I’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.
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.