[ This post was published on another site on April 30, 2015]

A response to David who asks: “How could we move on, how could we build…”

I have had that feeling of deja vu for a while, it started after the honeymoon period of being in the open was over.

Initially I liked the ‘free for all, no rules’ ethos as I compared it to doing research in an institution. Then, the many years of academic training kicked in and I started to see the underbelly of it all.

This sense of deja vu came over me as I read dodgy methodologies and outputs being used as evidence for ‘how learning is for all’ and ‘how the university will be (has been?) replaced by the MOOC or its latest incarnation’. I am less optimistic than you and feel quite helpless at the ignorance I see touted as ‘good’ research out there….yet…

I left full time higher education because there were so many other issues and  choose to become a ‘semi detached academic (I love that expression).

As you say, as a semi detached academic I can do anything I choose and I am not answerable to anybody. It should be great, no? No. I love teaching research methods and supporting my students as they make their initial research steps. I only do that part time now and I notice that the ‘big’ questions are asked less and less.  The lack of privacy and control they experience ‘out there’ seems to disable the should-we-do-this-muscles.

You ask: “Is “experimenting” on students and learners ethical? Can it even tell us anything about learning that is generalisable?” These are not very popular questions in the search for the magic bullet of quick learning with no human teachers.

flickr photo by cogdogblog https://flickr.com/photos/cogdog/17292492206 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
flickr photo by cogdogblog https://flickr.com/photos/cogdog/17292492206 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license


Inside the LMS I said to my students this week:

I want you to ask the bigger questions: Why do we need physiological explanations for our practice? What can brain science really say about spiritual practice or human communication? Is the whole premise of ‘your brain on [fill in the blank]’ just an artifact?

I then asked them to write an opinion piece on these issues. The opinion is mostly that we need neuro-bullocks (even if it cannot say anything meaningful about the phenomenon under study) to make practitioners credible. The detail of the field is unimportant in this context. The ‘detail’ that seems irrelevant to my students is that much of this research is simply not asking any of the big questions. What are the ethics of using non-relevant research to give practitioners credibility? Should we be investing on research that may not even be saying anything about the phenomenom it purports to study? My students are now too busy writing final papers to care, but we should not be.

When you talk about ‘the greyness of the slurry [ ]  that dominates the op-ed pages and think-pieces’, who amongst us will own up to being part of the problem? Are we not more likely to think that ‘ours’ is the gem? How many of us would have the humility to voluntarily put our potentially great idea through an open ethics review panel? Creating an organisation that would also offer its expertise on a commercial basis to support high quality education research makes sense. It could make money putting ethical research on the map. It makes sense to me as someone who asks the big questions. Would it make sense to the commercial organisations that most need such and entity? Would it make sense to the lone rangers of open education ‘experimenting’ on their students with a rationale that the law of two feet applies?



I have spoken about the interpersonal contracts in open educational experiences before and my main conclusion is that  the lack of agreed group norms cannot offer a safe or ethical learning environment for many. I like the freedom of the law of two feet, but it has huge implications when applied to learning and research in open education. In a different context, where these questions are being asked, it has been said that:

Nonetheless, several writers (Ballantyne 2008, Malmqvist 2011, Widdows 2009) warn, quite rightly, of the dangers of presuming that choice and autonomy resolve all concerns about exploitation even when individuals deny vehemently that they have been exploited, and even when those individuals benefit from the practice in question.

These would be the kind of issues the new open ethics review panel (OERP) would need to tackle. Are we up to the task? When I see the quality of dialogue in many open education contexts, I am less than hopeful. So much of this is about my favourite topic, we are just unwilling (or afraid) to take a critical look in the mirror in public. This is the paradox of open – being transparent and open is easy when we set our job to be the giving out undiscerning teletubby love. When we set up an organisation whose job it is to look at the underbelly of the beast and write papers such as: ‘MOOCs, ethics and exploitation? Investigating learners’ experiences in [insert very popular hashtag] online course’, would we have the courage to engage with this in the open?

Meme by Laura Gibbs in response to a previous post of mine.
Meme by Laura Gibbs in response to a previous post of mine.


I am asking many more questions than I am answering. I think your idea (or something like it) is essential to moving on and building on the potential of open education.

An ethics review panel that is true to the best aspirations of open education? I would sign up and, importantly, abide by its code of conduct and submit my research ideas for review. After all, a key aspiration is the creation of networked communities of improvement. Improvement can only come when we subject our work and our ideas to peer review and when that review does more than just tell me I have many #bigfans, no?

Use what serves and ditch the rest. Your post made me think and sent me off on a long rant. #bigfan 🙂