Roots to intro a talk about slavery.

Half the kids in the room were black and had things to say. But the teacher wanted to hold on to the episode of Roots to illustrate her point. She was trying to develop a civil expectation of politeness and courtesy and not noticing difference because difference is difficult. Difference can be difficult and “unfair.”

Some teachers would try to set up a blog, or try to do something interactive, but generally this didn’t get very far. Sonia thinks this is because students were pushed to the margins of the class. The teacher would make a blog, put up math problems, and ask students to log on at home and comment. The students might be interested in blogging, but didn’t want it spreading into their home life.

The seating plan is emblematic of the teacher’s plan to manage the kids social presence in relation to each other. The researchers mapped the social network inside the class. The network showed the reproduction of gender, class, and ethnicity. They asked kids “who do you hang out with, do homework with, chat with online, turn to with a problem.” Sonia walks us through the network visualization. Middle class kids cluster at the network center, poorer kids around the edges. White kids at the center, ethnic minorities around the edges. There’s also a small cluster of gifted kids. There are isolated students who bully and get bullied, or whose English is not very good.

Pop culture in the classroom says “we all share something, we’re all equal.” Underneath it, in the friendship groups and social patterns of the kids, there was a reversion to a class/ethnic pattern that reproduces itself. There are exceptions, but not very many.


The coding club was a disaster, almost no one turned up, with the exception of the two “gifted” students. The boards were used top-down. But the school was doing well. It was rising up from the bottom towards the middle. In part they did this by using their school information management system incredibly well. The school staff were very competent. They engaged in routine data collection of the kids, their behavior, and entertainment. It was constantly entered into a surveillance system. At every class, the teacher would have a computer, and during the class, one or two observations were made about each student. “You’re doing good, you’re doing badly.” At the end of the day, each child had 2-10 data points, encoded by the teachers. The teachers would call out the student observations at the end of the day in the teacher room. There was a lot of talk about standards to reach, lots of coding going on.

The observation system dovetailed with a national system about attainment, and the discourse about the interaction between student and teacher. Sonia shows an example of discourse that is at the start of a music lesson. It’s designed by the national government, and defines levels students have to attain for every subject. “Raise your level!” is a constantly repeated theme. This kind of talk was seamlessly integrated. The content the students were learning, the kind of people they are supposed to become by doing this learning. This also becomes data within the school info management system. There was so much detail, you wondered whether anyone would learn music. The research team thought it was repressive, intrusive. But when they interviewed all of the students, parents, and teachers, they loved it. It provided them certainty that told them exactly what they had to achieve. It was a system that delivered, and could be seen to be delivering. It provided constant feedback and reflexivity.

They would explain the system with a certain kind of pleasure, not repeated in the way they explained any music they had learned (for examaple).

This is very difficult to reconcile with connected learning.

It’s a closed system. Very effective within the school. It doesn’t lend itself to managing learning across different kinds of spaces.

Home as Escape

The activities the students enjoyed at home don’t dovetail with what they’re learning at school.

The vision of connecting everything has to find a way to recognize people’s desire to disconnect. To escape the system of management, surveillance, supervision, that takes place at school.

The school is a carefully managed and surveilled space of civility. Sonia wants to link this to Facebook. FB has become a similarly civil space. It’s not the opportunity we thought of five years ago. Lots of people are now seeing this. Young people aren’t deleting profiles, but they’re moving to other spaces to really engage. When they were 7, “it was all about FB.” By the age they’re allowed to be on FB, they’re already jaded. They are withdrawing commitment.

They were all friends with their whole class on FB. They each had about 500 friends and 500 photos. They were there, but also moving away.

When doing interviews 5 years before, everyone was moving from MySpace to FB. They were all saying that MySpace allowed them to be expressive, but FB seemed adult and mature. Now, it seems standardized and constraining. A few of them messed with their names, or noted their friends as family, but not much. Mostly, on FB, you would be courteous. They were not commenting extensively, getting into big arguments. It seemed a bit like the classroom. Popular culture was a common language. People were polite to each other, “keeping the door open.” But when you leave the civil space you go to other spaces, more defined by gender and ethnicity. The parental concern about FB was missing the point. Basically they were saying “Hi, happy birthday, have you done the homework yet?”

Young people aren’t deleting profiles, but they’re moving to other spaces to really engage. When they were 7, “it was all about FB.” By the age they’re allowed to be on FB, they’re already jaded. They are withdrawing commitment.

Just as they leave the standardized space of the classroom and seek the home, they leave FB and seek other spaces online. It’s becoming clear that they’re going to many places. That is the point. They are not all going to the same place. Young people are not homogenous. Why would we assume they all go to the same space?

Sonia shares asking a young woman about Tumblr. She calls it “my space!” She spends hours there, posts thousands of photos, reflects extensively. But very few use Tumblr. Others are on twitter, Instagram. Boys on the Xbox are all chatting with each other. It’s diverse, and that’s the point: it’s getting away from the standardized moment.

Rational Disconnects

There’s a “world challenge,” where children are mobilized in schools to raise money through charity or other fundraising work, and they get to travel to a developing country and do some volunteer work. It’s a big enterprise. The school signed up for it. They talked about how students would sign up, document, get engaged, and so on. To make a long story short: a select group of young people were tapped to enter the challenge and raise the funds. They had to raise $2,000-$3,000 dollars, a big deal for a 13 year old. It was meant to be raised through social connections. Almost none of the digital side of it worked; the other side of it did work. The students went out, helped bag in supermarkets, babysat, washed cars, raised money, shared the pleasure of the process, met face to face with each other and teachers. All face to face. The digital stuff barely worked, until the last moment.

The book is named after the film The Class. The teacher decides to allow the students’ real lives into the class. It’s disrupted. The class becomes filled with students’ lives, racial tension, and so on. The structures are reasserted. It’s a quietly shocking story about how institutions reassert themselves rather than truly listen to the needs of students. The students are also happier before, in a secure space.

Like the film =, the school Sonia’s team studied preferred to revert back to well understood structures. The structures organize people’s lives in ways that fit with their vested interests. So we’re a long way from Mimi’s hoped-for model of connected learning.


When we did ego networks, “who is the important people in your life,” kids with 500 FB friends on average put about 16 people down on paper. A third were family. Just a few from those other activities. Friends, families. Constrained, local worlds. We talk about globalization, but they’re really living in a small radius, a group of a few people.

Desi: Sarah, who made amazing Play-Doh sculptures, didn’t move forward. What about the long view? Maybe she’ll take it up later in college. Is there research that looks at this, over the long run maybe these skills are used later?

Sonia: There are studies that say we see how people became creative, what are the steps they took to get there. Retrospective. But we can also look prospectively, and say very few carry it further. The school could have scaffolded that. When you look at surveys about people remixing and hacking, it’s just tiny.

Rodrigo: When you talked about the statistics being assembled, when you said they were called out?

Sonia: It was to the class. At the end of the day, the teacher might say “you were bad in 3rd, you were great in 5th.” Making it visible was extraordinary. I thought they would hate it, but they liked it. It diffused the emotion.

Rodrigo: That fascist process aside, and I came up through the […] system in Wales. I was amazed that if you take away the smartboard, the approaches are exactly the same. Attitudes to difference, tolerance to surveillance, it feels so British to me now. Have you looked across countries in ways that speak to that?

Sonia: Denmark is proud of the freedom it gives teachers, the lack of surveillance. They were more horrified. It was interesting seeing how they manage it. With smaller schools. It takes more resources. British schools are quite large. Folks in the U.S., it seems there isn’t the same, perhaps its very British that we try to have wealthy and poorer kids in the same school, and it’s heterogenous. The schools need practices to manage potential conflict in the classroom. The fear of what you could let in is present for teachers. In the U.S. you’ve managed this by segregating the schools.

Desi: I have a lot of friends who work in charter schools. It seems like they’re trying to manage this very closely. My niece is now at the same elementary school I went to, twenty years later. At the end of the day you get red, yellow green bones, depending on how you’ve been. It strikes my family as punitive. Private schools are more hippy dippy. The distinction is between public and private schools. Wealthier kids have a more free creative experience.

Todd: My grade school experience was in a lower class/lower middle class rural school district that covered an entire county. We had lots of gold stars, shame mechanics. They did split off people who were willing to engage in technology and learning.

Sasha: What about a praxis of critical digital media literacy? The “connected learning” approach decenters the possibilities of linking tech and the development of liberatory consciousness. I organized a youth social movements track at last year’s DML to try and surface this. We may be valorizing technical skills as the limit of possibility. Then, we get disappointed when it doesn’t play out that way, and at lack of civic engagement. It ends up fairly technodeterministic.

Q: The boys were at the center of the network. Can you talk more about that?

Sonia: The boys took the space, the white kids dominated the space. 13 is an interesting age. Some are children, and some are young adults.

Q: Would it be better to have a more equal gender distribution?

Sonia: Normally it is. The school said it was an accident. I think it was important that there was a lot of diversity but no one group dominated. There wasn’t an attitude of being loud young men together. The research would say the girls pushed to the edge in silence, but I didn’t see that.

Q: In the real world, it’s more 50/50, should the class resemble that?

Sonia: It was a fluke.

Jason: You talked about the opposition between the school and home. What about in between spaces like clubs, extracurricular activities. Is there creative, self directed work in those sorts of spacs?

Sonia: Yes, there was. It was so individual. that’s part of my story. When they leave the imposed democratic space of the class, they all go in different directions. The family is the key structure, more important than the school. There was such a strong discourse of “broken schools and broken families.” When we did ego networks, “who is the important people in your life,” kids with 500 FB friends on average put about 16 people down on paper. A third were family. Just a few from those other activities. Friends, families. Constrained, local worlds. We talk about globalization, but they’re really living in a small radius, a group of a few people.

T.L. Taylor: I love you fieldwork pictures. Did you find any places where the school was trying to reach into the disconnected space? Did the institution try to colonize these other spaces?

Sonia: The education community is torn about this. Few will commit to FB in schools. Often, they enter anyway. Kids go under the desk, find their ways around. The school was good at keeping it out, out of a fear mentality. I’m not sure how often police would visit a school. They’d be called once a week or so. It was an awesome visible presence. You see someone in uniform looking across the playground.

For the teachers the anxieties of social media were stronger than the learning possibilities.

Jim Paradis: I’m impressed with the concept of the school information management system. Where does it come from? Who enters the data, who manages it, how does it circulate? Also, having been a junior high teacher, this is a strange age group. Why did you choose this? It was an opportunity you took advantage of? Social formation is critical, at least in my experience in a city school in NYC, more than intellectual formation.

Sonia: It was chosen deliberately. My point about it being the lost years; they hadn’t entered the exam process. We chose them deliberately because they embodied the tension between being at home and the move to independence. All those freedoms would be most contested, both with parents and schools.

Jim: What about the information management system?

Sonia: there are several huge providers. Schools sign up for a contract. In this case, the database, curricular materials, and everything they’ll learn is precoded. The screen would show ‘you’re doing well in trigonometry, but you were late for class 5 times this week.’ There is big business behind the management of a process that is very difficult from the school point of view. The trend now is increased freedom in curriculum. But teachers don’t have any free time! So you can see why they would want a preprovided curriculum.

Jim: Does the info get shared with parents?

Sonia: There was a hope it would, but it never did. There was also a hope to gather the emails of all the parents. By the end of the year, the school hadn’t connected the emails of the parents. At first I thought “incompetence.” But then I thought there must be something at stake. The teachers were concerned about the flood of concerns from parents at home. They wanted to let parents access the system, but it would not happen, because too many entrenched interests against it.

One one day, parents came in one by one, school progress day (conference day). The teacher would read out the contents of the database. Parents would be so confused. A third were in a foreign language, to start.

Jim: But people reacted positively?

Sonia: The kids loved it. They could manage it. It was a game. Some of the extracurricular activities come in levels. “I’m a level 50 in science,” etc. The parents didn’t understand it, but the school was delivering results. Even if they didn’t understand it, they thought it was fair. Everything was coded on a system, it wasn’t teachers’ favorite. The visibility of the coding reassured people.


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