06 SES 06 JS, Challenges and Risks in Open Access, Open Educational Resources and Open Learning
Joint Paper Session NW 02, NW 06, NW 12, NW 30
How open, open courses are in reality has been brought into question (e.g. Hilton III et al, 2010). This links with ethical ambiguity in such spaces (e.g. AOIR, 2012; BERA, 2018), which challenge researchers to review their obligations to open course learners. It is possible, having gained appropriate ethical clearance from accrediting Universities and course providers, for educators to carry out research on the data provided whilst studying on an open course. Course participants will usually have to be alerted to this as part of ethical protocol arrangements, especially following the review of General Data Protection Regulation in European contexts since May 2018. From the authors’ experiences, this still raises significant ethical questions. Are such arrangements sufficient for all participants to be fully informed and aware of the implications of research in online contexts? Should online course participants be expected to act both as course participant and research subject when they have principally signed up to learn? This is especially pertinent if it is accepted that to develop effectiveness as a learner it is ‘necessary to learn in regions that are uncomfortable’ (Kolb and Kolb, 2005, 209). If participants are aware of the research activity, will it affect their engagement with the course, especially their interaction with others? Does this therefore limit their learning experience and form an unintended negative consequence of the study? Multipurposing 'open contexts' therefore adds to the already multifaceted experiences of open learning.
This paper is based on research undertaken on a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) hosted by FutureLearn and built with educators at the University of Leicester designed to support researchers or potential research participants in reflecting on the value of ethical thinking for research through discovering an ethical appraisal framework applicable for social science, arts, education and humanities’ research (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/ethical-research). This six-week course starts with a set of challenging case studies to explore what participants consider unethical research and, throughout, asks participants to reflect on their own experiences and opinions. There are a set of sensitive topics illustrated in the middle of the course, which participants are alerted to with trigger warnings (Carter, 2015). Even without considering placing a research expectation of participants, it was predicted that participants might find it difficult to engage in the online forum aspect of the course, due to sensitivities in the topics covered, related to participants’ own experiences and anxieties about being unethical in voicing their opinions. The educators themselves also experienced the need to monitor their feedback on the forum, not wanting to offer any advice which might affect participants negatively.
However, the course educators wanted to maximise the benefits of having ethical debates across a diverse group of interested voices. Course participants represented diverse national contexts, professional and research settings, roles and research experience, with 40-55% of the 500-2500 course participants recruited across the first four course runs located in European contexts and around 80% of participants spread across the ages 18-55. This paper explores, with reference to participant data from two course runs, learner analytic data from four runs and research reflections of the course educators, whether a virtuous ethical path was navigated (Carpenter, 2013; Macfarlane, 2009) by the course educator researchers.
Macfarlane(2009) presents a framework of vices to be avoided and virtues to be embodied at six phases of the research process: framing, negotiating, generating, creating, disseminating and reflecting. This framework is applied to research of this MOOC in an operationalisation of Gewirtz and Cribb's (2006) call for ethical reflexivity.
Our research approach is best characterised as post-method and pragmatic (Creswell, 2009) in which issues of research impact are given priority. A narrative methodology is adopted in which we offer our reflections on the experience of trying to undertake the research as planned. Making use of Macfarlane’s (2009) virtues and vices framework, which follows the Aristotelian Doctrine of the Mean to guide ethical researcher behaviour, we identify key issues that emerged during the two courses. These issues are further illuminated by qualitative analysis of participant posts relevant to weeks one and six of the courses, weeks which feature explicit content on and learner reaction to our research intentions and the particular terms and conditions operative on the platform. Analytic data from the four course runs, one in which the research was piloted, two involving the research and one post-research, were also drawn on to offer evidence of how conducting the research might have impacted on (non)-participation. Necessary ethical approvals were gained from FutureLearn and the host University. In line with FutureLearn’s research policy at the time of the research (this has since been changed, Future Learn, 2018), FutureLearn advocated that any research should respect the intellectual property rights of course participants when using their course posts. However, the educators on this sensitive course decided to offer anonymity, as is now included in the policy (FutureLearn, 2018), to encourage participation in discussions in ways which would allow this to feel a safe learning space, given individual identities would be protected. An information letter and opt-out consent form were posted on the course, linked to in an early email and included on a course step in week one. The research intentions were not then discussed until the last week of the course when participants completed a quiz about the terms and conditions to which they had signed and questions asked about how they felt about the invitation to opt-out of research, having completed much of the course. This asked them to consider the impact of research ethics from their dual perspective as both course participant and research subject.
It is already known that different participant perspectives, even in the same online ‘open’ space, might consider their data either public or private (Bassett & O’Riordan, 2002). Both positions were evidenced by course participants in this study. Ethical appraisal by the researchers identified a range of possible anxieties by course participants. Their concern to be respectful, avoiding the vice of manipulativeness (Macfarlane, 2009), led to the first run of the course being treated as a non-data collecting pilot, inviting participant feedback. Despite the attempts at transparency, a number of participants voiced concern that they had been potentially become research participants and indicated that greater advertising of the research plans was needed. The challenges of taking a virtuous path when taking on dual roles of course educator and course researcher are presented together with conclusions that the research was considered eventually to be unjustifiable under current course conditions. This is argued, rather than showing cowardice, to be avoiding the vice of recklessness (Macfarlane, 2009). The research was considered especially problematic, if the principles of open-ness such as transparency and inclusion (Cormier and Siemens, 2010) were to be upheld, such that this course could better promote diversity, reveal inequality and empower users for more democratic relations through engaging in their own ethical research. The paper presents reflections on the options open to online educator researchers through exemplifying an example of ethical decision-making. This highlighted how different aspects of data protection can limit researcher options. For example, whilst participatory research might offer a solution to approaching diverse cultural spaces, other aspects of policies can preclude making contact with and engaging more meaningfully with course participants. Reflections therefore included the terms and conditions associated with online courses, including their privacy policies, as well as recommendations for researchers, online educators and ethical review boards.
Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) (2012) Ethical decision-making and internet research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee 2.0 Available: https://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf Bassett, E. H., & O’Riordan, K. (2002). Ethics of internet research: Contesting the human subjects research model. Ethics and Information Technology, 4 (3), 233-249. Available: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/nissenbaum/ethics_bas_full.html British Educational Research Association (BERA) (2018) (4th Edition) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research, London: BERA. Available: https://www.bera.ac.uk/researchers-resources/publications/ethical-guidelines-for-educational-research-2018 Carter, A.M. (2015) Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy, Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2), 9-9. Carpenter, D. (2013) Generic Ethics Principles in Social Science Research Discussion ‘Stimulus’ Paper for Symposium 1 (Principles), Generic Ethics Principles in Social Science Research, Association of Social Science Briefing Issue 3. London: Academy of Social Sciences. Available: https://campaignforsocialscience.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Professional-Briefing-ethics-principles.pdf Cormier, D. and Siemens, G. (2010). The Open Course Through the Open Door: Open Courses as Research, Learning, and Engagement, EducausEreview, 31-39. Creswell, J. W. (2009) Research Design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Gewirtz, S. and Cribb, A. (2006). What to Do about Values in Social Research: The Case for Ethical Reflexivity in the Sociology of Education? British Journal of Sociology of Education 27(2): 141-155. Hilton III, J., Wiley, D., Stein, J. and Johnson, A. (2010). The four ‘R’s of openness and ALMS analysis: frameworks for open educational resources. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 25(1), 37-44. FutureLearn (2018) Research Ethics for FutureLearn, when accessed this page was dated ‘last updated on the 21st of June, 2018.’ Available: https://about.futurelearn.com/terms/research-ethics-for-futurelearn Kolb, A.Y. and Kolb, D.A. (2005) Learning Styles and Learning Spaces: Enhancing Experiential Learning in Higher Education, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4 (2): 193-212. Macfarlane, B (2009). Researching with Integrity: The Ethics of Academic Enquiry. New York NY: Routledge.
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