Mind the Ethics Gap

I’ve Tweeted a few things this week relating to a colleague in another Canadian university, Ian Linkletter, who now finds himself on the sticky end of a lawsuit from Proctorio, an automated proctoring service, for sharing some videos that they regarded to be confidential. These videos were published as unlisted videos on YouTube – a form of security through obscurity rather than a properly secure solution – the irony of which has not failed to escape many who have commented on the case.

To the uneducated eye (mine) this entire case looks rather like an attempt to scare, and a rather hastily executed one at that. I have learned that these kinds of actions are referred to as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation yet the case has been filed in a province with arguably some of the strongest anti-SLAPP legislation in Canada. This kind of act first, reflect later behaviour is not new for this company.

Brenna Clarke Gray has written eloquently in defence of Ian, and why the work that he does is important, and I would encourage you to read her blog, and to consider adding your name in support if you feel moved to. What I want to write about here goes beyond Ian’s case, but absolutely encompasses it. It goes something like this…

Whilst we have a strong culture of ethics review in our research activities, that stands in stark comparison to our operational activities, where we have failed to account for the ethical dimensions of the expansion of educational technology.

The selection and implementation of educational technology in our institutions is often justified in terms of “business need”, and characterised as a “natural, necessary and largely neutral element of contemporary education” . However our increasing understanding of the nature of the digital more generally, and surveillance capitalism specifically (see Shoshana Zuboff, Audrey Watters and many others) means that it has become vitally important to take a more critical view of educational technology.

Educational technology is not new, but newer forms are increasingly bound to a wider neoliberal agenda, including the commodification of education and increased competition between institutions and even countries . Veletisianos and Moe identify that “The rise of edtech is underpinned by ideology: Edtech is financially driven, adheres to privatisation of longstanding public structures, desires automated or prepackaged contents and processes, and envisions technology as a solution in and of itself”. Recently, disturbing parallels have also been drawn between edtech and carceral technologies more generally.

Institutions are pressured by market forces to pursue technological innovation, whilst at the same time a push to shift service provision and potential profits to the private sector drives a message that institutions are not themselves capable of developing innovative educational technologies.  Educational technology has become a site of substantial commercial speculation and profit with significant gains to be made for commercial actors (though I would argue that COVID has accelerated a tendency towards towards convergence and monopoly; a trend we see being played out in other technology platforms).

It is therefore paradoxical that we have often given more ethical consideration to how we procure teabags than we have technology in institutions. In much the same way as we have considered issues like Fairtrade, living wage and modern slavery when selecting other goods and services within institutions, we need to look at aligning the procurement of educational technologies with ethical practices and principles. One aspect of that alignment must be a consideration of the ways in which companies conduct themselves, and the extent to which that is compatible with our beliefs and values.

I wrote in 2018 about the changes that I could see coming in educational technology, the challenges that posed, and this ethics gap.

“We are making decisions about operational activities, that have far-reaching ethical and behavioural consequences, without an adequate framework in which to consider these concerns… …this is stuff that’s coming at us, and there are risks if we deal with it retroactively”

A notable feature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect on HE institutions has been the number of learning technologists like Ian stepping up to provide both digital leadership and to be the voice of conscience on some of these issues. Whilst I’m pleased to see learning technologists recognised for the vital work they do in institutions, this only serves to further emphasise the ethics gap between the academic and operational activities of the academy; we find ethics are a structural consideration in one area, and a risky business to engage with in another. Up to, and now 100% including the possibility that you could face legal action.

References

Connell, R. (2011). MyUniversity: Notes on neoliberalism and knowledge. http://www.nteu.org.au/article/MyUniversity%3A--Notes-on-neoliberalism-and-knowledge-12786
Selwyn, N. (2013). Distrusting Educational Technology : Critical Questions for Changing Times. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315886350
Veletsianios, G., & Moe, R. (2017, April 10). The Rise of Educational Technology as a Sociocultural and Ideological Phenomenon. Educause Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/4/the-rise-of-educational-technology-as-a-sociocultural-and-ideological-phenomenon

2 thoughts on “Mind the Ethics Gap

  1. Thanks for introducing me to SLAPP, one of things I might guess about but not knowing it had a name. And what Proctorio is doing is a dictionary definition.

    I wonder in their case what customers who pay their fees can say about the ways those monies are being used. Not on R&D not to make the product better, but instead their service fees are being spent on a bent personal vendetta. The only way it seems is to do what Ian has done, continually calling them on it.

    I wonder w/o much background here how much that is done elsewhere as ethical practices (purchasing, research guidelines) is driven by compliance with regulations or external requirements. I am not suggesting we need more, but what about the kinds of ethical practices that come just from care or a desire just to act ethically?

    At least the tea bags are taken care of!

    1. Thanks for the reply Alan – I love that I can always count on you to comment on the blog, rather than a brief 280 chars into the Twitter void 😉

      Your thoughts about compliance are exactly right. What I wrote here is in part a cut down version of a larger piece of writing that remains in progress. In it I wrote:

      “I would argue that ultimately educational technology has proven to be especially fertile ground for the pursuit of commercial profit and the wider neoliberal agenda because it has traditional been a very lightly regulated space, as opposed to other areas such as financial or human resource technologies, which have been more closely bounded to the demands of external legal compliance. Educational technology can therefore be seen as at once facilitating the core activity of the academy and providing a convenient vehicle through which the neo-liberal market agenda can be pursued and realised.”

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