Unconference: ethics #opened17

RpouvAiI’m in Anaheim, CA., land of forest fires and Disney, for this years Open Education conference.  This year, for the first time, there is time allocated for an unconference session.  This seemed like a good opportunity for collect information about ethical issues delegates might be experiencing ahead of the the PILSNER seminar I’m delivering on Monday, so I offered to run a session on ethics.  However, this couldn’t go ahead because I got sidetracked into something else.  But here’s a blog post with some of the ideas I would have shared for anyone who is interested.

I produced a summary of some of my thoughts around ethics and openness for a Towards Openness session at OER17.

This is a basic summary of my paper, A Framework for the Ethics of Open Education (2016).  In Monday’s presentation I intend to outline the approach taken and highlight some specific instances of ethical issues to foster dialogue.  Here are some of the areas under consideration:

  • A colleague at a community college in the USA explained to me that there is some disturbance within his institution as a result of conflicting priorities around openness and cost.  They have a threshold of $40 per student/class for materials to be considered ‘low cost’.  Some commercial providers are using OER to put together offerings that are presented as ‘open’ when then in fact are run for profit.  Openness and cost are often conflated in this way and this provokes a challenge:  should we be purist about openness and advocate only for what we consider to be the most open/moral approach to expanding provision, or should we just be entirely pragmatic about these kinds of issues and concentrate only on whether students have access to the materials they need?
  • Guerrilla research: it’s increasingly possible for researchers to work independently of institutions, making use of publicly available data.  This is perhaps the most extreme example of ‘open’ research in that it happens entirely outside of the institutional structures and processes that are supposed to ensure or promote ethical behaviours.  It’s also possible to create a relatively high profile for this work through dissemination on social media.  How do we ensure that ethical standards are being met?
  • Equity and inclusion were real buzz words at this conference, but I sometimes find that these phrases have a platitudinous quality when we don’t acknowledge that these are more complex than they first appear.  For instance, should we take ‘equity’ to refer to ‘equity of opportunity’ (who gets to take part in education and under what conditions) or to refer to ‘equity of outcome’ (where the goal is to equalise educational outcomes)?  Should it refer to both?  If so, which is prioritised?
  • Another area that generated interest at the conference was the idea of educational bias and how it might be minimised.  This gave rise to questions about making the canon or corpus of a particular subject less “white, Christian and male” – philosophy came in for particular criticism – but there were also suggestions about teaching in such a way as to minimise this kind of bias.  I confess that I am not that clear on what this looks like.  Freire was mentioned as an inspiration.  But it seems to boil down to a combination of criticality, inclusiveness, contextual awareness and deconstruction of the status quo.
  • The place of social media in research is somewhat vexed.  At one end of the scale we have things like Facebook’s emotional contagion study which would have struggled to pass an institutional review because of its willingness to cause harm to participants, but since Facebook is not governed in the same way as educational institutions people have few options in the way of redress.  This case gets to the heart of the difference between our expectations about how our “open” data will be used and what happens in practice.
  • Another area I think is worth considering is the role of social justice in all this.  For a lot of open education advocates this is at the core of the movement.  But rarely do we hear about the concept of social justice being unpacked in the context of open education.  There are competing visions of social justice.
    • For Plato, social justice is a kind of harmony between individuals and the state which enables people to find the roles to which they are best suited (nb., not necessarily the ones they want).
    • Aristotle advocated a kind of redistributive justice where goods and wealth were assigned to people according to their merit – though this favoured – and perhaps only included – aristocratic males.
    • In the Scholastic tradition the idea of social justice becomes more intimately connected with religious service and religious harmony. Aquinas connected this with the Christian idea of caring for the needs of the poorest and most disadvantaged.
    • During the Enlightenment we see the emergence of the idea that a civilised society should provide (equity of) opportunity to its populace; this is distinct from the idea that the poor should somehow be looked after (equity of outcome).  J. S. Mill argued that virtue should be consistently rewarded; a kind of meritocracy (equity of opportunity).
    • Another approach is the ‘social contract‘ which consistently sets out rights and expectations
    • In a modern context we have visions of social justice like that of Rawls, who argued that we must in some sense provide a hypothetical consent for the organisation of society and this is done through compliance with the tenets of a liberal conception of justice: freedom of thought; political liberty, rights, and so on.
  • If we are focused on equity of opportunity our guiding light is something like a principle of fairness; if equity of outcome then the principle is something like equality.

Published by Rob Farrow


Join the Conversation


  1. I’m going to probably respond with a blogpost (and I think I had read your article a year or so ago) but one of my immediate responses to this blogpost is this: why the dichotomy of equity of opportunity vs outcome (vs both, yes) but why not discuss all the complex variables, especially equity of process?
    I taught professional ethics once. It’s not my area of specialty, so I’m fuzzy on the philosophical details now, but I remember there were these different approaches for ethical decision-making different philosophers proposed…and I always felt that every context warrants a different approach.

    I find it really interesting for people to discuss diversity at an event that is known to not be very diverse. What, really, do mostly white men talking to mostly white men REALLY know about diversity and encouraging it? Keep on talking amongst themselves and we’ll see what comes out of it. I’m not there. I just took a few glimpses over 3 years of vconnecting there and saw seas of whiteness (and that’s not to even mention other kinds of diversity I know from people who attended tell me are missing there)

    Gah my kid needs me now. I’ll respond more coherently in a blogpost later.


    1. Hi Maha, thanks for your input. Always interested to hear what you have to share!

      I am not trying to dichotomise notions of equity: I am responding to some of the conversations being had at this conference where equity is sometimes used as a warm and fuzzy concept without (I suggest) paying attention to the tensions within. I am just trying to draw some of these tensions out in a way that will be tangible to people who may take part in the webinar on Monday. It’s not supposed to be a comprehensive take on things – it’s just a talking point.

      Professional ethics is not my forte, but I would note that if we just adopt a different approach every time depending on what it expedient/appropriate then this undermines the idea that we are consistently applying principles or positions. For example: we might think that lying is sometimes wrong and sometimes justified. But we don’t expect there to be a consistently applied principle. (There’s a name for this: moral particularism https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-particularism/). I’m more interested in how close we can get to a generalistic approach in the case of openness because that is something that can form the basis of a shared approach.

      You write: “I find it really interesting for people to discuss diversity at an event that is known to not be very diverse. What, really, do mostly white men talking to mostly white men REALLY know about diversity and encouraging it?”

      On diversity at Open Education 2017: you may be making some unsafe assumptions about who is here and the kind of conversations that are happening. There are more than 700 people here.
      When I take a look at the attendees (https://openeducation2017.sched.com/directory/attendees) I don’t just see mostly white men. In any case, I think that your rhetorical question can be broadened: what does anyone “know” about encouraging diversity? is “knowledge” even the appropriate way of thinking about these issues?


      1. Looked at Participant list – and I’m wrong; definitely more diverse (looked also at names of ppl w/o images) than is coming through to me virtually (but also more diverse than last couple of years – when i did look at Participant list and my vconnecting colleagues told me it wasn’t diverse when i asked why all our guests were white; they aren’t this year, but they were yday)

        Regarding what I think you’re suggesting which I am sure is more complex than choosing a universal approach to ethical decision-making…. Whatever approach is taken needs to be multifaceted and contextualized.

        I want to say that of course sometimes lying is justifiable, but who decides when it is and when it isn’t? I’ll look up moral particularism (does it have a negative connotation?)

        I don’t know what a generalistic approach means or entails, but it sounds suspiciously like universalism. I’ll look that up too.

        In any case think these are important conversations to have and you are one of the best people to lead them with depth and not, as you say, allow people to keep making fuzzy uses of terms like equity. Will you be talking on an abstract or ground level?


        1. Thanks Maha. Moral particularism isn’t necessarily negative, but it has some implications. If you are suspicious of generalised rules and principles then it’s harder to produce an ethics – which is by its nature a collective/intersubjective endeavour.

          With respect to a question like “Do we have a duty to promote open education?” the particularist might say that you do, but they don’t: because any reasons will be particular to you. For some, this fails to capture some of the “common sense” aspects of morality (i.e. that if it’s wrong for one person to do it, it’s wrong for everyone to do it). Imagine if we had a legal system based on moral particularism… where every case is treated as unique. Would people think it was fair?

          The majority of moral philosophers think that moral standards apply equally to all people. This doesn’t mean that context doesn’t matter – it’s still part of the calibration. Human rights would be an example like this. Rights have to be applied universally, or else they aren’t rights. Right? So that’s an example of moral universalism.

          As far as approach goes, it’s now my turn to question your dichotomy between concrete/abstract or theory/practice. Ethics – especially philosophical ethics – has to straddle this kind of distinction so it can make the connections between actual practices and how we understand them at a reflective level.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I understand that… But even the practice of law has both a universal (whatever law is in place) and a particular (hence the need for judge or jury to look at specific cases not just for evidence but for spirit vs letter of law and nuance, etc).

            Any law in any context is put in place by some group of ppl w some interest. Often the dominant males of a society at a point in time. I live in a place w many unjust laws. I also think copyright is an unjust law (in some contexts)

            So let me get concrete w a non-edu example that was going thru my head while thinking w u today. The whole taking a knee thing in the US.

            A very conservative mindset would say “disrespecting the flag is wrong” and “not standing during anthem is disrespecting the flag” (with some irrational slippery slope thinking related to patriotism, troops,etc). While a more liberal person would say it’s a peaceful way to protest injustice.
            I’m sorry I just politicized our discussion – but this is what I am striving for… In the sense that some may feel that one principle (unjust killing of black ppl in America esp by police not getting punished for doing it unfairly) is way more important than the symbollic gesture… U know where I’m going with this.

            I’ll say in the case of open two of the strongest arguments against a I blanket radical support for open are
            A. Precarious people who need to make money being asked to give their (unfunded) labor away for free (it works for some but not all)
            B. Sam Veneruso mentioned once a project where funder required her to use only OER and there was a lack of OER from minority authors. So to fulfill funder requirements she couldn’t use work of minorities (which for many reasons wasn’t available openly)

            I’m still probably not expressing myself fully here and possibly also misunderstanding part of what you’re saying… Enjoy OpenEd17, I’ll blog when i can and try to listen to the webinar (will you post the recording when it is up? Thanks)

            P.S. We really need to get u on Vconnecting – i keep missing which conferences u’ll be at to ask folks to invite you! But we should probably hang out anyway if u promise not to make me feel too bad 😉

            Liked by 1 person

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