As Harvard Law students across the world logged onto Zoom this fall to connect to their professors and peers, Sidharth Chauhan LL.M. ’21 took virtual education a step further. On top of his studies and his roles as a class marshal, board member of the HLS Antitrust Association, and member of South Asian Law Students Association, he also worked on a global program for exploring digital transformation during a pandemic. The program focused specifically on pressing issues around education in a digital context.
The topic hits close to home for Chauhan, who last year coordinated efforts to encourage masks and help young students access information and courses online in his hometown of Kotkhai in the Himalayas.
The three month program — a “research sprint” — hosted by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (in collaboration with the Network of Centers) convened 39 participants from 21 countries to collaborate and engage with experts on topics ranging from digital well-being, inequities in access and skills, and the future of education. Chauhan participated as a student in the program, as well as a research assistant summarizing discussions for the program’s final report, and preparing a literature database of resources for participants.
“We launched this research sprint out of a dire need to understand and rethink the state of digital education today,” said Urs Gasser LL.M. ’03, professor of practice at HLS, executive director of the Berkman Klein Center, and co-leader of the program. “COVID underscores major issues and challenges with digital learning, but also provides an opportunity for us to (virtually) come together to reimagine what a more inclusive and equitable future of digital education could look like, and how we might get there. Our research sprint participants from around the world helped us with early conceptions of the challenges — and potential pathways — in digital learning.”
We spoke with Chauhan about his time working with the Berkman Klein Center, how his legal perspective shaped his experience, and how the program informed his thinking going forward.
Harvard Law Today: What motivated you to join the research sprint at the Berkman Klein Center?
Sidharth Chauhan: During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in India in early 2020, I started the ‘Project Care-ona’ as a crowd-funded initiative for spreading COVID-19 related health and safety awareness in the much-neglected remote rural hill communities in India. A part of this initiative is to undertake skill-enhancement drives for schoolteachers in the State of Himachal Pradesh in an effort to propagate low-cost low-bandwidth virtual classrooms.
When I read about the research sprint, I saw this as an opportunity to learn from the global community about the ethical, societal, and policy challenges posed by COVID-19 and share my experiences of my initiative and challenges faced by people in the Himalayan region of my country.
In addition, being an antitrust and law and technology enthusiast, I have always found the work done by Berkman Klein Center very fascinating and wanted to experience it first-hand.
HLT: The program convened sessions with students and experts from all around the world. What was that experience like?
Chauhan: We were a global community of approximately 40 student participants and 33 experts from different countries spread over five continents in the program. I had a wonderful experience engaging with and learning from leading experts in the field of digital technology, education, policy, and ethics. Working with different student groups and being a part of an interdisciplinary research team improved my research and collaboration skills. And I was able to make meaningful connections, even though virtually.
The world is indeed a small place because when I heard about issues and challenges posed by the pandemic from students and experts, I was able to relate it to my country and realized how similar or related our issues were! And collectively, we can prepare ourselves better for the next crisis.
HLT: You worked in collaboration with students and Berkman Klein staff on a report entitled “Digital Ethics in Times of Crisis: COVID-19 and Access to Education and Learning Spaces,” which is aimed at conveying key themes from the program to policymakers and other decision makers. What do you hope readers of the report take away from it?
Chauhan: Our work product is the result of an iterative co-creation process among student participants, program staff, and experts and their diverse voices. The voices and needs of youth in learning environments are often missing. However, through this research sprint, we created a truly “global classroom.” We engaged in difficult ethical and other questions of digital transformation among one another and with practitioners, scholars, designers, policy-makers, and industry leaders.
Awareness is key. The map of the relevant issues and corresponding questions will spark many discussions and I hope the readers will engage in fruitful conversations and make people around them aware of the opportunities and challenges brought by the digital transformation.
HLT: What impact do you hope it will have?
Chauhan: Our work product will be a great reference point for policy-makers/stakeholders as we have outlined the relevant issues and corresponding questions that policy-makers around the globe need to address in order to harness the benefits of digital technologies while avoiding some of the possible downsides during the current crisis. Since a global cohort participated in the program, it brings together many diverse voices, which has made the work output very impactful.
HLT: What was the most interesting topic you explored during the program?
Chauhan: We covered a diverse number of topics such as privacy, surveillance, social and emotional wellbeing of learners, ethnic and racial disparities, etc. The most interesting topic I explored during the program was the need to invest in low-tech/no-tech initiatives for marginalized communities as this would minimize the impact on learning due to COVID-19. It was interesting to learn how the educational system has tried to adapt and implement creative ways to teach, like using radio broadcasting and public national TV to disseminate educational content.
I grew up in a small Himalayan town, which lacks a robust digital infrastructure. Hence, I was very keen on learning about low-tech/no-tech initiatives so that I could share my knowledge about the best practices employed around the world with my community.
HLT: How did your studies as an LL.M. student — and your interests in tech and the law — inform or shape your perception of the program?
Chauhan: At HLS, I am focusing on corporate law, antitrust, and law and technology. I was able to apply the interdisciplinary research skills learnt at the Law School. The highly collaborative approach of the program was a unique opportunity to participate in hands-on research activities on various pressing issues and with real-world impact. Due to my interests in tech and the law, I was able to add value to discussions on data privacy, surveillance, and data governance.
HLT: How did participating in the research sprint inform your time at HLS and your future trajectory?
Chauhan: Currently, I am taking Professor Urs Gasser’s class on Comparative Digital Privacy. I have been able to relate issues I learned during the research sprint with what I am learning in class. This has been really fascinating!
India is a fast-growing economy, yet the chasm between the haves and the have-nots is growing deeper and wider. The pace of economic and technological advancements is not in sync with social welfare issues. While technology is slowly seeping into the finer fabric of Indian society and is bringing multiple benefits of speed and interconnectivity, it is also exposing people to various digital threats, most of which are still not well understood. I want to learn from the best practices of the other countries to see how Indian laws need to be updated with the changing times. Learning from a global cohort in the research sprint was a step towards expanding my knowledge.
As an aspiring case officer with the Competition Commission of India, I wish to be at the forefront of ensuring that the laws of the land are sufficiently armed to battle the unseen and obscure threats of digitalization, while not stultifying the positive impacts that digitalization will undoubtedly have on society.