ALTC 2010: New bottles, old wine? A debate on the ethics of educational interventions in popular digital technologies

John Traxler, Frances Bell, Andy Black, Mark Childs, Steve Wheeler, Carl Royal

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The Cloudworks Team
31 August 2010

Extra content

Got the bottle? Click here for a quick synopsis of the debate on Steve Wheeler's blog.

Rebecca Galley
13:07 on 6 September 2010 (Edited 13:08 on 6 September 2010)

This is my live blog of the session - I'm not sure if it was recorded or not but if I find a link to an Elluminate recording, I'll add it in links below. In this symposium each of the 6 speakers will put forward a positioning statement about whether they feel that old ethical protocols are sufficient for new online, participatory and immersive practices in education. 

John Traxler kicks off the session with a plug for the new TLRP publication looking into the subject of ethics (not yet available for download but available from the TLRP stand).

John argues for a definition of ethics that embraces both formal and informal ethics (including behaviours, thoughts, vocabulary, language), with a focus on what might constitute harm. John points out that new technology, new social spaces and practices allow for communities/ sub cultures to come into existence and define themselves. What comes out of these cultures are shared understandings about what constitutes harm and what is an acceptable way to behave. He suggests that communities themselves are best placed to identif [removed][removed] y what harm might be for them, and that they must therefore become central to the process of the creation of new ethical protocols in education.

John argues that, as we are now seeing educational interventions in these new participatory, immersive spaces, it has become essential to look at this as an entirely different ball game: new bottles and new wine. He says: “we are beyond the realm where we make the rules – cyber space is a different country and that’s where the problem lies”.

Steve Wheeler takes to the stand and starts off where John left off. He agrees with John about how ethics can be seen as culturally contextual and that there is a need for new bottles for new wine.  He, like John argues that new affordances and new expectations mean that we need new rules and new governance to account for them.

Steve offers us a  list of questions or issues:

1. The nature of digital identity. If people switch identities how do we know what’s authentic or not?

2. Content ownership. Who owns the content? How do we stop people deleting or reworking our ideas?

3. Privacy. What is evesdropping and what is legitimate peripheral participation?

4. Ettiquette. What is insulting or offensive? It appears to be different from face to face etiquette.

5. Persistence of social media: How do we account for personal and professional development and growth when the web offers a non-chronological view into our lives.

Frances Bell’s poitionary statement will focus on the role of the educator in student ethical development. She suggests that this role should be facilitatory rather than didactic. We should not tell them how to be ethical but instead invite them to reflect on what is ethical. She reminds us that students will go on to lead professional lives, and even while at university or college they will be engaging in the practice of professional networking. She argues that we should be critically engaging with key issues and technologies ourselves, and encouraging the students to do so alongside us.

Frances refers to Boyd’s affordances of online architecture:


  • Persitence
  • Searchability
  • Replicability
  • Scalability


and finishes by summarising the key issues as:

The public/ private nexus (rather than binary opposition of public and private)

Agency and knowledge (Identity management, public discourse/activism etc)

Andy Black starts by telling us to ‘wake-up and smell the coffee’. He tells us that things have changed whether we like it or not - there is already a real mix between the private and personal and increasingly this will be the case.

Andy gives us a number of examples of new and developing uses for technology and argues that we must start thinking about a larger global model. He suggests we forget the wine and the bottles – more a case of looking for new glasses.

Carl Royal’s focus will be on ethics and computer gaming. He argues that the trick is being able to realise what is a game and what isn’t and through a number of examples demonstrates that this no longer as straight forward as it might sound - especially since the growth of social gaming.

Carl helps us by offering a set of criteria, which include: games have a code, they allow freedom, they are make believe, they offer uncertainty. He argues that games are often more ethical than real life because they tackle issues head on. He says that increasingly people aren’t reading but are playing games on their phones and adds that people who play on games are more likely to participate in voting and civic volunteer work (Pew).

 Mark Childs completes the positional statements with a view from his experience of virtual worlds. He starts by making it clear that he is not going to propose a position because he feels that he is in a state of confusion the whole time about ethics and virtual worlds! He lists a set of particularly problematic ethical issues:

Students are embodied in their avatar, which means that taking them into a virtual world is more like a field trip than a game with all the inherent responsibilities this might hold for an educator.
Students think it’s just a game so they don’t take it seriously so learning can be undermined.
It’s a social space therefore potential for ‘griefing’.
Attachments develop to virtual objects and avatar.
Virtual worlds may be intrinsically deceptive.
Students break social conventions, so how do we manage their behaviours?

Helpfully Mark listed a number of possible educator/ institutional responses to the issues for discussion:

  • A ‘walled’ garden
  • Making all learning using interactive virtual worlds (IVWs) optional
  • Beginning first session with an opportunity to voice objections and analyse these
  • Contest students belief that they have a right not to be offended
  • Ditch the use of IVW altogether.
Unusually the positioning statements for this debate have been pretty much aligned, with each speaker arguing for a new set of ethics in response to new technologies and practices. There are some differences in ideas about who should hold responsibility for ethical protocols, with some arguing for a shift from committee to personal or community responsibility, and Frances Bell very convincingly arguing the case for student involvement in the negotiation of personal and contextualised ethical frameworks.

Rebecca Galley
17:33 on 8 September 2010 (Edited 18:00 on 8 September 2010)

Audience discussion and questions:

Q1. Somewhere in ethics there have to be new rights – what might these be?

Steve Wheeler agrees that rights are necessary (calls them ethical protocols) – and we really need to rethink existing rights ie right to withdraw when a wiki is a key part of a course.

Frances Bell suggests decisions around rights can/ should be made/ negotiated with students.

Andy Black uses the ‘wild west’ analogy and argues that we need to apply old rights to new situations.

Mark Childs – argues that the key right is to 'no harm'. But questions whether we can be sure what 'harm' is. ie if a student sees a naked avatar, in reality they are just seeing a cartoon and how can they be harmed by this, but they might argue that they have been.

Q2. What about FE - where students can be younger and/or more vulnerable?

Mark Childs points to the risk of locking down environments too much. He argues that we have a responsibility to prepare students for wider experience. For example he wonders whether we have a responsibility to dispel students belief that they have a right to not be offended.

John Traxler talks about informed consent – what is that individual’s capacity to understand the nature of the transaction? The process of informed concent becomes very complex when it is hard to predict what the ‘transaction’ might be like, or what the implications of it might be.

Q3. The questioner notes that the Twitter wall was taken down and suggests that this might indicate that we are all capable of being mischievious. The question asked is ‘who defines these ethical protocols and how do we define them for ourselves?’.

Steve Wheeler pointed out that the ‘Tweckling’ and ‘harsh tagging’ of the keynote yesterday would have amplified the discontent which may have resulted in psychological harm. Taking the twitter fall down was a sound ethical decision.

Frances Bell suggests that we shouldn’t think of the ethics committee as ‘other’ - we should be responsible for ourselves.

Q4. Where is the debate about ethics happening? It doesn’t appear to be happening in public.

The committee wonder whether ‘the public’ knows enough about the technology to have sufficient awareness of the issues. They agree that it is Important too that the ethical  committees have on them people with sufficient technological knowledge.

Q5. What are the ethics of ‘pink’ software and ‘pink’ gaming. What are the ethics of gender and gendering through gaming?

Karl Royal says that he agrees that there are gender issues but that there were as many female players across the games as there are men. He thinks there should be more female game designers and that the gender issue will become less over time.

Mark Childs suggests that having the opportunity to play with gender (ie Club Penguin) provides opportunities for exploring the wider issues of gender in an open and appropriate space.

Each speaker is asked for a closing statement.

John Traxler finishes by saying that it is hard for university ethics committees to keep up. Are we using ethics committees to abdicate personal responsibility? Argues for more fluidity. If we resort to an institutional perspective there is a risk that we take a too paternalistic approach.

Steve Wheeler goes back to the point he made about the keynote. There is a risk that wisom of the crowds becomes the stupidity of the mobs.

Frances Bell finishes by saying that we have a responsibility to understand and explain technologies. We need to create opportunities that help us realise that students have a lot of experience in these technologies, and that our role is to help them connect the personal and professional so they can make a difference in their jobs and their personal lives.

Andy Black emphases the importance of sharing with students the idea of digital persistence. There is a wider issue about ethical committees. We are trying to get university committees to understand the issues, but they need people on them who have a vision of the future.

Carl Royal asks us to be critical in our approach, and we should be ok!

Mark Childs finishes with a question about how we might confront resistence to the new ethics? He says we need to navigate a course between being aware and sympathetic without being too timid

Rebecca Galley
17:54 on 8 September 2010 (Edited 17:56 on 8 September 2010)

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