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Scaling Trust: How We can Make Trust Part of Old, Traditional Systems

Scaling Trust: How We can Make Trust Part of Old, Traditional Systems

Building Trust in Connected Learning Environments Interview: David Weinberger, Ph.D.

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

David Weinberger, Ph.D., writes about how the Internet is shaping our most fundamental understanding of ourselves. In books including "The Cluetrain Manifesto" (co-author), "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," "Everything Is Miscellaneous," and "Too Big to Know," he has explored the implications of the Internet for marketing, journalism, business strategy, information organization, knowledge, politics, science, and much more. A senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, he has been a Franklin Fellow at the US State Dept., an entrepreneur and marketing consultant to high tech companies, co-director of Harvard's Library Innovation Lab, and an advisor to presidential campaigns. Dr. Weinberger's doctorate is in philosophy from the University of Toronto.

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

Trust is established through a complex set of social interactions and markers. The Net is a radically new social world where the interactions and the markers are different because the Net is an open space where anyone can participate; each person brings her own community's expectations and norms. It is therefore very easy to misinterpret the markers that establish trust.

But, the Internet is also, of course, an enormous opportunity for new social engagement. We need to face the issue of trust or else we'll lose that opportunity.

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?

Trust is one of the implicit factors in any discussion of privacy. Sometimes it's ignored because people are focusing on the technological side of privacy. That's fine so long as the discussion is truly about the technology. For example, if people are talking about the efficacy of encrypting packets via SSL as they travel across the Internet, the question of trust is implicit and can remain so. But if the conversation thinks that SSL will solve the privacy problem, then the question of trust needs to be made explicit. Once the packets arrive at their destination, we have to ask if we trust the recipients to keep them safe.

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

Trust is obviously a crucial part of any learning relationship. The learners and their teachers (who may be one in the same) have to trust one another as sources of information and, more importantly, as committed to the mutual learning process. Without this we won't trust what we've learned, which is exactly the same as not having learned.

In most real-world structured learning environments — a classroom, a mentoring session — we trust the institution and we come to trust our teacher or co-learner. We come to this trust through well-established norms and markers: Is the school accredited? Does this person seem to have my interests at heart? Are my teachers and co-learners people of integrity and character? Online, those markers are not nearly as well established. The relationships are often less rich, and cultural differences can wreak havoc if they are not recognized.

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

The main issue is that the old systems for validating sources don't scale. There aren't enough editors, librarians, and curators to handle the never-ending waves of ideas and information on the Net. We have to use methods that do scale, and we have to accept a higher risk that we'll misplace our trust. (There were prices we paid with the old regime as well: a more homogenous group decided what was worth our attention and trust, and what they didn't let through the gates became inaccessible.)

So, among the literacies now required:

  • How to evaluate a web site's legitimacy and trustworthiness. This also requires understanding the "rules of evidence" within a domain. For example, what counts as evidence in science is different from what counts as evidence in a law court or in literary criticism.

  • Old fashioned informal logic to spot fallacies and good arguments.

  • Crucially, learning how to use social media to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources of information — including how not to be fooled by the abusers of social media and by the structural weaknesses inherent in any system of legitimization.

  • Humility: Recognizing that understanding always occurs within a context of settled beliefs but all systems of settled beliefs reflect cultural, historical, and linguistic biases. So, we have to re-double our efforts to reach beyond our own cultural milieus (or "echo chambers" as they're sometimes misleadingly called).

5. Do you have a favorite method of creating an environment of trust in your own digital practice? in learning practices? What do they look like? Is this scalable to/FOR connected learning? Why or why not?

Modesty and humility go a long way: acknowledging early on that there are things we as individuals don't know or understand, and looking to others to join in the investigation.


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