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Public violations of trust and learning, what's the link?

Public violations of trust and learning, what's the link?

Building Trust in Connected Learning Environments Interview: Cathy N. Davidson

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

Cathy N. Davidson is a distinguished scholar of the history of technology and appointed in 2011 to the National Council on the Humanities by President Obama, is a leading innovator of new ideas and methods for learning and professional development–in school, in the workplace, and in everyday life.  She is a frequent speaker and consultant on institutional change at universities, corporations, non-profits and other organizations, and writes for the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, Times Higher Ed, as well as many other academic and trade publications in the U.S. and abroad.

Davidson moved to the Graduate Center, The City University of New York, on July 1, 2014.  She   holds the position of Distinguished Professor and Director of The Futures Initiative, a new program designed to train the next generation of college professors and catalyze and draw upon the abundant energies and ideas of CUNY faculty and students for innovative leadership in higher education.


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

Why this is important now is because everyone is paying attention. The trust issues haven’t really changed. We should have--as individuals and institutions and a society—been concerned about our security, privacy, and identity online since the beginning of the Internet.  Certainly this was a concern to those who developed the internet early on. However, in recent months we have all become urgently, personally aware of public violations of trust: everything from the massive retail credit card security breach to colleges and medical centers having student data leaked to hackers to Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying on private citizens.   

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?

More than ever before, we are aware of the relationship between privacy, security, and identity. You cannot expect people to trust your network if you are not conscientiously working to earn their trust. This competition gives learning institution’s the opportunity to reconsider their systems. It also gives them an opportunity to inform the public about these issues, contributing to all our digital literacy and therefore to all our safety.

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

Whenever my students put anything online, in the classroom or out of it, I want them to be aware of the nature of the data they are sharing as well as the “persona” of themselves that they are making available to anyone with an internet connection. I put a lot of emphasis in my teaching on “curating” an identity, creating an online identity that represents their best public aspirations. That is a digital literacy, of course. One has to learn, in this historical moment, the difference between private and public in a new way. That, too, is part of trust.

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

Ignorance is one issue. People often trust online sites that are not trustworthy. So one challenge is making people aware that they need to ask why people are requesting their data, for what purpose, at what cost? Care is another. Sometimes our private data is exposed to the unscrupulous because organizations themselves are naïve about the difficulties of security and of protecting those who have placed trust in them.   Finally, we have to be aware, in a democracy, that free speech must be protected even as we must learn to be kinder and more considerate of one another. Trolls are as big an impediment to a trustworthy environment as government or corporate spies.   

5. Do you know of any tools, procedures, apps, and/or systems enabling or disabling trust? How are they doing this? What do these  tools, procedures, and/or systems change how learning can happen in connected learning environments?

There are a vast array of tools for learning that are applicable to the Trust Challenge. For example, verification systems are very useful for private, confidential data. They need to be better, more user-friendly so that more of us use them in our everyday lives. If huge corporations such as Google offer us verification systems that are not interoperable (that, for example, work for my cell phone but not for my iPad), then I won’t use them and they might as well not exist. Other tools, such as Mozilla’s “private browsing” settings, allow us to surf the web without having others be able to track your browsing history for their purposes (not ours).  In the end, it is crucial to understand the problem and address it within that specific situation.  That is why I am excited that this Trust Challenge offers institutions the opportunity to survey their own vulnerabilities and then propose better ways of protected those learning on their tools.   


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