Ethics and Educational Technology (thoughts on #altc22 keynote)

This week the GO-GN team and myself attended the Association of Learning Technologists Annual Conference at the University of Manchester. I haven’t attended this conference for a number of years so it was good to return and see what kind of conversations people were having – especially after the turmoil and pressure of the last couple of years.

I was invited to be one of the keynote speakers this year, which was obviously an honour and privilige.

My presentation was on the theme of ethics and educational technology, and I was asked to connect with the Framework for Ethical Learning Technologies (FELT) which I had a hand in shaping last year. More than 100 people contributed to the framework, so I wanted to be careful not to give the impression that I was claiming credit for what was a collective endeavour.

Much of the presentation was given over to a discussion of alternate and complementary perspectives on ethics and how these inform research and practice in educational technology. You can check out the slides below.

In some ways it was nice to present something that wasn’t related directly to a funded project; and it also made a change to have a longer slot so as to develop some ideas a bit further. I think I possibly tried to do too much in the time available, though, as I spoke for about 50 minutes rather than the 40 requested. Add in some 10 minutes of technical difficulties at the start of the session and it meant that there wasn’t any time available for discussion at the end of the session, which was a little frustrating.

(There was a Vevox backchannel displayed during the presentation but I couldn’t see it from the podium – my impression from what people told me and what I observed in other presentations is that it was being used for little more than snark and sarcasm most of the time.)

I guess I wanted to write this blog post to capture some of my thoughts after the presentation.

  • I’ve been mostly presenting to an open education flavoured audience for the last few years at conferences like OER, Open Education Global and Open Education. Even when I’m not presenting to the open community I tend to present to academics or academic-adjacent project partners. The audience at ALTC is primarily learning technologists who are on the front end of delivering systems and resources to learners. It’s definitely good to mix your audiences up a bit and try to tailor your messages.
  • I had quite a decent amount of positive feedback from people in person as well as online, but I did wonder whether some people find any attempt to explain of present philosophy as too high-falutin’. There isn’t really a super easy or accessible way to explain the bredth of philosophical discourse, but I still think it is valuable to try.
  • That said, I think one could probably make a 10 week university course out of the bare bones of what I presented, so I feel like I should probably have tried to do (or cover) less.
  • From a selfish point of view, though, I was able to map out a territory which I feel could be useful for future projects.
  • I believe the basic distinction I tried to draw around the foundational points of diifferent ethical approaches is reasonably sound. I categorised these as traditional/philosophical; critique of ideology; and ethics of care/intersectionalism. While there are some points of disagreement or difference between these, I am more struck by the points of continuity that exist. It’s perfectly possible to have an overall position informed by all three approaches, but often the ethics of care related positions define themselves against philosophical tradition (which is seem as white, male and stale).
  • I lost it in the flow but I think someone commented on Twitter that ethics of care shouldn’t be seen as feminine. I’m inclined to agree, but I was careful not to put such a claim forward. There is overlap between feminism and ethics of care but feminism (grounded in philosophical tradition) predates the ethics of care, which is roughly contemporary with third wave feminism.
  • I feel like the ed tech and related communities are definitely more predisposed to look at things from the ethics of care perspective, which includes a lot of the modern vocabulary used around ethics and educational technology (such as diversity, equity and inclusion; social justice; belonging; and so on.) There can be a bit of a suspicion about traditional ethics which is sometimes problematic in my view. I think this can be articulated as a kind of tension between the intended objectivism/universalism of traditional philosophy and the emphasis on the particular and recognition of identity in perspectives that start from acknowledging historical injustices or power differentials. Again, there are compatibilist positions open here – e.g. human rights that protect diversity. I wonder whether more could be done to try and dialectically resolve such tensions.
  • I found myself thinking about female (under)representation in Philosophy a bit. It’s definitely a big issue historically but has got a lot better in the last 50 years. I tend to think of class exclusion in Philosophy as a significant structural issue as well.
  • When you undergo philosophical training a large part of efforts are devoted to trying to bypass one’s own positionality and psychology in search of a kind of objectivity or pseudo-objectivity. In some ways the ethics of care approaches place this positionality as the starting point, flipping the idea of philosophical objectivity on its head. I believe this can generate essential opportunities to listen and engage with groups who have been disenfranchised historically. But I also wonder whether we lose something when we ground arguments in this way. Perhaps it is best to see DEI as an ongoing corrective – because whether we could ever arrive at a point where there were no longer significant power differentials is unclear. I come from a philosophical tradition which emphasizes the importance of historical, cultural and political reality, but I also recognise that we need to at least attempt to ground arguments in objectivity or intersubjectivity.
  • One area I always feel I could develop my knowledge of is Philosophy of Technology – I wonder whether I should start a reading group as a way of driving this forward.
  • I didn’t have the time to develop my position on Explicable AI in Education fully, but you can find a more detailed presentation on this at https://www.slideshare.net/robertfarrow/explicable-artifical-intelligence-for-education-xaied and I have a paper forthcoming (2023?) in Learning, Media and Technology on this subject.

I’m grateful to those who offered their attention during my presentation and followed up afterwards with comments and/or questions! As always, these kinds of interactions are beginnings rather than ends of discussions.

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