Research Ethics in Emerging Forms of Online Learning: Issues Arising from a Hypothetical Study on a MOOC
Electronic Journal of e-Learning Volume 10, Number 3, ISSN 1479-4403
This paper is concerned with how research ethics is evolving along with emerging online research methods and settings. In particular, it focuses on ethics issues implied in a hypothetical virtual ethnography study aiming to gain insights on participants' experience in an emergent context of networked learning, namely a MOOC--Massive Online Open Course. A MOOC is a popular type of online open course, that provides free content and expertise to anyone in the world who wishes to enroll. The purposes of this article are to briefly outline recent debates on online research ethics approaches and then to explore competing views on ethical decision-making when researching in a globalized, online and open learning setting. Considering the challenges of this new elearning inquiry context, issues as the underlying research ethics models, the roles of researcher and participants and the integrity of the research process are discussed in their interplay with the evolving ethos of the ethnographical methodology being adopted to investigate participants' views. Elements drawn from a hypothetical design of a qualitative study are here utilized to identify an empirical instance that shapes and is being shaped by research ethics decisions. The study aims to answer the following question: what are the affordances (opportunities and challenges) of online open courses as they emerge from the participants' perspectives? This paper considers the potential operationalization of the above research question and discusses both theoretical and methodological issues arising from applying research ethics to this specific case of Internet inquiry. In this sense, ethical approaches in online research contexts as well as main ethical decisions are discussed and justified, envisioning a submission to an institutional ethics review board before undertaking the ethnographical study. Topics such as privacy concerns in a public online setting, choice between overt and covert research, researcher as observer or participant, narrow or loosely defined application of the informed consent and anonymity are outlined, presenting a range of different options. This article intends to show that ethical decisions are an iterative procedure and an integral part of the research design process. Moreover, it endorses the opportunity to produce localized and contextualized ethical decision-making. To this end, it takes into account the guidance available (research ethics literature; narratives of ethics procedures applied to empirical cases); the ethics debates within the ethnographical tradition and the nature of the setting being researched (the specific format of the networked learning instance being examined). The discussion here proposed orientates ethical decision-making towards an overt and participant research approach, an informed consent intended as a "public notice" and a consideration of participants both as authors in the online setting and as human subjects embedding unexpected privacy sensitiveness. However, such decisions are considered as many starting points to build a research ethics protocol intended to a degree as a work in progress, in a problem-solving approach guided by the practical wisdom of participants emerging over time.
Esposito, A. (2012). Research Ethics in Emerging Forms of Online Learning: Issues Arising from a Hypothetical Study on a MOOC. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 10(3), 315-325.
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