Researching in the open: how a networked learning instance can challenge ethical decision-making – Abstract for ECEL 2011

Some months ago I decided to draw an article from an assessed essay on research ethics that I had submitted as partial fulfillment of the requirements of the module Research and Theoretical Field, within the online MRes in Educational and Social Research. Every essays in this master are asessed by two different examiners and this habituates you to have a plural perspective on the arguments you attempt to shape in your learning journey. So, it was per se an interesting exercise, but I aimed to prove to myself whereas the essay – with the appropriate changes and improvements – was also able to ‘pass’ the peer review process in a ‘real life’ research context. So, I submitted it to ECEL 2011, in which a research ethics session was planned. The ‘dialogue’ with the reviewer let me spot aspects of my argumentation which I hadn’t previously thought of. Finally, my paper was accepted: here tile and abstract

Researching in the open: how a networked learning instance can challenge ethical decision-making

Abstract: This paper focuses on ethics issues implied in a prospective virtual ethnography study aiming to gain insights on participants’ experience in an emergent context of networked learning, namely a MOOC – Massive Online Open Course. A MOOC is a popular type of online open course, that provides free content and expertise to anyone in the world who wishes to enroll. This kind of informal lifelong learning initiative is enabled by a network-based pedagogy and is enacted in a distributed technology-mediated learning environment.
The purpose of this article is to explore competing views on ethical decision-making when researching in such a globalized, online and open learning setting. Considering the challenges of this new elearning inquiry context, issues as the underlying research ethics models, the roles of researcher and participants and the integrity of the research process are discussed in their interplay with the evolving ethos of the ethnographical methodology being adopted to investigate participants’ views.
Elements drawn from the design of a qualitative study are here utilized to identify an empirical instance that shapes and is being shaped by research ethics decisions. The study aims to answer the following question: what are the affordances (opportunities and challenges) of online open courses as they emerge from the participants’ perspectives?
This paper considers the potential operationalization of the above research question and discusses both theoretical and methodological issues arising from applying research ethics to this specific case of Internet inquiry. In this sense, ethical approaches in online research contexts as well as main ethical decisions are discussed and justified, envisioning a submission to an institutional ethics review board before undertaking the ethnographical study. Topics such as privacy concerns in a public online setting, choice between overt and covert research, researcher as observer or participant, narrow or loosely defined application of the informed consent and anonymity are outlined, presenting a range of different options. This article intends to show that ethical decisions are an iterative procedure and an integral part of the research design process. Moreover, it endorses the opportunity to produce localized and contextualized ethical decision-making. To this end, it takes into account the guidance available (research ethics literature; narratives of ethics procedures applied to empirical cases); the ethics debates within the ethnographical tradition and the nature of the setting being researched (the specific format of the networked learning instance being examined).
The discussion here proposed orientates ethical decision-making towards an overt and participant research approach, an informed consent intended as a ‘public notice’ and a consideration of participants both as authors in the online setting and as human subjects embedding unexpected privacy sensitiveness. However, such decisions are intended as many starting points to build a research ethics protocol intended to a degree as a work in progress, in a problem-solving approach guided by the practical wisdom of participants emerging over time.

Key words: Internet research ethics, massive online open courses, virtual ethnography, situated ethics

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