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research ethics for e-learning with popular technologies

the ethics of researching or evaluating the educational uses of popular digital technologies

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John Traxler
11 September 2009

I'm interested in finding out whether members of the group are using popular digital technologies such as Second Life, SMS, Mxit, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter (in fact any digital technologies, hardware or software, that have a widespread appeal) in teaching and learning. I don't mean those technologies that are just purely educational or institutional such as e-portfolios, PRS or VLEs.

I'm interested because if people are using them for teaching and learning then there must also be people researching or evaluating this education activity.

It strikes me that such research or evaluation is interesting from an ethical point of view.

These digital technologies and digital networks are creating more and more places and modes that people can inhabit, where communities can form, where ideas, images and information can be produced, stored, shared, transmitted and consumed: these include social networking technologies such as Facebook, gaming technologies such as World of Warcraft; multi-user virtual environments such as Second Life, augmented reality tools such as Second Sight, context-aware systems using CreatorScape and mobile communities using Twitter.

I think these technologies, each in their different ways, transform rather than merely reproduce the nature of learning and I suspect educationalists in many subjects and sectors already have several years' experience of using them. Educational research already explores some of their initiatives and opportunities and accounts are entering the literature.

As I say, I think however there are ethical dimensions to researching these various pedagogies and technologies and these are perhaps lagging behind other aspects of this exciting but emergent and fragmented research area.

In my view, ethics embraces everything from laws and regulations at one extreme to standards to expectations about language, taste, fashion, etiquette and behaviour at the other extreme.

Ethics in the first sense is significant and problematic in this field because of the potential gulf or lag between formal institutional and legal expectations and procedures on the one hand and evolving research practice on the other.

Ethics in the second sense, a more interesting sense I reckon, is important to researchers in this field because of the need to align their methods to the ethical expectations of the communities with whom they work; these expectations are however volatile, tacit, transient, chaotic and local to each community. And of course, the learner's experiences and expectations, their ethical expectations, of these educational experiences is obviously informed by the experiences and expectations they bring within from the 'outside' world where they already use Facebook, Twitter and Second Life.

I'm interested in hearing whether the ethics, in the sense I've used the word, of researching the educational use of these kinds of environments interests other people in the group.

John Traxler

Contact details: john traxler,, johntraxler

Extra content

More generally:
danah boyd has a detailed bibliography of research relating to social networking

and of research relating to microblogging and Twitter

Rebecca Ferguson
10:22 on 13 September 2009

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Gráinne Conole
2:54pm 11 September 2009

Really interesting focus John - have sent out a tweet for requests for help! If you have any links that might help fuel the debate please add!

John Traxler
3:41pm 11 September 2009

thanks, I've had a mass of responses from elsewhere but am keen to keep the focus on the 'informal' end of ethics, on the 'popular' not the 'institutional' technologies and to try to get a really comprehensive coverage of the technologies and the ideas (earlier ones came back with the vocabulary of postmodernism) so I'm hoping for a scary mix ..... then think about how we can do something with all this energy

Giota Alevizou
4:27pm 11 September 2009 (Edited 4:30pm 11 September 2009)

I recently came across this and share similar dilemnas in one my research case studies... I proposed Cloudworks to an open education resource(s) community.. to capture partly that's tricky indeed and I am afraid that 'instituional technologies' (in the Foucauldean sense) come up again... The question of ethics esepcially in virtual educational research or ed research in any kind of educational context  remains at the core of any online community's net-etiquette and governance, whether it inovles young people or adults...I posted a couple of links above to some seminal works in the field

Rebecca Ferguson
9:51pm 19 November 2009

Elsewhere, John raised these questions relating to the ethics of e-learning with mobile technologies:

  • How would you classify the examples you know about?
  • Are they specific to one technology/system or are they generic to all/most popular digital network technologies/system?
  • Do they seem ephemeral and local to a particular virtual/online community/culture or somehow universal?
  • Do they raise legal, procedural, institutional or regulatory concerns or concerns of appropriateness, approval, pressure and other less formal, explicit and stable ethical expectations?

Robert Farrow
10:07am 22 April 2010

You might be interested in my 'Ethics of Mobile Learning' cloud.  I've added a link to the side bar.

I have to say, I don't really agree with John's characterisation of ethics as a sliding scale between institutional authority on the one hand and presonal preferences and tastes on the other (though these can be ethically significant).  Sure, institutional norms are regulative and affect what mobile learning researchers can do.  Personal preferences don't strike me as having any particular normative power over us in an of themselves:  we tend to respect some preferences more than others but that is typically a matter of the extent ot which we can endorse the underlying rule rather than the empirical fact of the preference.  There are some preferences we shouldn't take account of because they themselves are immoral.  Specifically - we don't need to value all kinds of "taste, fashion, etiquette and behaviour".  But evaluating them requires the application of a principle from outside of Traxler's 'spectrum'.  If my ethical expectations are entirely unreasonable, why take account of them?

Similarly, while legal and institutional norms are important, they need not have normative authority over us:  there are such things as unjust laws or institutions.  My point isn't that the laws we have are unjust, but that it wouldn't be possible to describe an institution or law as unjust unless ethical principles are taken to be something distinct and seperate.

I think there's a real danger of making too much of the rhetoric of postmodernism when addressing Web 2.0 and similar forms of 'user-generated' ICT.



John Traxler
11:01am 1 August 2010

Thanks Rob, sorry I'm only just catching up. I think I'd broadly agree with your points. Certainly the way you read and I wrote the 'sliding scale' remark is probably rhetoric getting the better of me. I was trying to illustrate the diversity of characteristics rather than populate a one-dimensional or two-dimensional space. Equally I sometimes succumb to the intoxication of post-modernist rhetoric but rather than sober up and dismiss it entirely I think it's useful to ask what is the attraction for people in the community and why might they see a resonance between that rhetoric and that of user-generated contexts (of which presumably ethics is one).

I think what might be underlying your remarks is that most people in our community don't have either a formal ethics background or a formal philosophical background but are very aware of the capacity of our work to do harm or to do good (I work in development too and frequently think about Richard Heeks' pro-poor/para-poor taxonomy in his ICTD2.0 paper in Computing) 

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