What is a research sprint? Participating in “Digital Ethics in Times of Crisis: COVID-19 & Access to Education and Learning Spaces”

Written by Benedict Lang

In Autumn 2020, Harward’s Berkman Klein Center hosted a research sprint that convened a global cohort of approximately 40 student participants from 21 different countries spread over five continents, under a project led by the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers (NoC) on the Ethics of Digitization. The project advances dialogue and action at the intersection of science, politics, the digital economy, and civil society broadly. The Research Sprint explored specific normative questions around the disruption, challenges, and opportunities that the COVID-19 pandemic represents in the realm of education. Visiting student Benedict Lang participated, and below shares his reflections on the experience.

While being in Copenhagen as Junior Researcher in the ETHOS Lab during autumn 2020, I had the opportunity to participate in the Berkman Klein Center research sprint called Digital Ethics in Times of Crisis: COVID-19 & Access to Education and Learning Spaces. In a very diverse group – both regarding disciplines, regions, and backgrounds – we discovered how the COVID pandemic is affecting education around the world over the course of 12 weeks.

As the research sprint’s eventual report put it, the goal of the research sprint was “to engage students and experts from the Global Network of Internet and society Centres and expert stakeholders to create a map of the relevant issues and corresponding questions that policy-makers around the globe need to address to harness the benefits of digital technologies while avoiding some of the possible downsides during the next crisis’(2020: 5).

The format of the sprint was very well organized. It took place fully virtually over zoom, like nearly everything that happened in autumn 2020. As a co-produced research project, the feedback we gave during the process was taken into account. In general, we had one so-called anchor session each week, in which the whole group of students and facilitators came together. Inspired by input from “sparks”, we had thematic discussions about different aspects of the research sprint`s topic, Access to Education and Learning Spaces. For example, we discussed access to educational technologies, surveillance & AI, as well as issues of inclusion.

In between the weekly anchor sessions, we worked on a more thorough analysis of the respective topics in smaller working groups with other students. The mentoring and guidance of Berkman Klein Center staff and other experts helped us to facilitate these discussions.

What I really appreciated about the sprint was, that the voice of young scholars and students was heard. When I was doing political work as a student representative in high school in Germany, we faced the issue that political debates were often conducted about us but barely with us. The approach of BKC, to include students and young scholars seems adequate in bringing perspectives to the surface that would otherwise be overlooked.

What inspired me the most during the research sprint was to get insights and first-hand experiences from all over the world not only from the diverse sparks but also from the cohort of students. We reflected on inequalities between the global south and the global north and discussed different levels of access barriers that ranged from infrastructure over devices to software licenses. This includes for example the reliability or in the first place availability of mobile data or internet. Following a lecture and submitting one’s homework on a smartphone is considerably harder than with a notebook, laptop, or desktop. If someone can afford licenses for office products or video editing software determines how various their learning processes can be. What can be considered the standard in some countries is not even imaginable in other countries. Different value sets have an impact not only on the technical environment but also on the cultures’ imaginations of education in the first place.

In this context, I really enjoyed the Anchor Session on inclusion with a specific focus on indigenous communities. To learn about the perspective of indigenous communities, their relations to western educational systems, their approaches to learning environments really extended my horizon and was an experience that I would not like to miss. I would like to explicitly thank the sparks that gave us very valuable input and with whom we had amazing discussions were from different organizations: Katelynne Herchak (Reconciliation Canada), Piers Kreps (Inuvialuit Regional Corporation), Danielle Lussier-Meek (University of Ottawa), Carolina Botero Cabrera & Julio Gaitan (Karisma Foundation).

Being admitted to participating in a research sprint at Harvard, was a big thing for me. When I received the email, that my application to be part of this program had been successful, I was both proud and insecure. How would I as a young researcher, coming from a non-academic household, do in this considered elite environment? I experience the same reverence also among other participants. This blogpost, however, should encourage people of all backgrounds to send applications to projects like this one. While “Harvard” sounds big, the people there also only just people. Eager to support each other and interested in encouraging debates.

Participating in this project, I also experienced the difficulties of co-producing a distributed, fully virtual research experience. In only 12 weeks, there was so much feedback to incorporate and so much input that without the huge efforts of the BKC-staff, it would not have been possible to merge all the different inputs and products of the student working groups. The process of merging the collected assignments into one final sprint report document, however, raised questions about inclusion, about how to weigh the different positions, and about prioritization, as obviously not everything can go into an output. This process that was conducted by BKC-staff is something that might have happened more transparently, as some thoughts and ideas from the discussions I had in the different working groups I missed in the final document.

The 50-page output, which truly is a product of all the participants, can be found on the website of the sprint. Video reflections from some students, including myself, are also uploaded on the BKC website.