An ethical dilemma

A nice lady having a wee think about things

The final push is on to get my research proposal which is my final assignment for H809 in on Friday. But I’m looking for opinions on the ethics bit.

My proposal aims to see what can be learned from examining how students with dyslexia who have assistive technology engage with online learning material.

I’m not so much interested in accessibility as I am in looking closely at how the students work with their technology and whatever else is happening in their learning contexts. I think the findings could be extremely useful in feeding back to course designers and assessors. But I’m particularly interested in this data helping to create a community of practice involving faculty, disability services, computer services, learning technologists and of course the students themselves.

I propose to examine how they work in Moodle as that environment gives us access to all sorts of data from the logs (What did they do? How long did they spend? How much clicking around happened? etc). This is to be followed up with focus groups, semi-structured interviews and student audiologs/blogs/diaries/whatever.

My dilemma is should I tell the students from the outset, or should I let them be and inform them in retrospect? Or a combination?

If I tell them at the outset, I will comply comfortably with standard ethical considerations and we can make sure that they understand what we are trying to learn about them. BUT there is a risk that the students will become self-conscious and tell us what they think we want to hear.

If I tell them afterwards, they will have behaved as normal, but there are two drawbacks:

a) it’s ethically dubious, but not unknown to happen,

b) the students may not give me good quality data. I’m interested in all sorts of things that might be happening in the learning context whatever it may be – are they listening to house music? Are they chatting by IM with friends? Are they zipping back and forth between screens? Are they using traditional learning materials? Are they using mindmaps to represent their notes? All of these things may not be considered important by the learner and they may not record (or even remember) that they engaged with the online content in these rich ways.

Or should I let them do their thing unhindred for a while at the beginning and then midway invite them to actively join the study? So, we could monitor the logs for a few weeks and then identify certain individuals to keep learning logs?

I’m leaning towards option 1, but am interested in fresh perspectives!

4 responses to “An ethical dilemma

  1. First, this sounds great. I’m wondering if – well, here is one thought. What if you did not restrict it to Moodle but simply used Camtasia and/or tracking technologies to record what they were doing? I ask because I’m more interested in how these technologies interact with real-world ICT use and less interested in the kinds of environments found only in schools, but that doesn’t mean that you are similarly focused.

    Whatever, here I couldn’t write about it for school without having the signed consent forms in hand (I could observe the room probably but I couldn’t quote data collected on individuals), so I’d have no choice. But my thought is that you’d rather get their (somewhat) informed consent first. That is, you need not say too much. “I’m interested in observing your uses of these assistive technologies.” Maybe adding, “at the end I would like to hear what you thought.” You don’t have to go into detail, and you don’t have to suggest to them what you want to hear, but I think we all really do prefer to know when we’re part of an experiment.

    And, I’ve found that the “tell me what I want to hear” thing fades, even among secondary students, after a short time if I’m being reasonably fair and open with them. Eventually those who don’t like the tested intervention inevitably say something blunt like, “I don’t like this.”

    Last thought:

    I’d love to see what you write up, if you’re willing to share…

  2. Thanks for that, Ira.

    I too am interested in the ‘real world ICT’ and I’m hoping that the qualitative data from the students will allow us to pick up on some of that. I’d be reluctant to get involved with Camtasia or the like as it might be fiddly or even intrusive for students to use. There is also a practicality issue: we don’t know where the students access Moodle from (home, college, local library, friend’s house, other people’s machines etc)., so it’s easiest to let the student maintain a log. Additionally, it should help students to begin to analyse their work actively.

    I’m happy to hear that the urge to perform to the audience falls away over time. That would help get rid of some my qualms about method 1.

    You are very welcome to look at the proposal when it’s finished. I’ll email it to you on Friday.

    Thanks again!

  3. Enda –

    Duh. I didn’t consider… we’re not just dealing with using personal technology. And yes, watching Moodle will suggest other things.

    As for the “perform for the audience” – as long as you make it clear that you are not judging them – that this isn’t some test – they’ll be fine, and I think they’ll be honest. EA Draffan has found that to be pretty consistently true in her surveys of higher ed students in this field, as well.

    I’ll be excited to see it. Thanks!

  4. Indeed, I currently have the honour of collaborating on a paper with EA and some other leading lights (how did I sneak in?!), so I must work put some of her muscle in to the Methodology section then to justify the choice.

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