The ethics of digital scholarship

I was asked to give a presentation at the Higher Education Academy summit on ethics and teaching last week, from a digital scholarship perspective. Being a chap of low morals and vague ethics, it was interesting to consider digital scholarship purely from this angle. Like much of educational technology or open education, the tendency is often to promote it as an unqualified good, but, inevitably, it's a bit more complicated than that.

I started by asking the question "What is teaching?" As well as being about imparting knowledge, developing skills it is also a process of enculturation, particularly in higher education. That is why going to university is such a life-event, because you are often taken from one culture, and brought into another. This obviously has huge ethical implications anyway, but the question I wanted to explore was what if that culture has changed, but the enculturation process hasn't?

If we want to force students to engage with aspects of digital, or open, scholarship, there are a number of ethical considerations. Firstly, to what extent is it right to force people to operate in the open? As George Siemens reminds us, learning is a vulnerable process, so increasing that vulnerability has ethical considerations. While we like to look at the successful communities created by courses such as DS106, Phonar, Rhizo14, etc. there are many learners who these approaches don't work for, and who feel excluded from what seems like an online clique. 

Even things that seem straightforward ethically are complicated on closer examination. Open access can be argued to be a moral approach, partly because it is funded by Government money. But what about a lot of teaching research that is, in effect, funded by student fees? Similarly, should that content, paid for by students be released openly? And conversely, is it unethical not to use the best OERs around for a subject you are teaching and rely just on your own notes?

My overall argument was that there are ethical considerations if we want to push a more digital scholarly enriched curriculum, for example should undergraduates release their final year research data openly, and do they understand issues such as deanonymisation? But as importantly there are ethical considerations for NOT adopting such approaches, particularly if these are the types of skills and cultural values that students should be developing to be successful citizens, employees, researchers, or whatever. That has always been the argument of higher education, that skills such as critical thinking, analysis, reasoning etc are good to develop for the benefit of the individual and society more generally. There are digital, networked flavours of all these skills too.

You'll see, in typical ethics fashion, I didn't really come to an answer, just lots more questions. The slidedeck is below.


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