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.

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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.



Last weekend I walked across Morecambe Bay with two friends. This is a wonderful experience. Morecambe Bay is renowned for being one of the most dangerous areas of quicksand in the world, but the walk is guided by the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, Cedric Robinson, MBE  and there is no risk as long as you follow his lead. The walk, about 7 miles from Arnside  across to Kents Bank, took us three and a half hours and involved walking through water channels up to our thighs. We then got the train back to Arnside to pick up our cars.


I thought the walk was magical – the light on the sands was stunning and the atmosphere was wonderful – there must have been about 100 people doing the walk. Another friend described it as having the feeling of a pilgrimage.


I took a lot of photos, which the friend I went with did not appreciate. She told me I was being ‘a pain’ and asked me why I couldn’t just ‘live in the moment’. She’s a good friend so can say these things and get away with it :-)

Since then I have been thinking about what ‘living in the moment’ means. At the time I believed and felt I was truly in the moment. Does taking photos to record and ‘capture’ an event necessarily equate to not living in the moment?

A search online reveals that many people have asked this question. I have often said in the past that I like to take photos as a memory aid. Some researchers believe that photography actually impairs your memory rather than aids it and that, for example, people in an art gallery who stand and look at paintings rather than photograph them, remember them better. I have lived long enough to know that this is not the case for me. I love visiting art galleries and if it is allowed I always take photos, but I also stand and look and I also spend a long time when I get back looking at my photos. I know I remember the paintings better by having taken the photograph and for me, remembering through a photograph is better than not remembering at all. Between my 40s and 50s, I scarcely took any photos at all and I now regret the conscious decision that I made at that time, believing that I didn’t need photos. I now have only vague memories of places visited and celebratory events over those years.

I do not only take photos for the purpose of remembering. I take them because I have been visually stimulated in some way, because I want to remember and capture that moment of stimulation, and because I want to share it with my partner who is a wheelchair user and sometimes cannot get to places I go to, or with my mother. My mother has dementia and my means of interacting with her is almost entirely through photographs, either current or past photos. (As an aside the other means is through singing old music hall songs. We do a lot of singing when I visit my Mum).

In the Ted Conversations archives I found this question by Charlie Friedman.

Should we live in the moment or should we stop and take a picture? – Is it worth losing part of an experience in order to remember it?

He goes on to write:

…….we can enjoy the sight of a beautiful mountain and be caught up awe in the moment, or we can enjoy a beautiful mountain and wonder how we are going to take a picture and show it to our friends. Is it worth losing part of the experience in order to better remember it in the days or years to come? Is it worth losing parts of future experiences by trying to remember those of the past? 

And then he quote Daniel Kahenman’s question:

What is more important: the experiencing self or the remembering self?

I don’t see that it has to be an either/or and why we can’t be living in the moment and take a picture of that moment.

Reflecting on my friend’s comment I think the problem was not that I wasn’t living in the moment, my moment, but that I wasn’t living in her moment. In other words, I was probably being rude by not giving her my full attention. Maybe if I want to take photographs on walks I should walk on my own. I don’t very often, for example, take photos when I am having meals with friends, so maybe I shouldn’t have my camera out on walks with friends.

But if we agree that living in the moment means …

You are characterized as “in the moment” if wherever you are, whatever you are doing, your mind and body are right there as well. No dwelling on the past, the future, or any obligations or troubles you may be encountering in your life. If you are in the moment, you are right here, right now, nowhere else.  (Source of quote: Urban Dictionary)

… then I was living in the moment on the Cross Bay walk – my moment.  Cross Bay Walk 20-09-2015

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  • What motivates academics and teachers to get involved in areas of practice that are NOT supported by their institutions?
  • Why invest even longer hours in supporting educational practice? My dentist doesn’t give me free root canal treatment outside of work?
  • Why personally finance conference attendance and travel, and what are the implications of this for the education sector?
  • What is in it for those willing to ‘go open’?

These are interesting and pertinent questions from Viv Rolfe in the wake of her attendance at the Association for Learning Technology Conference this year. They prompted me to look back in this blog to see what I have written about openness in education and going open. I am surprised at just how many posts relate to this topic; this has been one of my main areas of interest since 2008 and before.

I can remember clearly the point at which I realised I was ‘in the open’. It was during CCK08 – the MOOC which coined the term MOOC and was convened by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. I started this blog for that MOOC and about a month later made a post in which I questioned the need to be online to be connected. At the time, because I was new to blogging, I thought I was fairly anonymous and invisible and it gave me a tremendous jolt when I saw that Stephen Downes had included this post in his blog aggregation. Since then I have often considered (for example in this blog post) how open I am or want to be, because the feeling of over exposure and discomfort has never completely gone away.

So as Viv asks – Why do I do it? For me Viv’s first question is easy to answer.

  • What motivates academics and teachers to get involved in areas of practice that are NOT supported by their institutions?

I work independently of an institution, and have done for 10 years, so any support that I do have comes from my network. The big question for me is ‘who do I want to be in my network?’ I am not interested in collecting numbers for the sake of it. When I get a friend request on Facebook, or a connection request on LinkedIn, or a follower on Twitter, I don’t automatically connect. If I don’t know the person or ‘of ‘ the person, I look them up (Google them etc.). If I think we have topics of interest in common, then I will connect. I am not looking for social connections, but for professional connections. Sometimes these overlap, but I don’t assume that they will or even want them to. I have found the increasing blurring between public and private, personal and professional, troubling and constantly find myself wavering about what the difference is. I use ‘open’ social media as an information source. If and when I share information online, it is in the hope that it will be useful to others – but I am never sure of whether it will be and whether it is a conceit to be sharing in this way. I am thinking this as I write this post.

Then Viv asks:

  • Why invest even longer hours in supporting educational practice? My dentist doesn’t give me free root canal treatment outside of work?

Again for me this is fairly straight-forward to answer. In my career I can’t remember ever sticking to the statutory hours. I have always done more hours and sometimes many, many more hours than in my contract. There have been various reasons for this, but I think the main reasons have been to do with wanting to learn more and to do a better job – not for any recognition, although it is great when this happens, but simply because that’s what I find fulfilling. Currently most of my work is voluntary, unpaid research, which I hope in some small way supports educational practice. I am committed to publishing in ‘open’ journals, although this isn’t necessarily what all my research collaborators want or need for their career advancement, so it doesn’t always work that way. Collaboration usually does involve some degree of compromise :-) and I value openness between friends and collaborators, far more than openness in the online network.

Viv’s next question was:

  • Why personally finance conference attendance and travel, and what are the implications of this for the education sector?

I have been doing this for the past 10 years. I try to physically attend one conference a year but I have to weigh up costs against gains. Sometimes it is interesting to meet people face-to-face, but I am looking much more for something that stimulates my thinking and sets me off in new directions. There is something about being physically present that can be much more powerful than attending virtually. For many people a conference is about networking and meeting people. For me, when I am paying for myself, that is a luxury. I need more than that. I need to be able to come away and feel that my thinking has changed in some way – and I need to know that I have invested my time and money wisely and that the costs will pay dividends in terms of my future work. What are the implications for the education sector? I think that in the years to come there will be many, many older people, like me, who are already drawing their pensions, who will want to attend conferences and contribute to presentations. Hopefully conference organisers will see these contributions as welcome, but also realise that current costs are often prohibitive. And it is usually the case that people who are paying for themselves can have higher expectations and be more demanding of processes :-) This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on whose perspective you are taking!

Viv’s last question is the key one.

  • What is in it for those willing to ‘go open’?

I would describe my practice as one of ‘guarded openness’. I haven’t thrown myself out there and revealed all, as I see some people doing. I find it disturbing when people seem to ‘wash their dirty linen’ in the open. Some things are not meant to be discussed in the open, but should be reserved for private communication between the parties concerned. I also find that group think, constant self-affirmation and self-validation, either individually or as a group, that fails to stand back and look critically at this online behaviour, makes me feel equally uncomfortable. In the past year I have seen so much of these behaviours online. When I joined CCK08, I was really excited by the altruistic sharing of knowledge and learning behind the idea of ‘openness’, but recently it has seemed to me to be more about narcissism than altruism – about getting noticed and building up ‘numbers’ of followers, tweets etc.

So why am I still here? To be honest, I am no longer sure, but I am hanging on to Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ original and hopefully ongoing aspirations for open education. And I am not expecting any response to this post because what I have learned in the last year is that the internet favours consensus and punishes dissent. I should have paid more attention when Dave Snowden told us this in the Change 11 MOOC – another MOOC organised by Stephen Downes and George Siemens.

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This year’s Association for Learning Technology Conference in Manchester, UK, focussed on Shaping the Future of Learning Together. By all accounts the conference was a great success trending on Twitter as never before.

I attended two keynotes virtually: Jonathan Worth’s keynote (I’m not sure if there was a title for this – if there was I didn’t see it) and Laura Czerniewicz who talked about Inequality in Higher Education.

I found both keynotes thought-provoking. It seemed to me that they presented micro and macro issues being faced by the Edtech world at the moment.

Jonathan’s keynote addressed issues of vulnerability, privacy and trust in open learning, at the local level of the learner. Laura took a global perspective, providing evidence for Inequality in the Higher Education landscape, particularly between the global north and the global south.

Jonathan is of course well known for his photography and Phonar MOOC so it is not surprising that he is used to looking closely at the world around him and took a local, intimate perspective of learning in a digital age. He talked about the difference between the image and the photograph and told us that there have been two major paradigm shifts in photography, the first when photography broke away from painting and became an art in its own right, and the second is happening now as the image breaks away from the photograph. Unlike a photograph, an image is not about evidence; an image is about experience. The image is an algorithm, it is what is behind the photo. Thinking about this I have wondered whether this is just a play on words and what the significance is for learning. My understanding is that all photos are images, but not all images are photos. For me the significance of thinking about this is that online we mostly see photos – not images – i.e. it’s hard to get behind what you see, which is why people still value face-to-face meetings and recognise what a difference that makes to online relationships. But to get behind the photo, to see images, we have to recognise that this can make people vulnerable. Audrey Watters has said that vulnerability is essential to the learning dynamic, but this brings with it issues of trust and the right to privacy. If we want to see more images, rather than photos, then we need to recognise the vulnerability of the subject or in the case of education, the learner. This shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been written about for decades and longer, but perhaps in recent frenetic digital times has been forgotten.

Similarly Laura’s talk about inequality on a global scale should not have come as a surprise. The surprise should be that people still need reminding. As she pointed out, inequality is literally a life and death issue, but the challenge these days is to address inequality in an austerity environment and particularly in new online landscapes. Inequality is about power, agency, ownership and choice, about the nature of relationships and who decides. Laura’s message was powerful and affective. She suggested that we need critical research, inequality-framed experimentation, policy and advocacy. We also need to shift from a broadcast culture to one of equal partnership and foster global partnerships. She said she is a researcher – she can raise the questions, but doesn’t have the answers. I suspect that the answers will rely on attention to both macro and micro views of the problem. Jonathan’s focus on vulnerability and trying to see the image clearly will inform issues of inequality and Laura’s focus on inequality will inform Jonathan’s concerns about privacy, trust and vulnerability.

I spent most of yesterday in my garden, thinking about plants and how what I was doing in my garden might relate to my understanding of teaching and learning in open learning environments.

We have a large garden – ¾ of an acre. Over the years we have tried to organise the garden so that it is manageable. There is no way I can keep on top of it, even with help, and to be honest, much as I love my garden, and in particular the privacy it affords, gardening is not my first priority. The garden is too big for me to know what is going on everywhere and too big for me to manage all the plants. This is what one part of the garden looks like at the moment.

The Garden

Today I thought I would split some of the perennial plants and move them to fill up other gaps in the garden – such as the red and pink border plant (polygonum affine) you can see in the photo. But instead I found I spent my time thinking about dominant plants and how to deal with them, particularly Aquilegia, a deceivingly delicate, informal, pretty plant.


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This year it has been all over our garden. I don’t remember ever planting Aquilegia in the 30+ years we have been living here. It seeds itself and pops up everywhere. But the problem is that it then, with its bushy leaf growth smothers every smaller plant around it and can crowd out even slightly larger plants. In other words it dominates and because it propagates itself, it is very easy, if you are not paying attention to your garden, to lose some lovely plants which it sits on top of. Aquilegia is the type of plant that is difficult to contain. It is everywhere. It is too much ‘in your face’! I spent much of yesterday either digging it up or moving other plants away from it.

The other plant I had to think about yesterday was Ground Elder. This is another plant which is everywhere is my garden. It is the worst kind of rhizome. What I really dislike about this plant, apart from the fact that it is almost impossible to eradicate, is that it springs up in the middle of another plant where it is definitely not wanted. This year I have had to constantly pick it out of the middle of my Hostas. To remove it completely from the Hostas, I would have to dig them up too.

Some plants seem to manage to seed themselves (or the birds seed them) and then grow into a self-contained shrub without causing too much bother to the other plants around them. An example of this that I really like in my garden and which is looking particularly lovely at this time of year is ‘sweet amber’ (hypericum androsaemum).

Garden plant

This plant is no trouble so long as you leave its berries alone, which are poisonous. If my children were still young I would be thinking seriously about digging it up too.

And then there are the trees. We have a number of large trees in our garden, such as beech and sycamore, which as they grow can create too much shade for other plants to thrive, but for me, they are much easier to manage than the Aquilegias and the Ground Elder. The trees seed themselves too, but it takes a long time for the seeds to get established, long enough to ‘nip them in the bud’.

So yesterday, whilst gardening I was thinking about the various approaches I could take to ensure that my garden thrives.

I could take a ‘hands off’ approach and leave it all to nature – let the self-seeding plants, rhizomes and trees dominate, take over and ultimately cause the death of many other plants. I’m sure the garden would survive, but what kind of garden would it be and what would happen to the diversity of plants? I’m not sure how attractive or interesting the garden would be as a result of this approach.

Or I could spend every waking hour, which is what I think it would take, to make sure every plant is growing exactly where I want it to, when I want it to. I think there is a lot to lose from taking this approach. First it would be a constant battle – nature has to be wooed rather than fought. And then there would be the loss of all those lovely unexpected surprises that a garden can bring.

But I think the only answer for me is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. If I took a ‘hands off’ approach I would question why have a garden at all, when I only have to walk into the nearby countryside to experience the results of letting nature take over. Taking a super-managed approach wouldn’t work for me either. I think it would quickly become boring. I want my garden to be a pleasure, not a chore, but I also want it and the plants in it to survive and thrive. To ensure that they do, I can’t allow a free for all in my garden. It does require some management. In particular I feel that it is my responsibility to manage those dominant, self-seeding plants and rhizomes, otherwise I might as well not have a garden at all.

Of course, the little I did in my garden yesterday is far from the whole picture when it comes to creating a beautiful garden. Nurturing plants so that they show us their full potential requires knowledge and expertise. It’s related to getting the balance right between structure and agency which I wrote about in my last post. A garden near us that seems to have really achieved this is Gresgarth Hall Gardens.  There’s a lot to learn from this beautiful garden.


We only have to compare the photo of my garden with the photo of Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s garden, to see that there’s more to gardening than just management.

Today is my (our) wedding anniversary. Around about 47 years ago my father took his future son-in-law to one side and asked him whether he really wanted to go through with this marriage – my father was straight out of the Victorian era and doubted I would make a suitable wife – too many ideas of my own and insufficiently domestic :-) At the same time my mother took me to one side and asked me if I really understood what hard work marriage would be. However, a strong family belief was that anything could be achieved with hard work – so it must have rubbed off somewhere, since it seems to have paid off. We are still together after 47 years.

Also today, 47 years after my mother’s heart to heart, I have been hard at work thinking about the relationship between structure and agency in learning, for a paper I am writing with my Austrian friend and colleague Jutta Pauschenwein. So many people and well-known theorists have written about this that I wonder why it still seems to be a significant issue. That is what we are trying to pin down in our paper. I’m not sure yet if we will be successful. Despite my parents’ beliefs, hard work doesn’t always pay off, but I hope it will in this instance.

But pay-offs aren’t always what we expect, particularly if we keep an open mind about what might crop up, i.e. be open to emergent learning. I have done a lot of reading this month. Pay-off enough for me is coming across an article that makes me ‘sit up’ and leaves me thinking about it for days. This month it has been Osberg and Biesta’s paper on emergent curriculum.

Osberg, D., & Biesta, G. (2008). The emergent curriculum: navigating a complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3), 313–328. doi:10.1080/00220270701610746 – Retrieved from https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/464/1/emergent-curriculum%20jcs%202008.pdf

This made me think about structure and agency in relation to the role of the teacher/facilitator in a learning environment that promotes emergent learning. Having started on my teaching career 47 years ago, I feel quite resistant to the idea that it is a role of decreasing significance in a world of open learning, where it is thought by some that everyone teaches each other. Of course I understand that everyone is capable of teaching others to some degree, and that open learning has increased the potential of learning from anyone and everyone, but I don’t think that this negates the significant role of the teacher. I am still working on why I feel so strongly about this.

My third experience of ‘hard work’ this month came from a 5 day city break to Berlin, where I walked miles and came back ready for a break! There is so much of interest to see in Berlin (we barely scraped the surface) and the German people are very hospitable. I would recommend a trip to Berlin for anyone who is interested in history, art, culture and architecture – and according to my son Berlin has a great music culture and night life – although we didn’t explore this – too exhausted after hours of walking!

Brandenburg Gate

Of course, there is plenty about Berlin that can be related to hard work and structure and agency. Once you start thinking about structure and agency, you see it everywhere :-)

This week I have been reminded that I cannot assume that everyone working in education will have online access as and when they want it.

I live in a beautiful part of the UK – Southern Cumbria – a county filled with mountains and lakes and lushly green because of all the rain we get. I have never had any significant problems with getting an internet connection. Sometimes it has been slow and sometimes I have dropped out when making synchronous connections such as in a Google Hangout, but this has been minimal and has not interfered with my ability to work. This week even these minor difficulties have been removed as I now have a high speed fibre broadband connection for the first time and I can already see the difference.

British Telecom claimed a year ago that half of Cumbria was covered by faster, fibre broadband – but we have only just got it in our area in the South Lakes and many still don’t have it.

I only have to travel 20 minutes from my home, on the motorway going North, to get into a valley (this must be one of the most beautiful stretches of motorway in the country) where I lose signal. I know from my hill walking experience that it can be easier to get a signal on the top of a mountain than in the valleys.


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But few people in Cumbria will be living on mountain tops. The majority are living in the valleys, and many are living in remote rural areas.


Source of image

Eventually everyone will have high speed broadband, but in the meantime this has implications for anyone working online, for rural businesses and particularly for schools and for students in further and higher education and their teachers.

This came home forcefully to me this week when testing Google Hangout and appear.in with a couple of colleagues. This worked fine for me, but was virtually impossible for one of my colleagues whose online connection depends on tethering her phone to her computer. My other colleague pointed out that she could only join the Hangout from her work base, as at home in rural Cumbria, she doesn’t have a mobile signal and even her telephone line isn’t working. She is investigating satellite broadband, but it is expensive and for students probably wouldn’t be an option.

This is the reality for many students and educators in the area I live in, which adds another perspective to the meaning of open online learning and how it can be promoted.

The good news is that the county council claims that 93% of homes and businesses will have access to superfast broadband by the end of the year so hopefully this will increase the potential for open online learning.


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