ITU collaborates with Harvard
Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that you’re not alone in what you think, experience and do. As it helps to know that people everywhere are different. In the intersection between alike and unlike students on Society and Technology on Global Business Informatics met online with a class at Harvard University last year. This is what happened.
The Internet is - a few dictatorships excluded - the same everywhere around the world. But do we, Homo Sapiens, go about using it the same way no matter what our background is? That’s a question sought answered on both the course Society and Technology at the IT University and Exploring Race and Community in the Digital World at Harvard University in the US, and last year the two classes met online for an exchange of digital autobiographies sharing their first experiences with the WWW and the many facets of their use of it today.
Society and Technology, a first year, first semester course on the Global Business Informatics program about the inseparability of society and technology, is taught by assistant professor Rachel Douglas-Jones and she first met her American counter, lecturer on African and African American Studies at Harvard Carla Denny Martin, when they both studied at the American university back in 2007.
“The idea for this collaboration arose when Carla and I met up during a research trip I made to Harvard in spring 2014. I knew she was teaching Race and Technology because we had already reconnected over Twitter, and we realised our students sometimes struggled to contextualise their own experiences with different technologies, some of which defined eras of their lives. So using the old fashioned pen pal idea, we proposed to put our students in touch with one another, so they could share digital autobiographies,” explains Rachel Douglas-Jones.
What makes a digital citizen?
In the digital autobiographies the students reflected on their own trajectory so far with technology, specifically IT. The purpose was to give students opportunity to get to know the different experiences of their peers on another continent and allow them to use this reflection to sensitise them to the national, historical and infrastructural specificities of their engagement with digital technologies, and to help them see how the experiences of their peers around the world may differ.
It was interesting to see that where the role of gaming [...] in childhood sociality and as introduction to the web was very similar, the Danish and American students almost couldn’t be more different when it came to trust.
Rachel Douglas-Jones «
“The ambition was to see this reflexive moment inform how the students engaged with the texts as the course progressed, and the realisation that their perspectives and experiences are not necessarily shared by their age-peers world over was certainly evident,” says Rachel Douglas-Jones.
“As an international teacher myself, I was surprised by the role of Danish social media networks in their childhoods, and also by the centrality of gaming both for the Danish and American students. Discussions about the Danish CPR number and American Social Security numbers led to in depth discussions of the role of the state, questions of data privacy and the different expectations held by Danish and American students. What does being a ‘digital citizen’ mean in these two different countries, for example?”
To trust or not to trust
Three themes were central in the international meeting: The American realisation that the Internet is English and the challenges that might pose for non English speaking people. Gaming as introduction to the Internet, and - now that a life is led online - trust. The first gave the American students food for thought. The second, it turned out, was a common trait for all nations involved, while the third showed great differences in terms of both a sense of online security and trust in government and other official authorities.
“It was interesting to see that where the role of gaming - and using one’s parents computer - in childhood sociality and as introduction to the web was very similar, the Danish and American students almost couldn’t be more different when it came to trust. The NSA scandal probably plays a big part here and the American students couldn’t believe how much information Danes readily give authorities online and the high level of trust they put into the security of NemID for instance,” says Rachel Douglas-Jones and recommends others to seek out collaborations like this.
“Collaborations such as this provide an opportunity to link students across national borders and encourage discussion about common issues for which they might have quite different experiences and starting points. I found the students were very engaged when they got comments back from the American students and were able to ask questions in return. Also, I got the impression that there was a lot of enjoyment in discovering commonalities and discussing differences, such as the CPR number, NemID and uses of different languages online.”
Selected Harvard reactions on Danish autobiographies:
"One major similarity we found was that we too found our first encounters through gaming on the Internet. We found this to be an interesting starting point as the Internet was created as an information bank, yet we all used it for non-scholarly purposes at first."
"We […] thought that your stories on accessibility were very thought provoking. In our discussion group, we had two Americans and a member from Japan. As Americans we realized we had never thought of the Internet as being so western-language normative, and perhaps taken for granted having English as our first language. Our discussion group member from Japan spoke to her experience as native Japanese speaker who found it was difficult to search using English as very few people speak English in Japan."
"We were struck by the extent to which you use different languages online—and that some of you learned to use English differently through engagement online. It really alerted us to the different ways in which the internet is used by diverse populations in other parts of the world. We hadn’t realized the extent to which the internet is Anglicized."
"Your writing about dial-up service […] gave us all fond memories. The processing of actually dialing up with the loud noise is an unforgettable memory. We even went to YouTube to find a clip of the noise. Related to this, we found your memories of going to a computer interesting—having to visit a friend, the school library, or an Internet cafe. In the era of the ubiquity of the laptop, it is important to remember the history of the physicality of technology."
"We are all surprised by how much you trust your government and your companies with private and personal information. The notion of a universal "NemID" seems far to easy to exploit and steal. Is identity theft a concern of yours? We have also been told that part of the NemID gives away your gender. Isn't that unsafely giving away private information? […) In America we largely consider the NSA to be illegally accessing our private data. Giving up privacy is considered not worth the potential security gains."
Selected ITU reactions on American autobiographies:
"We see that there is a general consensus that privacy online is a big issue for all of you. While we are also aware of what kind of information we share online and how it is being distributed, we were a little bit surprised about how distrustful you are of the NSA with regards to how they fetch people’s information and how they handle it."
"We found it funny of how surprised you were of the NemID system and how wary you guys are when it comes to putting that sort of information online. In Denmark most people trust the NemID to be really safe when it comes to your personal data."
"Some of you mentioned that you were surprised that we are bilingual and that we feel just as comfortable using English online as our native language. We think this comes down to how early we have English as a subject in school, some schools begin as early as 1st grade, and also how little of a country Denmark is, which means that a lot of our medias derives from American sources."
"Another thing that surprised us was that one of the students actually learned how to game before he could read as this pretty rare to see in our society. However, it is becoming more common that children will sit behind their computer screens after school than practice their reading."
"What we found interesting in your autobiographies was the fact that your first encounter with the computer and internet was for fun and games and then later on it would become a part of your social identity, through social media. We found out that we got engaged with the social media and digital technology at the same age."