Ethics of Researching Connected Learning (Pt. 1)

The summer semester, it seems, is officially over.  What did I do with it? Well, I wrote the Case for Connected Learning, the white paper that strives not to be a white paper, for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Academic Transformation Lab (ALT Lab).  As I described in previous post, working on that project meant a lot to me.

So what’s next?

As part of the Virginia Commonwealth University Academic Learning Transformation (ALT) Lab initiative to study, design, and promote assessments for connected learning I will be investigating potential applications of social network analysis in technology-enhanced learning environments. Social network analysis in this context is not new but there is plenty of space for further investigation. Before getting too messy with data, however, I thought a quick dive into internet research ethics was warranted.

As many scholars over the last twenty years have suggested, the internet challenges everything we thought we knew about research ethics.

Some of that challenge relates to the contiguity of the internet as a social phenomenon, research and data collection tool, and a location for ethnographic (and other) research.  When we start using the internet as all three, simultaneously, things get blurry (Esposito, 2012).

The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) recently updated their recommendations for conducting ethical internet research via a working committee paper: Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research. The report’s authors identify tension around three ethical areas which overlap and deserve a lot of explanation.  Reading Kanuka and Anderson (2007) and Esposito (2012) helped me fill in the blanks, at least at a very superficial level.  I’ll go through them briefly, as befits my status as a research ethics newbie. 

  • Defining participants as “Human Subjects.”  This refers to the currently accepted model of research ethics, developed for the needs of and consequences of biomedical research.  The debate around the wisdom of fitting biomedical research constructs onto social science research has been going on forever, but has a particular zing in the context of internet research.  Are people who participate in internet culture actually subjects, like in biomedical research?  Or should they be treated more like authors who are knowingly putting their things into the public domain?  Such distinctions truly impact things like “opting in” versus “opting out” consent, ownership, and the assumption of anonymity as the preferred default.
  • Defining public versus private.  Kanuka and Anderson (2007) does a good job of explaining this concept.  Are online communications publically-private, privately-public, or semi-private? (1) People may operate in public but maintain strong perceptions of privacy (although Walther 2002 objects).  (2) People may expect proper contextualization to their data or limitations on who or what uses their information.  They might not imagine that a search engine might pick up something up.  I am reminded of an article on search engine optimization I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education several months ago.  A faculty member was complaining that a webcrawler had picked up on a comment he had posted on a blog – and, when reported out of context, the comment made him sound like a racist. At the time of the Chronicle of Higher Education article, the “racist” blog comment was the first thing to pop up when his name was Googled – it’s true, I actually checked it out. I can understand why he was upset.  (3)  With the web capturing every bit of data out there, a permanent record now exists of what was once fleeting.  The above example applies, as well as the “Right to be Forgotten” ruling against Google in the European Union earlier this year.  
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  • Defining data versus persons.  Personally, I think this bullet could have been named more effectively – possibly something with “ownership” in it.  I’d never thought of privacy this way, but  Kanuka and Anderson (2007) defines privacy as the participants rights to control the access of others to information about them.  Privacy is about control and ownership.  Who owns the data once it’s out there?  The author? The curator? No one?  And is an email or G-chat or interview via Skype soooo different from old twitter feeds, blogs, and blog comments?  

I mentioned contiguity as one challenge related to internet research.  As the AoIR “areas of tension” make clear, another challenge to internet research ethics relates to personhood. Is an avatar a person?   Virtual interactions often transcend the person who creates them.  And speaking of transcendence,

Since connected learning experiences transcend the line between formal and informal education, how do we study it effectively and ethically? 

From the five or six articles I read, I got the impression that we all need to slow down and really think about Internet research – and then demand that our IRBs to do the same.

It all comes back to Aristotle and his concept of phronesis: Rather than using a one-size-fits-all pronouncement, ethical decision making is best approached by applying practical judgement and paying attention to the specific context. But how do we balance the necessity of teleological (consequence-based, contextualized) perceptions of ethics with the safety of deontological (rule-based; good for stable constructs) perceptions of ethics (Kanuka and Anderson, 2007)?

And then all this talk made me think of this:

So what does that mean for the unseasoned graduate student researcher who is trying to study assessment in connected learning environments?

It means she has a headache now.  Nevertheless, she will continue her stuggles with internet research ethics next week – with a brief review of the ethics of studying microblogging.
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