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Trust in a Complex and Shifting World of Learning: Interview with Sonia Livingstone

Trust in a Complex and Shifting World of Learning: Interview with Sonia Livingstone

This interview is part of the Digital Media and Learning Competition 5 Trust Challenge. The Trust Challenge funds successful collaborations or “laboratories” where challenges to trust in connected learning environments can be identified and addressed. Successful labs will create scalable, innovative, and transformative exemplars of connected learning that bridge technological solutions with complex social considerations of trust.  Find out more about the competition at

Sonia Livingstone is a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  Her work examines the opportunities and risks afforded to children and young people by digital and online technologies. She is author or editor of eighteen academic books including Children and the Internet, Children, Risk and Safety Online: Research and policy challenges in comparative perspective, andDigital Technologies in the Lives of Young People. Homepage:

1. What about our contemporary moment makes understanding trust important?

We’re moving towards a world of self-regulation (by industry, organisations, the state) and self-governance (by us, our peers and communities). As societies get more complex (transnational, networked, contingent, building individual choice into institutional processes), it becomes similarly more complex to navigate the options available to us and to evaluate the pathways they might represent. In other words, we have to decide what to trust in a complex, shifting world where authority and standards are more negotiable or indeterminate or simply unclear. In making our decisions – which can be anything from who to ‘follow’ or what to buy to who to vote for or which course to enroll for or who to live with or tell a secret to – we can no longer fall back on doing things how we’ve always done them, or rely on traditions or norms that have been long established. And most important, in a society where safety nets are being withdrawn, inequality is increasing and we are each on our own to cope with what happens, the risks of making poor decisions, or of investing our trust ill-advisedly, falls heavily on us alone.

2. Often when we hear terms like “student data” or “student privacy” we don’t hear them in conversation with “trust”. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be the case?

Don’t we? We all worry about our privacy precisely when we can’t trust others with our information. If we can (decide to) trust others, we are liable to give them our data willingly. Privacy, after all, isn’t a matter of keeping our information secret or revealing it to others but, rather, a matter of having control over the decision, whichever way we go. What worries people increasingly is that this control seems to be slipping away. We post our photos behind our privacy settings but then a contact forwards the information on unexpectedly. Or we give our data to institutions we should be able to trust (school, work, hospitals, etc.) and then it turns out they have commercial partners with different understandings of who the data belongs to and what its value is.

3. How are you thinking about trust in regard to connected learning?

We can’t live in a state of heightened and persistent scepticism. We have to trust the people or institutions in at least part of our lives. As trust is eroded, for all the foregoing reasons, we become more conservative, on the one hand, and more cynical on the other. Both conservativism and cynicisms are the enemy of connected learning. That puts huge pressure on the advocates and practitioners of connected learning to prove themselves more trustworthy, more ethical, more accountable than traditional institutions of learning, among whom these concerns were never so strong.

4. What are some of the biggest challenges to engendering trust you see in connected learning?

We only learn significant things when we are ourselves significantly engaged in the topic, the learning site, and our own contribution to the learning process. Achieving all this in one site – say, the traditional classroom – is hard enough and many do not trust school or their teachers or the value of what they are learning very far at all. Achieving it across sites or activities - as required for connected learning - therefore doubles the challenge. Actually, it triples the challenge, as the learner themselves becomes the means and the medium to sustaining the connections. Hence mentors – who can also cross sites or activities – can help. So too does the efficacy and expertise of the learner, enabling them to build on their knowledge as they move around their world. The lack of mentors or of self-confidence or of trustworthy connections (human or digital) all undermine connected learning. In my research on The Class, more children experience these lacks than the lucky few for whom connected learning is a reality.

5. What are some of the literacies you think are required for learners to have a digital “trust literacy”?

I think many people – certainly children – are more ready to trust than otherwise. The problem comes in learning not to trust so widely, in learning scepticism, and gaining the skills to apply good tests and make informed decisions. But literacy is the flip-side of legibility. If the world – offline or online – is opaque, difficult to read, hard to judge or evaluate, then gaining ‘trust literacy’ (if that is a concept) is impeded. So literacy depends on legibility, and there’s a lot that institutions, groups and individuals could all do to make themselves more interpretable by others. Then, surely, those who actually seek to deceive or delude or exploit would become more apparent by contrast. For the learner, however, we shouldn’t be trying to teach them that x can be trusted and y cannot but, rather, we should discuss with them how to make these decisions, what information they might need, and how to cope with the consequences of a poor decision. It sounds obvious, perhaps, yet it is remarkably little done.


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