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Chapter 2 - Best Practices

The Aspen Institute created this guidebook to build on these principles and to provide best practices for stakeholders to use when creating trusted learning environments, engaging with them, and embedding them in communities.

Best practices for creating a trusted learning environment:

  1. Clearly define and communicate “trusted environment” and what “trust” means to your learner and his or her community.
  2. Value the youth perspective and help them exercise their own voice.
  3. Engage experts across disciplines to address need.
  4. Be proactive and be ready to react when necessary.
  5. Understand that language matters.
  6. Pull from best practices and utilize lessons learned from previous organizations.
  7. Define clear roles among the learning network.

In addition, stakeholders need to communicate effectively in early discussions the iterative nature of creating a trusted learning environment. The development cycle of products, programs and platforms are rarely perfect from the beginning and require constant feedback for improvement. However, stakeholders should always have the information on what failings may have occurred and how their privacy and security was maintained and/or breached. While the number one goal is to avoid problems, the reality is that they can and do happen. Stakeholders need to know that all issues will be handled effectively and efficiently.

More information on these best practices, and how they are seen in action, appears later in this guide.


The following best practices were gathered through interviews in which pioneers of this area shared their experiences and lessons learned.

It is not a checklist or formulaic prescription, but rather a set of guideposts and a list of key elements to consider as stakeholders develop a plan to create trusted environments in their specific contexts.

These elements are intended to inspire those who seek to advance this important work and provide direction to help interested actors get started.

1 Clearly define “trusted environment” and what “trust” means to your learner and their community.
As the Task Force report states, “A trusted environment is not easy to define precisely and will not be simple to construct.” It is important to unpack buzzwords such as “trust,” “privacy” and “safety” and define them in a way that supports the learner. For example, the learner may be seeking trusted content, a secure online platform, or trusted organizations with which to connect. Recommended examples and resources include:
  • MediaBreaker/Studios is an online video editing and remixing platform that provides youth opportunities to re-democratize copyrighted content while learning about fair use and focuses on trusted media sources and trusted content. In this context, they define “fair use” in terms of critical remix, so that students are able to create critical comments about media, while transforming that media into something new and distinguishable from the original source material. At last count, the tool is in use by nearly 200 educators in 42 states. Their project contributes to the larger discussion about trust by providing a safe space to experiment with fair use and the deconstruction of media messages so that students become responsible and informed digital citizens who have “healthy digital relationships.”
  • The Mozilla Foundation is dedicated to protecting and building a healthy Internet as a global public resource, open and accessible to all. The foundation stewards Hive NYC, a peer learning network of groups like DreamYard Project, Mouse, Parsons, Educational Video Center, City-as-School, Reelworks and Urban Arts Partnership. With a grant from the Digital Media Learning (DML) Trust Challenge, the group developed the Building Connected Credentials project. The project studied existing and emerging credentialing practices (from portfolios to digital badging), shared promising practices, common tactics and viable models. The group concluded that using participatory design practices is key to developing valued and trusted credentials that can then be used to address systemic inequalities in access to learning.
  • The Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV) is a distributed network of activists, advocates, content creators and educators who want to enable women and feminists to take preemptive steps to ensure control of their online identities and to educate everyone about the many forms of online violence. In creating CSOV, the network discovered that “trust” is complicated, and you must involve and understand the end user when building a trusted learning environment. The project kicked off with a multi-day meeting to hear what communities prioritized and to understand where existing mistrust resides. CSOV found that traditional safety mechanisms and tools might be dangerous to certain at-risk populations. For example, domestic abuse or violent crime survivors found two-step authentication systems threatening because many had created pseudonyms or used other identity obscuring strategies for self-protection.
2 Value the youth perspective and help them exercise their own voice.
In order to create trusted environments for learners, youth must engage in the process. Their feedback is critical not only in the creation of the product, program or platform, but also in getting their “buy in.” However, not all young learners will immediately understand what questions to ask to ensure their safety and security. Therefore, it is also important to empower them with knowledge and help learners ask the questions that will allow them to navigate safely through a learning environment.
  • Researchers from the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society have curated and produced a Digital Literacy Resources Platform, which is an evolving collection of resources that teachers, administrators, parents, and youth can use to learn more about online safety, privacy, information quality, creativity, and copyright. One such resource is the “Safety, Privacy, and Digital Citizenship: Introductory Materials.” This curriculum aligns with national standards and includes a variety of workshop modules that inform youth about key concepts related to privacy, safety and reputation. In the workshop materials, there is a set of evaluation questions students can answer to reflect on what they have learned. It includes questions such as “How do you define privacy online?” and “Does privacy matter to you? Why?”
  • DigitalMe is a non-profit organization in the United Kingdom which helps young people gain skills and confidence through new technology by co-designing new ways to develop, assess and reward the competencies learners need to thrive. DigitalMe’s Safe project is a program of activities that develops young people’s digital skills, self-confidence and safety awareness when using social networking sites. For example, youth involved in the project expressed an interest in learning more about “digital footprints.” They had heard of the term, but did not really understand the concept or how to develop positive digital footprints. This feedback was incorporated into the Safe program, which now includes the “Safe Digital Footprint,” that provides an easy to understand definition and offers tips for creating positive digital footprints.
3 Engage experts across disciplines to address need.
The creation of trusted learning environments often requires multiple levels of expertise and diverse viewpoints. Combining education pedagogy with technical knowledge, legal and policy acumen will create a stronger program, product or platform. Recommended resources include:
  • VIF International Education builds global education programs that prepare students for success in an interconnected world. The interdisciplinary team advancing VIF’s Global Pathways project includes experts who specialize in education research and others from computer game decision and user interface design backgrounds. By approaching the work from multiple perspectives and allocating a lengthy amount of time to the ideation phase, they have been able to tackle their project in a way that creates the most open-ended tool possible while addressing users’ needs.
  • Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV) emphasizes the need to think about how communities experience digital environments differently. In order to develop its content, CSOV created a team composed of 50% academics and 50% non-academics to have a richer conversation around online violence. CSOV initially envisioned building its own digital hub of living resources. However, it shifted its focus from production of specific content to content produced through broader community collaboration. CSOV now supports stakeholders in creating their own content or engaging in acts of activism in their communities. While handing over the creation of content to non-academics embedded within the communities was outside of its grant’s initial vision, CSOV’s end product is much more valuable and important for leveraging the diverse expertise of its larger community.
  • Safe is a free curriculum of activities that develops student skills, self-confidence and safety awareness when using social networking sites. In 2014, computing curriculum became a mandatory part of every child’s education in the United Kingdom. For many teachers, the resulting approach to digital education presented a chance to build on ICT lessons in an exciting new way. However, there was a “rising tide of panic” among others who were concerned that they did not have the knowledge, skills and resources required to respond to the new requirements. In response, DigitalMe teamed up to collaborate with O2, an organization that has worked with schools across the UK to support youth development of digital and enterprise skills. Together they created Safe which garners positive response from teachers.
4 Be proactive and be ready to react when necessary.
It is best to work with key advisors to gain knowledge of the current landscape – laws, regulations and technical capacity. Laws and regulations are often lagging with respect to the pace of technology. But your planning need not be constrained. Find the nexus of what is feasible and best for your organization and stakeholders. Remember: smart choices and a focus on higher standards will lead to success even when there are capacity challenges.
  • RyeCatcher is a program whose mission is to ensure that all students, including kids with disabilities, are connected with high-quality service providers that support their diverse and unique needs. When RyeCatcher built its 2.0 tool, it sought to build within the product what encryption was legally required. When this process began, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)i was a requirement for banking and credit card transactions, but not a requirement in education. RyeCatcher consulted its legal and technical partners and determined that using SSL was not so overwhelming that it would alter the fundamental architecture of its system. By incorporating SSL and working one-step beyond the level that was required, RyeCatcher was able to anticipate and be ready for the next development in data security. In turn, users experience a feeling of increased security regarding their data.
5 Understand that language matters.
Given language barriers and the complexity of policies that can be difficult for non-lawyers to comprehend, clear, concise and understandable language is critical.
  • MediaBreaker/Studios conveys the purpose of its program to parents and non-digital media educators by talking in terms of “critical thinking skills” and “interest-driven learning” rather than “media literacy.” This allows MediaBreaker/Studios to communicate its tool’s purpose successfully.
  • Members of the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society define privacy as “the ability to control what other people know about you.” The curriculum, co-developed with New York Public Library and WGBH, empowers educators to convey what privacy is and why it is important using straightforward language school-age students can easily comprehend. For example, “What privacy means to you and your family might be very different than what privacy means to the other kids in this class and their families. If we’re more aware of what we value as private, and how our behaviors online can shape our privacy, we’ll be able to make better choices about what kind of privacy we want.”ii
  • RyeCatcher found that they are better able to engage parents, caregivers and families in conversations using familiar terms. For example, the term “permission” speaks to parents in a way that “consent” does not. Parents, caregivers and families understand the process of providing permission slips, emergency contact and transportation information to schools. The right language makes all the difference, and intimidating terminology should be avoided. RyeCatcher worked with content specialists and sociolinguists to develop simple text for emails or newsletters for each of their constituencies that describe their product, the work they are advancing and their end goals.
6 Pull from best practices and utilize lessons learned from previous organizations.
Many have tried, some have succeeded and some have failed, but all provide valuable lessons.
  • Mozilla Foundation staff caution against not acknowledging the importance of past efforts that may have taken place under a different unifying label. Mozilla Foundation’s Building Connected Credentials project examined the current New York City connected credentials ecosystem. In the context of New York City-based connected credentials work, many organizations conducted related work for decades. Their legacy and community provide a valuable resource from which innovations may draw inspiration, lessons learned and find new collaborators.
  • To develop the RyeCatcher platform, legal and technical teams learned from the prior work related to electronic health information exchanges. While the content focus of RyeCatcher’s work was different, the set of federal and in-school work laws RyeCatcher considered as it built its platform was a valuable model in the complicated interagency federal coordination that Data Use and Reciprocal Support Agreement (DURSA) was built to address.
7 Define clear roles among the learning network. Remember you are part of a learning network and the learner is best served when efforts are coordinated.
It is important to have partners in this work to build capacity and help lend expertise to further stakeholder efforts. However, it is also crucial to ensure alignment with partner beliefs. Partners must have clearly defined roles and understand where they fit in the trusted learning environment as there can be many actors with different skill sets advancing various facets of trusted environment work.
  • Members of the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center emphasize that in order to enable a strong network for the learner, all partners involved should possess a good understanding as to where they fit in the trusted learning environment, what the goals are, and how different pieces work together to achieve these objectives.
  • During the year of Center for Solutions to Online Violence’s (CSOV) Digital Media Literacy Trust Challenge project, CSOV discovered that much of the content initially planned for development had already been created by other organizations. For example, they found resources related to online harassment and rapid response through the Speech Project started by the Women’s Media Center and the Crash Override Network. As a result, CSOV decided to further the field and redirect their resources into augmenting the collective work and to partner rather than duplicate efforts. One area of particular focus is advancing the insights and experiences of women of color in particular. Various individuals and groups step forward and step back as needed to work on CSOV as a community driven and sustained project.

i As of 2016, online credit card transactions are protected via vendors compliant with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).
ii Youth and Media, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, in collaboration with the New York Public Library and WGBH (featuring Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius from PBS). (August 2016). “The Internet and You [Full Curriculum]. Digital Literacy Resource Platform.”

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