Digital assemblage

By Riikka Hohti

I join the 5th graders and their teacher for a picnic. The place outside the school is nice with sunshine, old trees and fields of grass. Two of the students, whom I have seen taking dance moves every now and then during normal school days, have prepared a dance performance. The music, “Me myself and I”, is easily found in Spotify. A portable loudspeaker is connected to the phone laying on the ground. Other children move towards the phone, gathering around it and sit down on the grass to see the performance. One of the students, however, remains a bit further away by the trees with his phone in his hand, surfing in social media, it seems. A classmate videotapes the dance. I’m thinking that some of the photos are probably instantly shared in Snapchat as parts of the children’s “My stories”. I am told that the girls have learnt the dance from YouTube, where children share their dances in an application called Musical. I also videotape the dance with my phone to show it later in a conference. After the performance has ended, when some have started a football game, I notice a group of children staying among the trees and making their own dances and taking photos and videos.

The concept of assemblage (presented by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, 1987) refers to combinations, groupings, and gatherings. It shifts the focus from individual children, or their social relations, to non-hierarchical co-existence of different entities in combination. It thus opens up other perspectives than only instrumental ones to children’s existence with digitality. In the school picnic described above, such entities would be the smartphones, the digital devices, the children’s moving bodies, the warm spring day, internet connections, the applications making music available, and the potential audiences presented by applications such as Snapchat, and more.

Focusing on assemblages rather than only social processes can help us to realise how digital engagements are never only digital. School is not separated from society and does not exist in a vacuum. Especially the situations in which students engage with their own devices tend to be complex. They cannot be fully understood as clear-cut linear and predictable learning processes. 

Digital assemblages are open-ended, and thus they can have surprising and unpredictable outcomes.

To think about assemblages means to emphasise relationality between the elements actualizing in an event. When taking relationality as a starting point, students and their teachers become in the view as something else than fixed and stable, beyond their assumed normative positions. They can be seen as emerging in specific ways and in different versions from the complex interplay of different natural, discursive, collective and hybrid materials. The school picnic as an assemblage also allows us to account for the affective, viral and contagious ways of learning that are going on.


Hohti, R., Paakkari, A. & Stenberg, K. (forthcoming): Leaping and dancing with digitality: Exploring human-smartphone-entanglements in classrooms.

Hohti, R. (2016) Classroom matters. Research with children as entanglement. Doctoral thesis. University of Helsinki.