New structures (MOOCs) demand new ethics?

Following the recent publication of our paper Frances Bell and I are grateful to the number of people who have taken the time to send us some feedback, on Twitter, in the Rhizo14 Facebook group and on Frances’ blog. 

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

Easy access for all to a recent paper is one of the benefits of publishing in the open and we have Open Praxis to thank not only for providing an open platform, but also for their quick turn around time (see previous blog post ), so that the paper was published before our thinking has moved on.

The most spontaneous and fun feedback session we have had so far was on Twitter, when Laura Gogia decided to tweet whilst she was reading the paper. I am still smiling at the memory and at the time I laughed out loud, as well as finding the discussion interesting and helpful.

But the point I would like to pick up here is in response to a comment made by Keith Hamon on Frances’ blog. Keith focussed on a reference we made in the article to Marshall’s work on ethics in MOOCs.

Marshall, S. (2014). Exploring the ethical implications of MOOCs. Distance Education, 35(2), 250–262.

I should say here that our paper was about learner experiences in the Rhzio14 MOOC. An emergent outcome of our research was that ethics is an area worthy of more attention in MOOCs, particularly MOOCs which take a very experimental approach to pedagogy. But ethics was only one emergent issue. In our next two papers we will pick up on others. A paper about the rhizome metaphor has been submitted and we are working on a paper about community formation in MOOCs.

But to return to Keith’s comment – ‘New structures demand new ethics’. On reading this, I immediately wondered whether this is true, so I had a bit of a hunt round to see what else has been written about this. I explained to Keith, on Frances’ blog that I cannot claim to be an expert about ethics – in the sense that I have limited experience of reading/writing about it. I have been reading Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary and on p.429, he points out that expertise is actually what makes an expert and comes from the Latin word ‘expertus’, meaning ‘one who is experienced’.

On my search I found that, as you might expect, one of the professions (apart from philosophy) that has thought a lot about ethics is medicine. I wouldn’t be surprised by an alignment of some sort between medical ethics and educational ethics, since both professions are concerned with the care of people.

In a 2004 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, KC Calman wrote about evolutionary ethics and questioned whether values can change. Here is the Abstract for the article:

The hypothesis that values change and evolve is examined by this paper. The discussion is based on a series of examples where, over a period of a few decades, new ethical issues have arisen and values have changed. From this analysis it is suggested that there are a series of core values around which most people would agree. These are unlikely to change over long time periods. There are then a series of secondary or derived values around which there is much more controversy and within which differences of view occur. Such changes need to be documented if we are to understand the process involved in the evolution of differences in ethical views

Calman, K.C. (2004). Teaching and Learning Ethics. Evolutionary ethics: can values change. J Med Ethics: 30:366–370. doi: 10.1136/jme.2002.003582. Retrieved from:

A similar perspective, i.e. that whilst values might change leading to new ethical issues, some core principles remain unchanged, has been reported more recently on The New Ethics of Journalism blog.

In this article the core principles are thought to be truth, independence and minimizing harm, which are similar to Calman’s list in his article on p. 369: where he wrote that core values which have not altered in medicine are:

  • doing no harm (non-maleficence);
  • a wish to do good (beneficence);
  • the desire to be fair (justice),
  • and a respect for the individual (autonomy).

The ‘‘Golden Rule’’, ‘‘Do unto others as they would do to you’’, ‘‘Love thy neighbour’’ or even the ‘‘My mother principle’’ (if it was your mother what would you do?) express in a different ways some of these sentiments.

ethics sign

Source of image

I did not come across these articles before we wrote our paper, but the core values listed in both journalism and medicine articles are very similar to the list sent us by one of our interview respondents, who we quoted on p.9 of our paper:

  • Do no harm
  • The expectation is that interactions will be mutually respectful
  • Provide and allow space for reflection
  • Ad hominem attacks should not be permitted as a method of discussion
  • There should be a duty of care or necessarily emotional labour on the part of those calling together/convening/organizing/providing these amorphous spaces
  • All cMOOC participants have a duty of care and nurture and responsibility toward others or for themselves, mitigating the need or desire to externalize (blame) their learning and experience on others.

So do new structures demand new ethics? Certainly we need to be vigilant in keeping our understanding of educational change and educational values up to date and with that, as in the journalism article, consider whether there are new ethical issues. But my brief hunt around the literature, and my own gut feeling, suggests that there are core principles such as ‘Do no harm’ which will never change and can always be an expectation.

As Iain McGilchrist writes on p.443 of his book The Master and his Emissary:

We can’t remake our values at will. …. Societies may dispute what is to be considered good, but they cannot do away with the concept. What is more the concept is remarkably stable over time. Exactly what is to be considered good may shift around the edges, but the core remains unchanged.

Update 23-02-15: Pat Thomson has just written a post about ethics in research in which there is a line which exactly says what I have been struggling to say

Ethics seems to me to be to be about a sensibility, a way of being in the world as a researcher.

For me this would apply not just to researchers. These are the words I was trying to find when talking about core principles.

16 thoughts on “New structures (MOOCs) demand new ethics?

  1. scottx5 February 22, 2015 / 3:55 am

    Jenny, can’t say I’m happy about your paper. That said I did read the Marshall and found it to be a chain of inferences that could be applied to any activity where there were mixed experiences. I also searched and found zero mentions of words “listen” and “hear” but 31 times when the word “institution” was used.

    I’ve dealt with a lot of medical professionals who consider themselves “experts” and the assumption of knowing better (or maybe it’s just trying to be efficient) makes them deaf to the patient. They wear their ethical standards all over themselves and are so sure they are practicing them they feel no need to explain why they often don’t. It’s a kind of institutional / professional innocence hiding behind a declaration of ethics unpracticed—caring painted on. By the convenience of being un-self-reflective they not only get to bypass the realization that they ARE doing harm—how would they know?—they also can reduce people to recognizable types; as in voiceless textbook models.

    And then we could discuss power arrangements but we’ve already killed the encounter by silencing the lesser party so why bother?

    In practice online it can be very difficult to discover who is being hurt or ignored and I’m not sure massive courses can ever know. There is a program under development at Stanford medical school directed at flagging signs of frustration from patient dialogs online but I don’t if it’s made any progress: Dr. Kyra Bobinet from the Stanford Persuasive Technology lab To me, this kind of silicone valley substitution of persuasion for autonomy is not the right path. Even if it is hyped as “empowering” it seems unethical.

    Where I used to work we’d monitor the discussion groups for silences or missing students and try to make contact. We’d sift for extroverts blocking introverts and signs of frustration when we had time to get familiar with the group. But honestly, with instructor work loads this had to be done on the side while piloting a new course and was generally limited to spotting missing students. Before the net this would happen automatically in a f2f classroom and the only history I can imagine on monitoring would be in the field of “correspondence schools” with sparsely distributed students using telephones.

    Have to say I agree with Keith on new structures demanding new ethics though I’m thinking he meant applications of traditional standards to new situations. In Rhizo14 we had an emergent learning situation driven by the energy of connections. It was unpredictable like those articulated snakes kids have, changing direction in a snap. Very difficult to say who was leading except in a momentary sense. Followers could suddenly lead the group down a new path and then melt away. This is not to say there is no one responsible, only that the ethics might better be placed in the dynamics of group interaction, which I felt in Rhizo14 met all ethical considerations.

    I guess the question for me is how do we experiment without leaving some behind? And how is that the “fault” of the participants? My experience is that left to its own devices “school” has become stuck and it seems unethical in the extreme to say we are helpless to change. The excuse we might leave some behind is entirely undone that by all those already left by the wayside in the current system.

    The Center for Creative Leadership publishes a pamphlet on Active Listening with this skill set on page 13:
    Active Listeners: pay attention; hold judgement; reflect; clarify; summarize and share.


  2. CogDog February 23, 2015 / 12:22 am

    FWIW Audrey Watters wrote recently on “A Hippocratic Oath for Ed-Tech”

    In a quick (like glance) survey, it seems that variations of the oath are common around the world, with modifications over time; in some places a written signed version. Perhaps it by the coordination of Medical Schools that control the degrees, but its hard to imagine something similar in education when the order of magnitude of institutions that grant degrees is much larger.

    Still, it is mostly, from what I can guess, a cooperatively done practice, almost a tradition, though no one goes around enforcing it.

  3. jennymackness February 23, 2015 / 9:32 am

    Hi Scott – thanks for taking the time to write this long comment. I’m sorry to hear that your experience with the medical profession has been such that you have no faith in their ethical code, but does this mean that we should do away with some basic core principles, such as the principle of ‘do no harm’?
    I agree that it is very difficult to know who is being ignored or hurt in an online environment and sometimes even in a face-to-face environment, and I agree that we will probably never know for how many this is the case in massive open online courses, but in our research the evidence was that this did happen for some.

    So do we just shrug our shoulders and say ‘Tough, that’s the name of the game, sink or swim, but don’t bother the rest of us, because we’re enjoying it’, or do we try and find out what the causes might be, or think about whether and how these situations might be prevented, or whether there are some basic ethical principles which we need to make explicit and adhere to – and if so, then what are these core principles?

    These are some of the questions that emerged from our research, along with other questions, which we have reported in the paper. As we wrote in the paper, we are still exploring these issues and hope to write and publish further papers. We don’t have the answers, but we have shared some evidence around which we can have this discussion.

  4. jennymackness February 23, 2015 / 9:33 am

    Alan – thanks for the link to Audrey’s post which I had missed. It is interesting that Audrey finishes her post by coming back to the core ethical principle of ‘Do no harm’. Of course, this could be interpreted in different ways, but it seems like a good starting point for a discussion about what that might mean in terms of education.

  5. scottx5 February 23, 2015 / 5:05 pm

    Jenny, I think ethics are vital but if we ignore power relationships in enforcement and application then we are essentially practicing public relations or enabling silencing. Having ethical codes ARE are frequently used as shields against critical comment or to police behaviors out of sync with actual practice.

    Example: One of my doctors says I’m impolite which becomes “rude” and coded in organizational-talk to “abusive” which results in my being told they are considering withdrawing chemotherapy unless I “change my ways” (being violently ill and stressed out). Since there are no other cancer programs available I counter this as a form of doing harm, to which I’m told by the hospital paid mediator that I’m perfectly free to withdraw from the system.

    Twisting ethics to the advantage of organizations is a very common practice. It allows the appearance of ethics and unassailable righteousness while remaining free silence protest. If ethics are malleable, interpretive by some and applied inconsistently (because everyone knows they really don’t matter anyway) then they are useless.

    I could go about the corruption of good intentions but it’s an old story.

    My question is how do we accommodate change in education, or any other institution and not cause some harm? Can we experiment with new ways of doing things that may inadvertently exclude some? In a recent course the participants were asked to venture into unknown territory and accept the vulnerability of uncertainty and the loss of experiential coping mechanisms and some refused this. Is there harm here in taking people beyond their comfort level? Or is there harm to the risk-takers by those holding back and then claiming to be left out? How safe can things be and still move forward?

  6. jennymackness February 24, 2015 / 9:03 am

    Hi Scott – thanks again for your comment. The questions you ask are, of course, the ones we raised in our paper – although not expressed in the same words.

    Your expression of them has reminded me that throughout most of my working life as a teacher in a variety of sectors I was required to fill in risk assessment forms before teaching a course of work. And similarly for research, if we are associated with an institution, we are required to complete ethics forms. Both these procedures seem to me to acknowledge that we are probably going into ‘uncharted territory’ (experimenting if you like), and therefore we have to consider, before doing this, what the risks to learners/interviewees might be. This has been commonly accepted practice for years, but doesn’t until recently seem to have been thought about much in relation to MOOCs.

    It is also my experience that the greater the potential risk, the more comprehensive the risk assessment. This acknowledged the potential for harm and tried to put in steps to avert it. You could say that this was just covering our backs, or you could say that it was simply good practice which demonstrated an ethical approach as ‘a sensibility, a way of being in the world’ – as Pat Thomson writes (see link above in my post).

    These are not easy questions to answer, so thanks for raising them and pushing me to think about them further.

  7. scottx5 February 25, 2015 / 5:58 am

    Jenny, I like the idea of stepping into ‘uncharted territory’ especially as it applies to MOOCs which are presumably entirely voluntary. Nothing we do is free of risk and I think there needs to be an awareness on the part of the participants in new domains of learning–Freud called it “building out into the dark” where things have yet to be decided and standards may not be in place.

    This is not to say we abandon standards, only that some kind of consent is necessary. And I’m not sure how to approach the question of risk other than it would be wrong to assume it for others. Here I’m trapped between my own rights of self-determination and how I define MYSELF in the world and my obligation to leave others to define their own identities.

    When working with teachers who didn’t want to move into online presentation the reason given for pushing them past their comfort was the inevitability of change coming. To an extent the unavoidable became its own justification even though it felt like a dodge around ethics. Especially because there really wasn’t any evidence at the time that online, though needed for distance students actually enhanced learning in any way.

    Back to MOOCs. Do we really have a right to interfere people’s right to try new things? Is it ethical that schools adhere to past practice by inertia and underfunding? Do ethics apply here only because education is considered a service in the public domain? If some people feel excluded, don’t they themselves have some obligation to present their concerns openly? Do we adjust every human activity to account for the possibility it may offend someone?

    A sidebar in a book I’m reading called “Recreating the World” by Michael and Judie Bopp, Four Worlds Press

    “A community is of course more that the sum of its membership; it is a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.” – The Universal House of Justice

  8. francesbell February 25, 2015 / 3:45 pm

    I too was interested to read Audrey’s post about the EdTech Hippocratic oath. My goto place for Internet ethics is and they have published 2 sets of guidelines 2002, 2012.
    AoIR acknowledge the emergent nature of Internet Research ethics practice
    “We emphasize that no set of guidelines or rules is static; the fields of internet research are dynamic and heterogeneous. This dynamism is reflected in the fact that as of the time of this writing, no official guidance or “answers” regarding internet research ethics have been adopted at any national or
    international level.”
    But they also acknowledge the broad agreement on the tenets that can guide ethical Internet Research practice
    “Principles of research ethics and ethical treatment of persons are codified in a number of policies and accepted documents, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, and the Belmont Report. At their core, the basic tenets shared by these policies include the fundamental rights of human dignity, autonomy, protection, safety,
    maximization of benefits and minimization of harms, or, in the most recent accepted phrasing, respect for persons, justice, and beneficence. ”

    The emergence of practice is accelerated by the speed at which technology and services change around the people using these services. This applies to research, educational and other practices mediated by the Internet. So for example, Matt McKeon provides a useful infographic to demonstrate the changes in Facebook’s default privacy settings 2005-2010
    Our application of the basic tenets to a teaching and learning situation could change. So it’s messy and dynamic and as AoIR say in their report, there are a lot of grey areas. But that doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t try. But if we have some guidance from principles such as these, then when accidental harm occurs, we may be more likely to notice it, try to alleviate it, and at the very least, learn for the future. I hope our research can contribute to this. In this first paper, we have to lay out our research ethics, and we also explore the ethical implications of experimental approaches, whilst acknowledging that the approach had some very beneficial outcomes. For me, a key contribution of the paper is that as well as the visible beneficial outcomes of rhizo14, there were some less than beneficial outcomes that were only rendered generally visible by our research.
    A combination of seeing what was hidden and consideration of what ethical principles could guide designer, leader, facilitator, learner practice on a CMOOC seems to me be a good research and conversation process to have. Thank you for taking part in this.

  9. scottx5 February 25, 2015 / 5:18 pm

    Thanks for this Frances, I’ll read the links you posted. This is a difficult area for me as I live with people who use ethics as meaningless slogans that degrade discourse and often simply leave me feeling frustrated and powerless. Not You, though you do push buttons… But that’s personal.

    At the college where I worked melts down, student services are being cut on the presumption that online students are robust and self-actuating. This of course is a false belief supported by assumptions like missing students being incompetent in technology or without the discipline to manage self-study. In other words blaming the students who in fact may have very human reasons of feeling lost or excluded that can’t be fixed by “improving” technology or more “Intro to the LMS” videos all over the college web site.

    The major problem I found in online offerings was the assumption that “support” meant good design that fits all students’ needs and technical back-up. Somehow the whole middle part where humans used to be busy responding and adapting courses to student needs has become a casualty of belief in the 21st century student tech-super-person crossed with business MBA minded administrators.

    Thanks for the links Frances–will read them. I wonder what the learning potential of an ideal world where we all agreed would amount to?:) And at some point I should get around to listing what I found in your paper with Jenny that startled me into this conversation.

  10. vbozalek March 21, 2015 / 1:11 pm

    I think ethical values like attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness and trust are all important in MOOCs

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