Retrospective view on Learning, Media and Technology Conference 2011

July 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

The fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, was also the Learning, Media and Technology Conference day for the Institute of Education, London. The conference was designed for all levels of doctoral students to share their proposal, methods, and findings. It was such a fantastic experience to see so many independent and enthusiastic researchers from all over the world present their work. The three organizers, Neil Selwyn, Rebecca Eynon, and Martin Oliver, also gave incredibly helpful tips on transforming a conference paper into an academic journal article. A moment like this not only made me realise that I was not the only person who is still struggling to explain her research in one line, but also reminded me that what I have been thinking about pursuing might have already been achieved. That said, I also recognized that much research builds on the work of others, adding to and reinterpreting the studies that have come before. In fact, doing a doctoral study is all about finding a voice—this conference was a chance to teach students how to speak in their own accents.

Sympathetic Hedonism: a new angle for ethical Internet research?

July 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Given a recent Chronicle article (http://chronicle.com/article/Harvards-Privacy-Meltdown/128166/?sid=at&utm_s) on the secret collection of profiles in the now controversial Harvard Facebook Project and an ongoing AOIR (http://aoir.org/) mailing list discussion on Internet research ethics, I thought it might be interesting (if a little facetious) to produce a meta-narrative and conduct an analysis of this blog post in relation to the ethical issues surrounding the use of Internet materials in research.

Supposing a hypothetical researcher came across the OxEdTech blog and, for whatever reasons, decided to take this post and use it in his research.  He is faced with two main options.  Firstly, should he tell me that he his using my post, or should he simply take it?  Secondly, having used my post (whether he informed me or not), should he make it anonymous in his written work, or should he properly attribute it as one would a book or a paper?

A great deal has been written about these issues, discussing the concept of public space, the nature of publishing, the nature of textuality, whether a humanities ethical framework is more appropriate for online research than a human subjects model etc.  However, given the plethora of books and papers on this and the complexities inherent in the debate, I don’t want to discuss these issues from a theoretical point of view in any depth here.  Instead I want to treat the subject with some reflexivity and explore how I personally would feel as the author of the post in question if I were facing a grasping researcher.  The question of how I would feel to discover my post had been appropriated for research purposes without my knowledge is therefore a useful starting place.

This blog is an outward-looking representation of an official research group attached to a prestigious university.  As such, the purpose of its production is wide readership and, in many ways, research would be an appropriate use.  Furthermore, although the post has a personable tone, it is not imbued with my own identity.  It feels to me like a published document that has been placed in the public domain to illustrate the work of the Oxford University Department of Education Learning and New Technologies Research Group.  As such I would not be particularly concerned (though perhaps a little surprised) to find it had been used for academic/ research purposes without my knowledge.

However, if I were to view the issue from a slightly different perspective and ask myself how I would feel to be approached by a researcher interested in using my post, it’s likely I would receive such a request with pride and pleasure.  I imagine I would experience similar feelings if my authorship was duly acknowledged and the post properly cited.

Thus, the questions of whether a researcher should seek permission for use of online material and whether it should be cited or anonymized can perhaps be addressed from a different angle.  Aside from the considerations of not causing harm, informed consent etc., it is arguable that researchers of online works should consider the potential pleasure a request to use such materials can bring their creators by the simple act of showing interest in someone’s work.  Even with the most stringent ethical frameworks in place, researchers can have a tendency to simply take and take from participants.  Therefore giving due consideration to the potential happiness associated with a request for the use of someone’s online work is an excellent opportunity to give something back to one’s participants.

Of course, the importance of context must not be underestimated here.  This particular blog is necessarily outward looking and I might feel differently about my writing in other online contexts.  Similarly, I am implicitly hypothesizing a researcher using my work in a potentially flattering way.  I might feel a lot less pleased if my work was being used as an example of, say, faulty, lightweight logic in academic blogs.  However, there is an underlying serious point here.  Debates on research ethics have a habit of focusing on avoiding causing harm to participants while generating positive research outcomes on a macro level.  However, such an emphasis can fail to appropriately incorporate micro-level benefits into the theoretical ethical debate, although these might be discussed in terms of practicalities.  Perhaps this kind of sympathetic hedonism, when used in conjunction with other ethical standards, might provide a means of bridging the micro-macro benefits divide and provide a useful angle for researchers to discuss their approach to online materials.

James Robson

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