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: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1733900/pdf/v030p00366.pdf
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.
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.