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Reflections on Trust and Learning with an Evolving Internet

Reflections on Trust and Learning with an Evolving Internet

Building Trust in Connected Learning Environments Interview: Dave Steer, Mozilla Foundation

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

Dave Steer is Mozilla Foundation’s director of policy and advocacy, where he shapes the organization’s public policy position and develops programs that enable web users to have a voice in advancing and protecting the free and open web.

Dave joined Mozilla in 2014 from Facebook, where he was responsible for the company’s global policy programs in a variety of areas including teen safety, education, digital citizenship, jobs and economy, and veterans affairs. Prior to Facebook, he held leadership positions at Common Sense Media and, and ran Trust & Safety marketing at eBay and PayPal. Steer started his career as part of the initial team at TRUSTe, where he was responsible for marketing and public relations for the privacy program.                 

Steer holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Vermont. He serves on the Bay Area advisory board for Little Kids Rock, is an avid Phish fan, and dreams of touring in a band when he grows up. He lives in San Francisco, CA, with his wife and daughter.


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

We are at a critical point in the evolution of the Internet.

We’re seeing first-hand that new technologies are enabling people all over the world to connect and share the most important parts of their lives. They are fueling innovation and opportunity, and leading to new jobs, stronger economies, and more resilient communities. They are creating new opportunities to improve academic, social and emotional outcomes through learning inside and outside the classroom, enabling educators to create whole communities that put the learner at the center.

More broadly, we’re seeing the explosive adoption of the Internet. Today, billions of people are online and, led by the massive growth in mobile usage, billions more from the most rural parts of the globe will be online in the next few years.

The same factors that are fueling this growth so dramatically, however, can work against us. Indeed, the Internet is a fragile resource and its stability is hinged on trust in the medium.

People’s comfort with privacy, security and safety online is what drives this trust. Their comfort is shaped by many factors they read in the news and experience in their online lives: governments undermining the security of the Internet to advance surveillance practices; policy makers threatening to destroy the level playing field of the Internet; companies tracking people’s online activities; identity thieves attacking the Internet to steal sensitive information. All of this leads to an environment of distrust which creating barriers to leveraging the Internet to advance society as a whole.

This presents us with unique challenges and opportunities.

The Internet has the potential to be the greatest shared, global resource and medium in the history of the world, accessible to and shaped by all people. It has the promise to be the first medium in which anyone can make anything, and share it with anyone.

In order for this to become a reality, particularly during this time of ever-accelerating growth, we have to codify the way in which we can earn trust and enable a vigilant, successful global community on the Internet.

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?

Privacy is at the core of trust.

Consider this: Over the past decade, people have been asked to share more and more information with websites and mobile services. This raises many questions: What information is being gathered? Who has access to it? Why is it being gathered? And, when it comes to Connected Learning, are educators trained with the skills they need to handle sensitive personal information?

But trust and privacy is not limited to student data collection and use. It also includes social networking, which raises even more societal questions when it comes to learning and the interaction between students, families and educators. How can educators create a safe environment in the school when so much connection among students is happening online? How can it create a culture of kindness, where bullying and cruelty are not OK? And in an age where students and educators are both exposing parts of their lives online, what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy?

While these open questions can raise doubt and uncertainty, there is also great opportunity in enabling young people to better develop their identities through a deeper understand of what is private. Specifically, privacy allows people to play around with identities, which is particularly important at formative stages of life. These stages often coincide with formal education – without that space to try on different identities, people are locked into a single way of being.

In this way, the notion of privacy is subjective and contextual, and young people today are learning about privacy while developing their identity and exploring different contexts, both online and offline. danah boyd highlights the opportunities and dangers of this ‘context collapse’ in her book ‘It’s Complicated’.

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

Some of the biggest challenges to engendering trust are rooted in privacy. That is, what sensitive personal information is being gathered by the technologies that educators are using? How are they using the information, and how are they safeguarding it? And are educators trained to handle the information? We need to create a better understanding among students, families and all stakeholders about who ‘owns’ the data, how the data is being used, and people’s rights regarding the data. A key part of developing this understanding will be transparency – that is, making the answers to these pivotal privacy questions transparent to all parties.

Safety is another core challenge to trusting a Connected Learning experience. With fear over bullying and other issues related to how students interact with each other, educators and families question the risks associated with an increasing role of connected technologies in the learning experience. This is just one reason why social-emotional learning development must be part of any educator’s approach to Connected Learning.

The technologies associated with Connected Learning are new and evolving all the time. As a result, there will be a knee-jerk tendency from policy makers to develop rules around how these technologies are used in order to maintain privacy and safety. Without understanding the technology or how it will be used, this type of policy making approach can undermine the promise of connected learning.

4. 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?

At the core of enabling trust in Connected Learning is greater understanding how the Internet works.

Today, there is an upswell of programs aimed at teaching people coding skills. These programs serve as a tool to prepare people for an information economy-driven workforce.

This is important, but I encourage people to start by engaging in systems that enable people to build trust through creating web literacy. For example, Mozilla’s Webmaker tools are easy — and FUN — ways to learn how the Web works.

A good guide to navigating the various elements of web literacy is the Web Literacy Map and related resources. These resources map to core web literacy skills, that will be vital both to trust in Connected Learning and competencies in an evolving economy. Another set of emerging tools are badging systems, such as Open Badges, that give people recognition for accomplishments. This type of incentive system inspires people to continue learning and ‘level up’.

5. Do you see a distinction between the structural conditions and experiential considerations regarding trust? If so, what are the sorts of structural/institutional structures that might engender/discourage trust in relation to learning/connected learning?

Trust is so critical to how a thriving society functions that it must be intentionally designed and architected into its fabric. Call it ’Trust by Design’.

For example, since openness and transparency are vital drivers of trust, the architects designing a connected learning experience must include points at which they demystify and shine the light on their practices. In Connected Learning, people want to understand what information they are giving, who they are giving it to, what will be done with the information, and why it is needed. Beyond this, they want to understand the value exchange associated with Connected Learning — specifically, does new technology result in better outcomes, whether it be academic, social, civic, or workforce related.

Another ‘trust by design’ element must take into account the notion that trust is an interpersonal, social dynamic. It is the dynamic that says ‘I rely on you. So you can rely on me’. In this spirit, healthy systems that engender trust enable the community to actively participate in the making of the system. Wikipedia, for example, is such a powerful engine for knowledge and learning because it is developed, maintained and safeguarded by the community.

The most successful Connected Learning systems will keep this community development and participation dynamic at the core of what they design.


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