Letting go of control to create something out of nothing

Anna Lovatt opened the symposium on The Materiality of Nothing at Lancaster University by discussing the work of Richard Tuttle. In the programme for the day she wrote:

This paper will trace Tuttle’s career from his early engagement with the artists of the Betty Parsons Gallery (including Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly), to his scandalous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975. I will argue that Tuttle’s pursuit of the zero degree can be understood as part of a career-long interrogation of the practice of drawing.

In a reading of her chapter in a forthcoming book Anna Lovatt interprets the materiality of nothing with reference to Richard Tuttle’s critical investigation of drawing, drawing degree zero. All the ideas in this chapter are new to me, and the chapter has not yet been published, so it has not been easy to follow this through. What follows is a personal limited understanding with a focus on the ideas which resonated with my own thinking and work.

Drawing degree zero relates to Roland Barthes ‘Writing Degree Zero’, in which Barthes was interested in creating colourless writing in the indicative mood middle zone (degree zero) distinguished from and between language and style. In a similar way Tuttle conceived line (the drawn line) as being in an in between zone of absence and emptiness that has little to do with signature or autobiography.

In the ‘60s when Tuttle was exploring these ideas drawing was being dismissed by artists such as Pollock and Rothko and an exhibition of his minimalist work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975 drew heavy criticism from the art critic Hilton Kramer, who wrote that if less is often considered to be more then ‘in Mr Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less… One is tempted to say, where art is concerned, less has never been as less than this’. Anna Lovatt pointed out, with some irony, that in the case of Tuttle’s exceedingly minimal work, less had clearly become excessive!

Like Barthes, Tuttle explored how to stay in the neutral middle zone between the visible and invisible. He did this through working with white paper octagonals which he pasted to a wall of the same colour. Depending on your view you might or might not see these octagonals.

8th Paper octagonal

Eighth Paper Octagonal 1970

In this interview Tuttle talks about this work as follows:

I was doing white paper octagons on a wall at a museum in Dallas. And the critic came along and made mock introductions, “Oh, this is Richard Tuttle. He’s interested in impermanence in the arts.” And she said that to Betty Parsons, and Betty just immediately snapped back, “What’s more permanent than the invisible?” It fits in with the whole line—that in any art form, there has to be an accounting of its opposite condition. If you’re going to be a visual artist, then there has to be something in the work that accounts for the possibility of the invisible, the opposite of the visual experience. That’s why it’s not like a table or a car or something. I think that that might even be hard for people because most of our visual experiences are of tables: it has no business being anything else but a table. But a painting or a sculpture really exists somewhere between itself, what it is, and what it is not—you know, the very thing. And how the artist engineers or manages that is the question.

In 1971 Tuttle began work on wire octagonals. Anna Lovatt showed us his 10th Wire Octagonal, explaining that this work traces the outline of an absent object through three lines, the wire, the line and the shadow and introduced the notion of ‘shimmer’, which I understood to be the idea that the line is constantly shifting and moving because it is predicated on the position of the viewer.

10th wire piece

Source of image: Nicci Haynes at Flickr

Richard Dorment describes how Tuttle creates the wire octagonals as follows:

Each is made in the same way from the same materials – graphite (pencil), nails, and florist’s wire. First Tuttle draws a looping line in pencil directly onto the wall. Next he places a length of thin flexible wire over the contour of the drawing, pinning it down so that it lies flat on the wall. While keeping each end of the wire attached by a nail, he then releases the wire so that it springs up and off the wall to create a new “line” above the original drawing. The released wire now casts a shadow, creating another line on the wall, which looks so much like the one in pencil that it is hard to determine which is which.

By allowing the wire to take it’s own shape Tuttle relinquishes control and out of this steps the shadow over which he has no control. So this art is about a space between no personal expression and expression. My tentative understanding is that it is in this middle, empty, intangible space, a space of absence, between something and nothing that creativity, new ideas, alternative perspectives can emerge. Maybe teachers and learners need to do more to pursue and negotiate this space.

Third Research Paper on Rhizomatic Learning

Slide 3

Source of image: Making sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

Today our third paper about learning in the Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum MOOC (commonly known as Rhizo14) has been published. Here are links to the three papers.

Third paper: Bell, F., Mackness, J. & Funes, M. (2016). Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: Can the community be the curriculum? Research in Learning Technology.

Second paper: Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

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

At the end of our first paper, in which we explored alternative perspectives of learners’ experiences in this MOOC, we wrote:

In future writing, we will explore:

  • Interrelated processes of community and curriculum formation in Rhizo14
  • The positive and negative effects of emotion and alienation
  • Moderation and leadership roles in the design and conduct of de-centred courses
  • Distributed spaces, technologies and services in a multi-platform MOOC
  • The rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning

I think we have written about all these points, although not as separate points and some have been covered more implicitly than explicitly.

All these papers have been published in open journals and have been openly discussed by a group of Rhizo14 participants. I think most researchers would be gratified that their papers are noticed and discussed. At the beginning of the year Veletsianos and Shepherdson (2016) published a systematic analysis and synthesis of the empirical MOOC literature published in 2013-2015 in which they commented ‘that a select few papers are widely cited while nearly half of the papers are cited zero times’. In other words a lot of research goes unnoticed.

It is too early for this research on Rhizomatic Learning to have received a lot of citations. I know from an early paper that colleagues and I wrote about CCK08 (the first MOOC) that it took two years for the paper to be noticed, but since then it has been cited a number of times.

In the meantime these three papers on rhizomatic learning have not gone unnoticed. Currently they are being discussed in the Rhizo15 Facebook group. This is rather ironic, since this third paper raises the problems, based on evidence, associated with using Facebook for discussion. For this reason we have asked for comment and discussion of the papers, which we welcome, to take place on our blogs. Here is the link to Frances’ blog post – http://francesbell.com/research-in-learning-technology/participant-association-and-emergent-curriculum-in-a-mooc-can-the-community-be-the-curriculum/

I have learned a lot, on so many levels, from these two years of research, which has all been voluntary, unfunded and collaborative and which will inform my future work.

Reference

Veletsianos, G., & Shepherdson, P. (2016). A Systematic Analysis And Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. 17(2), Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2448/3629  

The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC

boypoolrhizome

(Source of image: https://socialdigitalelective.wordpress.com/groups/rhizomes/)

Our second paper which explores how the rhizome metaphor was understood in the Rhizo14 MOOC (Rhizomatic Learning. The Community is the Curriculum) has finally been published by The Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

The paper was accepted following revision in response to reviewers’ comments last July, so it has felt like a long wait, but there have been some changes of the Journal’s staff and website so I think a bit of a backlog built up. The Editors were very patient with our ‘nagging’ 🙂

The body of work we have developed in relation to the Rhizo 14 MOOC is now growing. The first paper was published by Open Praxis.

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

We have also given a couple of presentations and written many blog posts

18-06-2015 Mackness, J. & Bell, F. Teaching and Learning in the Rhizome: challenges and possibilities. Mackness & Bell Conference Submission 2015 . Blog post about the presentation

27-6-2014 Mackness, J. & Bell, F. ALTMOOCSIG Conference The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning in a MOOC. See also Emerging ambiguities and concerns for blog posts about this presentation and the related Prezi.

A third paper has just today been returned by the reviewers and will hopefully be published within the next three months.

The second paper about the rhizome metaphor was really enjoyable to work on as it introduced us to new authors and presented us with many challenges. As always we worked on a private wiki to collect, share and discuss resources and our thoughts, as well as paper drafts.

At the beginning we were inspired by this website – Nomadology  – and wondered whether we could present our paper as an interactive document in this way (with no beginning and no end), but it was not to be. Even our attempt to present the paper as independent sections (mimicking Deleuze and Guattari’s plateaus) did not work. Ultimately, we shared the concerns expressed by Douglas-Jones and Sariola (2009):

– we are recognizing the academy’s need to communicate ideas in writing, in a linear format. Even if methodologically and theoretically we become more rhizomatic, the imparting of knowledge currently requires some arborescence. (p. 2) ( cited in Mackness, Bell and Funes, 2016, p.87)

For now, I’m OK with that, but it would be good to see the development of more creative, multi-media and interactive ways of presenting research and discussion papers. If nothing else, it could make the papers more fun to work on and multi-media might help to explain the work more effectively.

Ethical behaviours online

Ethical behaviour in teaching and learning, particularly in online learning environments, has been very much on my radar this year – or I should say unethical behaviour.

I am not alone in my concerns. I notice that in my Evernote Notebook on ethics, the number of links to articles expressing concerns about ethical behaviours online is growing. Looking back I notice that my interest in ethics went up quite a few notches as a result of my involvement with the Rhizo14 MOOC, which I subsequently began to research collaboratively with my friends/colleagues Frances Bell and Mariana Funes. When we started this research we were concerned about how to deal ethically with the data we were collecting and shared our thoughts with Rhizo14 participants, before determining how we would approach this.

My Evernote Notebook has quite a few references to Ethics Guides (e.g. the Association of Internet Researchers’ Guides ) and I note a post by Martin Weller on the Ethics of Digital Scholarship.

But my concerns go beyond ethics in researcher practice to ethics in teaching and learning, particularly on the open web.

An article that I picked up this week by Max Bazerman bears the title ‘You are not as Ethical as you Think‘ and outlines many of our blind spots in relation to ethical infractions which he believes are ‘rooted in the intricacies of human psychology rather than integrity’. This is interesting, but I think we need to go further if we are to understand and counter unethical behaviour.

Also this week my friend and research colleague Carmen Tschofen, sent me a video in which Dan Currell talks about unethical behaviours and misconduct in the workplace. Carmen and I ‘met’ in CCK08, the first connectivst MOOC about connectivism convened by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. In the paper that we collaborated on as a result of our CCK08 experience we explored the meaning of individual and psychological diversity within connective environments and were aware of some of the concerns raised by Dan Currell in his video.

Currell’s video not only identifies how we can recognise unethical behaviour when it occurs, but also provides a picture of what ethical behaviour might look like – and unlike research ethical guidelines he is not talking about policies, rules and regulations.

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 21.33.31

Click on the image to go to the video

The title of Dan Currell’s talk doesn’t pull any punches. He asks straight out ‘Why are people such jerks?’ defining jerks as people who behave badly or unethically. Although his talk is aimed at an audience of businessmen and women, I could easily relate it to educational settings, although I don’t think the word ‘jerks’ would go down too well in educational settings. It might promote even more unethical behavior and confrontation rather than working towards solutions.

Currell tells us that he asked his own children if they have to contend with ‘jerks’ (people who behave badly) at school and they all agreed that they did. Then he asked them why they thought these children behaved badly and they came up with four answers:

  • The behavior is modeled and then copied
  • The behavior occurs when children get together in groups
  • Nobody stops it
  • It is contextual – the same children are not always ‘jerks’ – it depends on the circumstances.

In his research Currell conducted surveys in 150 organisations with about a million people to explore the cultural conditions which lead to misconduct or unethical behavior. As a result of this he identified indicators of what a good workplace looks like, and I would suggest, what a good educational experience looks like.

  1. Comfort in speaking up. If people are uncomfortable about speaking up, then the rate at which others behave like ‘jerks’ is higher and the rate at which people report it is lower.
  2. Trust in colleagues
  3. Direct manager leadership (I would exchange manager for ‘teacher’)
  4. Tone at the top
  5. Clarity of expectations
  6. Openness of communication
  7. Organisational justice (i.e. employees – or in educational settings, learners – believe that the organization will do something about unethical behavior).

These indicators have been identified from both quantitative and qualitative data suggesting that ‘bad behaviour’ cannot be simply a matter of individual perception.

Currell thinks that you can’t have too much of these 7 indicators, but the problem is that ‘bad news wears lead shoes’, i.e. people don’t speak up about unethical behaviour. The two big reasons why people stay quiet are:

  • Fear of retaliation
  • No confidence or belief that the organisation will do anything about it.

These two reasons for silence also exist in online learning environments, but online unethical behaviour not only silences people for fear of retaliation, but also causes them to walk away which is not so easy to do in an organisational setting. This makes it much more difficult to address online unethical behaviours.

So what can we do about unethical behaviour? Currell provides a long list of possible actions in his video, but highlights 4 as being very important.

  1. Be honest
  2. Take action on unethical conduct
  3. Listen carefully to the opinion of others
  4. Respect and trust employees (I would exchange employees for learners)

On his LinkedIn profile Currell has described his presentation as follows:

Unpacking what a million people told us about misconduct, harassment, bullying and enforced silence in the workplace. Punchline: there are a few keys to an environment that fosters and multiplies jerks, and those keys can be identified and fixed.

Currell has identified keys and possible actions which could counter unethical behaviour, which is a definite advance on simply making a subjective judgement about whether a behaviour is ethical or non-ethical. But my sense is that there is further work to be done on identifying the role and responsibilities of leaders (teachers) and in particular in acknowledging the power they hold and how that might enable or disable ‘comfort in speaking up’ and the other characteristics of an ethical working/learning environment.

 

Teaching and Learning in the Rhizome: challenges and possibilities

On Thursday 18th June Frances Bell and I presented a session at Liverpool John Moores University’s Teaching and Learning Conference, which earlier in the year put out a call for papers which could address the theme: ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’

We immediately recognized that our research into rhizomatic learning would fit this theme. The rhizome has been used as a metaphor for teaching and learning by many educators who are interested in encouraging learners to explore new spaces for learning.

This is the Abstract we submitted.

We can no longer preserve the illusion that learning is bounded by the classroom or other formal educational structures. Learners routinely navigate complex uncertain environments offered by social media and the web. Beyond the boundaries of the classroom, on the social web, learners enter the rhizome.

Our research in a massive open online course, Rhizomatic Learning: The community is the curriculum (now known as Rhizo14) revealed mixed learner experiences. Rhizo14 was modelled on Deleuze and Guattari’s principles of the rhizome, outlined in their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, although ultimately it was an experiment about learning in an age of uncertainty and abundance, rather than a course about the rhizome. The experiment sought to learn about what happens when learners take control of their learning and through connection and interaction determine the curriculum.

As a location for learning, the rhizome challenges traditional views of education, allowing entry anywhere and knowing no boundaries. Within a rhizome, learners select and follow their own learning paths, taking many ‘lines of flight’ and travelling as nomads. Learning takes place through a multiplicity of connections, continually being formed, broken and reformed. Learners learn from each other and together create their own curricula; hierarchies and authority are eschewed.

Learning in the Rhizo14 rhizome had both light and dark sides. It was motivating and stimulating, leading to intense creativity, engagement and transformational learning, but the freedom to roam increased learner vulnerability. In the absence of an ethical framework, the burden of ‘teaching’ fell on to the most active with some unintended and invisible consequences.

We will discuss with the audience how learning ethically in the rhizome might take place and how freedom and responsibility might be balanced.

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

Over 400 delegates, mostly from the University but also including a few external presenters like ourselves, signed up for the conference and more than 80 sessions were presented over the two days. It was a lively conference and an enjoyable experience.

For our session we had 25 minutes in which we wanted to leave as much time for discussion as possible. As such we spoke for about 10 minutes, and then spent the remaining time discussing the challenges and possibilities of rhizomatic learning with our audience.

At the start we asked whether anyone was familiar with Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the principles of the rhizome. Two people were, but the concept was new to everyone else. In the time we had available to us we were only able to briefly outline what happened in Rhizo14 and the rhizomatic principles that inspired it. We then asked participants to divide into groups to discuss four statements that we hoped would stimulate thinking about the challenges and possibilities of using the rhizome as a concept for teaching and learning:

  • Learning requires boundaries
  • Learners cannot be trusted to select and follow their own learning paths
  • Learners can create their own curriculum through peer interaction
  • Learners and teachers know how to balance freedom and responsibility in social learning spaces

Ultimately only the first three statements were discussed but the feedback culminated in a response to the fourth statement.

Learning requires boundaries. The group discussing this statement felt that boundaries are helpful and that learners benefit from different types of boundaries at different times. Sometimes boundaries need to be rigid, which they represented by drawing a solid line, sometimes more flexible, which they represented with a dotted line. They acknowledged that looser institutional boundaries allow for more personal learning and that boundaries are always moving.

Learners cannot be trusted to select and follow their own learning paths. This group thought that selection is part and parcel of the learning process because learning goals change as the learning progresses. They made the interesting comment that the learning path is determined by a process of elimination.

Learners can create their own curriculum through peer interaction. This group wanted to change the word ‘create’ to ‘shape’. They thought that it is possible for learners to shape their own curriculum through peer interaction with facilitation and guidance, but they recognized that ultimately the curriculum would be determined by the majority and that there would be institutional constraints.

In listening to these responses we felt that all three statements had been discussed in the context of balancing structure and freedom, which relates to the fourth statement, and to ideas that we continue to explore in our ongoing research into rhizomatic learning.

We were very pleased with how this session went. Participants only had 15 minutes for discussion and feedback, but all engaged with the prompts and each group responded with thoughtful and insightful comments.

Many thanks to all those who attended our session and engaged so actively, and also to Elena Zaitseva, who chaired the session, fully engaged herself and kept us all to time so well.

February 2015. Light and Shade.

February arrived in light and went out in shade. We had gloriously crisp cold sunny days for the first half of February in North West England and wet, windy, stormy weather for the second half. It’s ironic that this should also reflect the light and shade around my working life and research practice.

At the beginning of February our first research paper about learner experiences in the Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum MOOC (Rhizo14) which took place at this time last year, was published.

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

In the spirit of openness, and because we were grateful to all those who participated in the research, we published this in an open journal, Open Praxis, and then on publication sought feedback in various locations, such as Facebook, Twitter, on our blogs and Google+. This has been both a light and shade experience, reflecting the light and shade experiences that we reported on in our research.

I’m not sure why light and shade have been perceived by some to be oppositional to each other. My perspective is that they need each other to be able to see each other more clearly. We learn from both. But the paper seems, for some readers, to have further polarized discussion about the learning experience in Rhizo14, making the light and shade even more obvious and oppositional than it was before. An emerging light for me is that some of the issues that were raised by the paper are being discussed, which is surely a better outcome than the paper being ignored.

Other aspects of shade dotted through the month have been continuing concerns about the effects of ageing, not on me personally, but on those around me. I now find myself sending 80th birthday cards more than I have ever done in the past. With respect to dementia, I have learned this month that many people with dementia become grazers in their eating habits and that the best way to deal with this is to leave small bowls of chopped fruit, vegetables, nuts, chocolate and so on around the house. This piece of information has been comforting.

Two highlights this month have again been around art exhibitions. The first was seeing a film about David Hockney, his life and work which prompted me to think about his recommendation that we try and see the wider picture.  February has been all about trying to see the wider picture and reading Iain McGilchrist who writes that there are two ways of being in the world: in one (the way of the right hemisphere) we ‘experience’ the world, in the other (the way of the left hemisphere) we experience our experience, that is a re-presented version. The right hemisphere sees the whole. The left hemisphere sees the detail. What is new must first be present in the right hemisphere before it can come into focus in the left hemisphere (the new versus the known). The left hemisphere then returns the known to the right hemisphere for further experience. These are not McGilchrist’s words, but my understanding of his words. It seems to me that they might have something to say about experience, interpretation and practice in research. I am still thinking about this.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 14.44.43

The other highlight on the last day of February was a visit to Liverpool to see a fantastic production of Educating Rita at the Liverpool Playhouse, a play that asks us to consider what we understand by ‘education’ and shows us the light and shade that can occur in the process of education. What could be a more fitting play for me to see this month? 🙂

Tate Liverpool

And this was followed by a visit to Liverpool’s Tate Gallery and the free Constellations Exhibition on the first floor, which explored connections between major contemporary works of art. There was a lot here that resonated with my learning this month, so I’ll finish off this post with a few images and observations, thoughts that struck me as I walked round, whilst still thinking about the meaning of education and the light and shade of the learning experience.

IMG_0426Robert Adams. Space with a Spiral 1950. (Steel Wire and Wood)

‘The spiral enables the incorporation of space into an art work as an       architectural element, bringing the surrounding space into an active relation with the physical volume of the sculpture.’

My attention was drawn to this sculpture and the role of space in its construction because of the discussion about our research paper (mentioned above), where the question was raised as to whether a participant who was not active and did not contribute openly in the course had the right to fill in the survey and feedback on the course. This sculpture reminds me of the value of not ignoring the invisible and not assuming that it does not have a role to play. In this sculpture the nodes and connecting wires are as much dependent on the space for their definition as the space is on them.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 15.16.59

Henri Matisse 1919. The Inattentive Reader. (Oil on canvas)

I have sometimes wondered in the past month and in reading the comments that have been made about our published paper (mentioned above), at some of the interpretations. Alternative perspectives are welcome and differences of interpretation are inevitable. As with any published writing, benefit from these alternative perspectives and interpretations can only come from close attention to the ideas presented in the text and a dispassionate attempt to discuss and understand them. What exactly did the authors say? Emotional responses might be inevitable, but might also be a distraction from focused attention, as for Matisse’s ‘Inattentive Reader’.

IMG_0442

Mary Martin 1966. Inversion. (Aluminium, oil paint and wood)

Of this work Mary Martin wrote: ‘Establishment of the surface is a primary move, since the parting from and clinging to a surface is the essence of the relief. Then that space which lies between the surface and the highest point becomes a sphere of play, or conflict, between opposites, representing the desire to break away and the inability to leave the norm.’

In her work she recognizes the tensions and conflict that can arise when trying to interpret and/or break away from norms. For me it is interesting how this work fragments the reflected images, emphasizing that everything can be seen from multiple perspectives and as multiples.

Finally this photograph caught my attention.

IMG_0429

Claude Cahun. I Extend My Arms. 1931 or 1932. (Photograph, black and white, on paper)

‘I extend my arms shows a dramatically gesturing pair of arms apparently emerging from inside a stone monolith of similar dimensions to a human body. Cahun’s photograph is a staged self-portrait in which her face and torso are replaced by inanimate stone, shielding her identity from the viewer.’

My reflections this month on light and shade have reinforced for me that our identities can be fragile and learners in ‘the open’ are vulnerable. The extended arms in this photo show a willingness to reach out, but the stone shield also suggests to me that we might need to protect our identities from open space. Open environments are spaces of both light and shade.

 Update: 06-03-15

In a comment on this post Simon Ensor has posted a link to a post he has made on his blog to which he has given the title – In a tangle. This made me think of another sculpture that I saw and thought about on my visit to the Liverpool Tate. Here is a photo of the sculpture with the artist’s name and details of the work.

IMG_0446

Leon Ferrari (1963)

Tower of Babel

Steel, copper wire, bronze, tin and lead

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: 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.

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.