This is just a mini blog post, maybe even more of a bookmark. Futurelearn is the MOOC provider owned by The Open University but with many operational partners. The first courses launched in September 2013 and since then, 2,683,556 people have joined FutureLearn (with varying levels of commitment, like all MOOC).
This week a colleague forwarded me their ethical practice policies, which are available at https://about.futurelearn.com/terms/research-ethics-for-futurelearn/. I think they are an interesting case since FutureLearn is not committed to being an open project (though enrolments are entirely open). I haven’t had time to go through them yet but I have an idea that I could write a paper analysing them…
Research Ethics for FutureLearn
The purpose of this document is to provide a framework and guidelines for ethical and productive research practices associated with FutureLearn.
1. FutureLearn welcomes research by partners into all aspects of massive online learning including, but not restricted to, learning design, course evaluation, data analysis, educational technologies, and policy related to FutureLearn. Research is essential to understanding and improving the FutureLearn offering, and online learning in general.
2. We recognise that partners will have diverse needs, interests, philosophies, methods and forms of collaboration in research, including collaboration with external partners. The research may include comparative studies of learning on FutureLearn and other platforms.
3. All research should be conducted with an ethic of respect for: the people involved, diversity of cultures and interests, the quality of research, academic freedom and responsibility, the educational and commercial interests of FutureLearn and its partners.
4. This document provides guidelines to institutions and researchers in relation to research undertaken with data provided by FutureLearn, or in relation to FutureLearn courses or technologies. It is intended as a consensual document, to set down an agreed approach to research ethics. The sections that follow are based on the ‘Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research’ by BERA. Some parts of that document are quoted verbatim.
Responsibilities to Participants
1. Individuals taking part in FutureLearn courses must be treated fairly and sensitively, recognising that they are engaging voluntarily with the courses with the intention of learning. They come from a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds, with differing attitudes to research and to intrusion into their online activities.
2. Research into participation in FutureLearn courses presents particular challenges with regard to obtaining consent. Participants must be clearly informed that their participation and interactions may be monitored and analysed for research.
3. By taking part in a free open online course, where they are informed that activities may be monitored for research purposes, participants can be assumed to have given consent for participation in research conducted according to these guidelines, so opt-in consent from each participant is not required. It follows that learners can opt out from further participation only by unregistering from FutureLearn.
4. Although the FutureLearn platform is open to registration from anyone with internet access and learner names, profiles, and general comments and replies are made available for viewing by other users, it does not imply that learners engaging in FutureLearn discussions have forfeited rights to anonymity. The contributions were made in the context of an ongoing course discussion. It would normally be expected that research into learner contributions should use anonymised data.
5. Ownership of data created by learners is a further challenge. Learners own content they create on the FutureLearn platform, which they license to FutureLearn and partners forever and irrevocably. It should be recognised that participants in courses have a moral right of identity with materials created in their name. Some materials submitted by learners, including texts, documents, images, photographs, video and computer code may have additional rights of ownership. Learner-created content is published on the FutureLearn platform under a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Non Commercial-NoDerivs; BY-NC-ND), which means that any learner comments quoted in research publications must be attributed to the author.
6. If a learner ends registration with FutureLearn, there will be no further contact from the company or partners with that learner in relation to FutureLearn, but anonymised data from that learner’s previous interactions may continue to be used for research.
Responsibilities of Partners
1. All research associated with FutureLearn should be based on the principles of high standards, honesty, openness, accountability, integrity, inclusion and safety.
2. Partners are expected to gain appropriate approval from their institutional ethics panel for all research conducted in relation to FutureLearn.
3. Partners and FutureLearn together should be sensitive to the problem of inundating learners with surveys, particularly where learners may be engaging with many courses. Due regard should be given to the length of a survey, its complexity, and the intrusion into a learner’s private life.
4. There is increasing awareness that the mandatory conditions required by ethics review panels may not be sufficient to illuminate the complexities of research in online environments. Researchers are expected to reflect on their practices, and are encouraged to seek peer review of research proposals, particularly if they involve new or unusual methods.
5. Researchers should normally only work with anonymised data. A clear justification would need to be provided to analyse or present non-anonymised data, such as discussion postings or learner profiles with real names.
6. All non-anonymised data received by researchers should be kept secure, and in compliance with the partner’s research data management policies. This should involve, for example, securing the user account with a good password, encrypting the computer hard drive, encrypting any backups of data, and restricting access only to those essential to process the non-anonymised data.
7. Participants should be given opportunities to access the outcomes of research in which they have participated. This might, for example, be done by mailing those who participated in the course with a link to the research findings.
8. Researchers should not bring research into disrepute by, for example: falsifying evidence or findings, ‘sensationalizing’ findings to gain public exposure, distorting findings by selectively publishing some aspects and not others, criticizing other researchers in a defamatory or unprofessional manner, undertaking work where they are perceived to have a conflict of interest, or where self-interest or commercial gain might be perceived to compromise the objectivity of the research.
9. Researchers and partner institutions should recognize that research using data provided by FutureLearn is conducted in partnership with the company. FutureLearn would expect acknowledgement in research publications. It is also appropriate to provide FutureLearn with a copy of research findings and papers in advance of publication, particularly if these offer any new insight or issues.
Responsibilities of FutureLearn
1. FutureLearn should do all it can to enable researchers to publish the findings of their research in full and under their own names.
2. FutureLearn should not seek to prevent publication of research findings, nor to criticise researchers. The company may wish to respond in public to research findings, for example to promote favourable results, or rebut unfavourable ones.
3. FutureLearn should assist research wherever it is appropriate within its resources, for example by providing partners with data on their courses in forms that enable in-depth and comparative analyses.
4. This document will be made public and available for download from the FutureLearn website. It may also be distributed freely by partners.
24th February, 2014
 BERA (2011). Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. British Educational Research Association. Available online at http://www.bera.ac.uk/system/files/BERA%20Ethical%20Guidelines%2020