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On the ethics of educational interventions in popular digital technologies

September 14th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I wrote in a previous post that there was a welcome move at the Advanced Learning Technologies Conference in Nottingham this year, away from a focus on technologies towards looking at social and pedagogic issues connected with Technology Enhanced Learning. One session that epitomised this change was ‘New bottles, old wine? A debate on the ethics of educational interventions in popular digital technologies.’

As the abstract for the session pointed out such spaces are outside the control and rules of educational institutions and allow “places and modes that people can inhabit, where communities can form and disband, where ideas, images and information can be produced, stored, shared, tagged, discussed, transmitted and consumed and where diverse expectations have developed about language, humour, posture, taste, fashion, etiquette and behaviour.”

The speakers took different stances towards these issues. Writing before the session Steve Wheeler gave a précis of what the speakers would cover.

Frances Bell will identify private/public as complex reflexive student practice in personal and education use of social media, e.g. Youtube (Lange, 2007) and explore the role of the educator in students’ ethical development.
Andy Black will expose the issues relating to the transnational use of technologies approaches where users will have access to very different levels of technology and even if technology used is the same or similar the way it is deployed is culturally different. The concept is that these differences will decline or morph over time to become transnational & transcultural, resulting in usage that is woven into a global cultural thread.
Mark Childs will raise some of the ethical issues that influence creating learning activities in immersive virtual worlds and offer viewpoints to be debated on the potential responses to students’ unease concerning the experience, cultures and perceptions of virtual worlds, the appropriate balance between authenticity and pseudonymity in virtual worlds and the responsibilities of teachers with respect to protecting those within virtual worlds from the impact of our teaching within them.
Karl Royle will argue that the ethical considerations of gaming are inherently bounded and regulated by the inherent rules of ‘the game’ and that as such are disposed to self regulation, and are about trying to do good or at least minimise harm in achieving a win state.
John Traxler will argue that the universal experience of mobility and connectedness in our societies is leading to transient, ephemeral and overlapping communities each with its own ethics; there are no longer grand narratives of ethics, only partial and local expressions of values and preferences. It’s new wine, new bottles, new drinkers
Steve Wheeler will take a cognitive stance to the issue of ethics in emerging digital environment research. He will hold that users interact and represent themselves in different ways depending on environment and context, switching between identities. Steve will argue that new technologies and tools present new affordances and expectations, and therefore require new approaches.

All very good. these are issues that urgently need exploring. Yet I did not feel the session really lived up to its potential – maybe because the topic is so important and so broad. Perhaps only Karl Royle moved towards exploring new territory, at least for me.

One of the difficulties, I think, is in relating immediate practices and controversies, for example the ongoing arguments over Facebook’s ownership and permissions regime, to wider social and ethical issues.

What might those issues be? Power and control has to be near the top of any list. How is the use of digital technologies changing, reinforcing or breaking down traditional power structures and relationship in education?  And how is the use of digital technologies impacting on traditional class biases in education? More fundamentally, how does our uses of technology impact on rights to education? Do people have a universal right? If so, can we subvert technology to provide universal technology. And of course there are many ethical issues around who provides education – should the state have a duty to provide free or affordable education? Should it have a monopoly on such provision? Should private social software providers be regulated? If so by who? And who makes up the rules and in whose interests?

What of the implications for knowledge development, knowledge structures and knowledge sharing. Surely one of the biggest ethical issues today is attempts to privatise knowledge through copyright legislation.

These are just a few … feel free to add your ideas in the comments. I know the speakers at this inaugural session are planning to take the debate on the road and look forward to the next iteration. But I still wonder how to approach the whole issue of ethics and how to link up day to day practices and issues with larger societal concerns.

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4 Responses to “On the ethics of educational interventions in popular digital technologies”

  1. Frances Bell says:

    I really would love to know how I can get my message across Graham.
    In the symposium, I wasn’t actually talking so much about what the issues are as abstract knowledge, but rather how educators can support students development of their ethical practice (as members of society and as professionals). By encouraging criticality and drawing on students’ own personal practice e.g. on Facebook or with filesharing, we hope to help students address issues of power and control within a realistic and personal context. In our experience last year with first year HE students, we know this led them to reconsider their privacy settings. I don’t know if they engaged to the extent of activism but it’s something we explore. We also link the commercial interests of SNS, etc. to the concerns of customers and ‘content providers’ (cf willing donation of pics to Facebook).
    In what way isn’t this “relating immediate practices and controversies, for example the ongoing arguments over Facebook’s ownership and permissions regime, to wider social and ethical issues.”
    I don’t think one symposium could cover the huge sweep you mention here but we did cover some of it.

  2. Doug Belshaw says:

    I really enjoyed the session. People necessarily come at things from different angles and expect various things. For my part, I was challenged to think about the complexities and nuance of dealing with ethical issues with students in the 21st century!

    Job done. 🙂

  3. John Traxler says:

    Thanks Graham, couldn’t agree more. A debate isn’t the best forum to systematically explore the issues but it’s quite a good forum that gives people a chance put various positions and allows others to join in. At this stage, I’m happy that any of the issues get any kind of exposure.

    Yes, more iterations …. one in Glasgow on 4th November (hope i got that right, Kathy Trinder is our host) then onto Educa. John

  4. Graham Attwell says:

    Hi all

    Very happy that the session will be at Educa.

    Take your point Frances about linking ethical issues to practice. And I also take John’s point that there are limitations on how far you can go in exploring issues in a short debate. I think the session was (along with the session by Joss and Richard on future oil shortages) the most significant of the conference. Am wondering how we can use internet to continue to develop these themes outside the conference (maybe a wiki?).

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