Research ethics and internet research

At Bradford College, staff and students are using the internet in various ways to develop dissertations and research projects. There are lots of possibilities: online interviews and focus groups; questionnaires; observing or participating in forums; using information from blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and more.

Involving humans in research on or through the internet raises complex ethical issues, so I went to a workshop at the University of Leeds to find out more.

The workshop: Is one of a series on research ethics, held by the University of Leeds. (You can read about an earlier workshop I attended, about involving humans in research, here on the blog).

Dr Alice Temple, University of Leeds

Dr Alice Temple, University of Leeds

The workshop was led by Dr Alice Temple, who works with the University Research Ethics Committee, other University Ethics Working Groups, the Inter-disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and the UK Universities Research Ethics Committees Group, concerned with national issues of the ethical review process in Universities.

Recent situations: During the talk, Alice mentioned real instances to show how ethics can play out with regard to the internet. Here’s an example:

  • participants in a sexual abuse survivors online forum found their words had been used for research. Their response was that this was a form of violation, and their online support community no long felt like a safe place.

Sitting on park bench? Alice explained that one academic asks people to visualise that they are sitting on a park bench (a public space) chatting to friends. If you then found you were being recorded for research purposes, how would you feel? (Waskul, 1996)

The workshop explored these and other issues raised by internet research. A summary is set out below. For the best set of guidelines, Alice recommended a report from the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) titled ‘Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research’.

Privacy and confidentiality
The internet presents greater risks to individual privacy than many other forms of communication. Many people aren’t aware that IPS addresses can be traced back to them. You may think you are participating anonymously in a discussion, but in all likelihood you can be identified. And people don’t realise how public or permanent information is, or how easily it can be picked up by search engines.

This means that a researcher must be clear about anonymity, including the instances when anonymity might not be respected (for instance if a participant discloses something illegal).

The internet offers researchers the possibility of eavesdropping – of observing behaviours and attitudes, of taking part in conversations without disclosing that you are doing research. Nearly all these approaches are likely to be unethical.

What is public and what is private?
This is no easy matter, but it is vital that researchers assess how ‘public’ an online environment is before they make it part of their research. Most blogs, and some forums, are in the public domain, easily accessible. Other groups you have to register to join and it is clear that a greater degree of privacy is expected. However, people who comment in more open online environments can be unaware of how easy it is to find what they are saying, and that it is a permanent record, so they may have shared information openly that was meant to be private.

Other factors to take into consideration when defining the degree of confidentiality that might apply include the sensitivity of the information that is shared or discussed. There is a considerable difference between a group that meets to talk about sports fixtures and a group that is reflecting on sexual abuse.

The vulnerability of participants is also a concern, and the profile of the people involved – people who are high profile have an expectation that their words will attract attention and that their privacy will not be respected. The potential harm that the research process or publication could cause is another consideration.

Participants as subjects and participants as authors
This has been put forward as a useful way of determining the degree to which privacy should be respected. Where participants are subjects, they are taking part in discussions without seeing their communication as something they intend for wider publication. Where people author material, for instance on a website or blog, they are deliberately placing information in the public domain for others to read.

Informed consent
The guidance on best practice from AoIR deems that consent is essential if using private or semiprivate sources, such as email groups and closed chat rooms. With regard to open access forums (newsgroups, bulletin boards) consent is not always a necessity – the more open the place, the less onus for consent.

How to get informed consent: If you are using material on a blog, you can contact the author and ask their permission. But on a chat forum it can be much harder because people come and go.

One option is to post comments on the forum several times, explaining your research and their role in it. You can do this before and during the research. Seeking retrospective consent is more problematic, because the people may be harder to contact.

Even on a public site, such as a newspaper with comment forums, you should try to gain consent if you intend to quote participants. If you use aggregated data from an open forum, without quoting participants, this lessens the need to get consent.

Options include contacting the owner of a forum and requesting their consent, and/or arranging for people to tick a box to indicate they consent to taking part. With online surveys and questionnaires, if a clear introduction is given to the participant, their consent is implied once they choose to take part.

The credibility of the researcher is important to securing consent. You should have a link to somewhere online that explains who you are, the research you are doing, and how to contact you. You also need to consider whether you are confident that people taking part in the research are who they say they are, including whether children might be taking part in appropriately.

It is standard research practice to acknowledge sources. Copyright law can apply, requiring acknowledgement. This is to be balanced with providing confidentiality and anonymity where appropriate – this requires the stripping out of demographic data and names. Sometimes it is impossible to ensure confidentiality, and in these cases the ethics issues should be considered very carefully before research goes ahead.

Digital divides
The ethical issue here is whether your sample is representative or inclusive if you use only online sources: many people do not or cannot access the internet. In addition, it becomes harder to be ethically sensitive online, where so many different cultures can be present. Language is another factor – in international or transnational research, it is possible that many or the majority of participants will not have English as a first language.

Data security
There are a number of risks: emails can go to unintended recipients, messages in a chat room can be copied, and in general security can be breached in a number of ways.

Feedback procedures
Good practice in ethics requires the researcher to feedback to those involved in the research. This is also important to building a long-term positive research environment – poorly conducted research can alienate participants and make them reluctant to be part of future studies.

The law
Key areas of law are libel, harassment and intellectual property. These vary from one country to another. EU legislation has been increased recently: it is necessary to have tobtain explicit, freely given, specific and informed consent from individuals in order to be able to lawfully process their personal data under EU data protection laws.

What is legal falls short of what is ethical here,” Alice explained, “because there isn’t sufficient legislation to deal with all situations.”

Using the internet in research: University of Leeds workshop, May 2013

Using the internet in research: University of Leeds workshop, May 2013

At Bradford College, all research is submitted to ethics review. Student research up to masters level is reviewed by staff within the relevant Department. Individual research proposals that cause concern are then referred to the College Research Ethics Committee. All research conducted by staff and outside researchers is reviewed by the Committee. Contact me (Ruth Wilson) for further information.



Dramatically good: the ethics of performing arts in further and higher education

Damien O’Keeffe is Curriculum Team Leader for Media, Music and Performing Arts at Bradford  College, where he lectures in performing arts to further and higher education students.

Damien O'Keeffe (left) in the PaperZoo production of 1984, with former Bradford College student Ben Eagle, and John Hurt.

Damien O’Keeffe (left) in the PaperZoo production of 1984, with former Bradford College student Ben Eagle, and John Hurt. Ben is now studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Damien started by outlining two main strands to the ethical debate concerning performance:

“There’s what we put out and our responsibilities as artists and communicators – because live performance is very immediate and visceral. And from a teaching point of view, we have to consider the material that we offer to our students, how we guide them in what they want to express.”

Creating a safe space
One of the key things is to create a safe environment for students and staff. “A rehearsal studio has to be a space where you can explore without embarrassment,” Damien explains.

The staff increasingly find that young people want to create drama that explores big issues such as body image, sexuality, addiction, family difficulties. “All drama is conflict,” Damien says. “The ancient Greeks knew that – and it means that drama can be a place where you can explore things that are happening in the world that you don’t understand or are frightened of. However, less experienced students sometimes act out very personal conflicts, and this can make them vulnerable.”

Expletives deleted (sometimes)
It also means that the lecturers have to be prepared to challenge things that are potentially offensive or difficult. “This is not as censorship,” Damien explains. “It is about enabling students to understand the impact of how they express things. If you swear all the time, it becomes meaningless – yet a well-placed expletive used carefully has major power.” The students are given a short history of major media landmarks in the use of obscene language, and they are introduced to some Shakespearean insults. “We aim to enrich vocabulary and improve the effectiveness of the drama our students create.”

The YouTube effect
Up to a few years ago, drama students would only be seen when they put on a live performance. There might be the occasional video or audio recording, not easily available. Damien and I discussed the fact that now a drama student can go home, put themselves on YouTube and broadcast to the world.

“We have to cover netiquette on all our courses,” Damien explains. “If you put your work out there, you must expect criticism, and it’s on the record. We don’t want to curtail freedom of expression or the embracing of new technologies. That can be good: casting directors, other performers and professionals may see what you do, and it can lead to good things. But the whole population can see it and you have to be careful about that.”

The College’s drama courses also explore self-presentation as a way of empowering the students. “They need the space to be themselves but also they need to understand that your ‘self’ changes according to the space that you are in. We teach students how to centre and be strong in themselves. This is the kind of thing that can help you throughout your life, whether you have a career in drama or not.”

The drama curriculum – a fine judgement
The courses take on a wide variety of students – some have been drama enthusiasts for years, taking part in lots of performances. Others have had almost no experience of theatre.

“We try to give students what they need rather than what they want,” Damien says. “It’s a fine judgement; you don’t want a hidden or assumed curriculum. It would be easy to let the students carry on doing what they know and like – ‘Bugsy Malone’, ‘Grease’, ’The Little Shop of Horrors’ and so on. So we give them new challenges – anything from ancient Greek drama to contemporary playwrights.

“The studio is a way to explore difficult things, but there is so much that is dangerous in the world – the studio is also a place where the students can discover beauty, redemption and light because that is what is often missing from the students’ lives. All this makes teaching drama a wonderful job.”

Damien in rehearsal for the summer 2013 production of Hard Times.

Damien in rehearsal for ‘Hard Times’.

Damien is from Bradford. He went to local schools, where two inspirational teachers gave him and many other young people a passion for drama and the opportunity to take part in it. He studied drama and media studies at Manchester College, and then gained a degree in performing arts from Middlesex University. He has worked as an actor, and in theatre education outreach at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and Leicester Haymarket Theatre. He is a founder member of PaperZoo, a theatre company set up and run by teachers and students.

Useful links
Bradford College students: Oh What a Lovely War, 13 and 14 June 2013.
PZ LogoPaperZoo’s next production: Hard Times, showing in Leeds, Bradford, Saltaire, Otley, Settle, Halifax and Bury.
Damien’s personal blog: Flawed Monkey
Photo: Damien in a performance of ‘Ruffian on the Stair’ at Bradford College’s Yorkshire Craft Centre, with Julia O’Keeffe.
Interview and text: Ruth Wilson, Bradford College

War and Art: using digital tools to give voice to the audience

Our February War and Art conference and exhibition was a huge success. A packed audience met at Bradford College and the National Media Museum to explore these important themes.

The audience at the National Media Museum, War and Art, February 2013

The audience at the National Media Museum, War and Art, February 2013

I wanted to find ways of capturing the event that would do it justice, and would help give voice to the audience. I know that people don’t have time to listen to lengthy material, and I wanted media that allowed for feedback. I have therefore combined ThingLink and SoundCloud in a simple way that I hope gives participants and others the chance to enjoy a few, brief voices from the floor. You can leave comments in either environment, though for ThingLink you do have to sign up in order to leave feedback.

To give you a flavour, here is one short voice from the audience. Go to ThingLink for the full effect, and visit our website for a slideshow that has many powerful images, quotes and highlights from the event. I have to thank the recent University of Edinburgh ELearning and Digital Cultures course for the opportunity to explore and start using these interesting online tools.

By the way – I didn’t ask people to be nice! I think it was one of those events that knocks everyone off their feet.

The recording was done with an Ediroll, then edited in Audacity, exported to iTunes to go from WAV to MP3, and then uploaded to SoundCloud (I never thought I could sound so ‘tecchie’ – perhaps I will get geek status eventually!). (Thank you Richard Layden for your help.)

Text and recordings by Ruth Wilson, Bradford College.

Every College needs one: the essential nature of the e-learning facilitator

My colleague Beth Snowden is our e-learning facilitator.

“I’ve been teaching ever since my early 20s and the day when I stepped into a Japanese classroom and I was so scared that my knees wobbled,” she says. Now Beth does a job that didn’t exist when she started out as a teacher.

Beth Snowden: Bradford College Elearning Facilitator

Beth joined us at Bradford College twelve years ago, working as an accredited Microsoft trainer helping staff make use of IT systems. Her role has evolved with advances in technology and developments in education, and Beth is very much on an e-learning journey of her own. She is currently studying for a Masters at the University of Huddersfield in E-learning and Multimedia.

“It’s amazing how things have changed,” Beth says. “Once I ran lots of half or full day training sessions for staff looking at how to use computers. Now a lot of what I do is one to one advice and support on different applications. They say that once a technology is fully adopted it becomes invisible, and I think that has happened here. It’s only when something goes wrong that I have to deal with problems that once were routine.”

A lot of Beth’s support work relates to Moodle, the Smart Board, and Turnitin. These are all systems that the College has bought into, and are therefore prevalent across College. “Turnitin is a programme that identifies plagiarism,” Beth explains. “You can’t teach that without taking into account the bigger picture so I run sessions on plagiarism and technology alongside a member of the library staff.” Beth is also setting up a blended learning programme called ‘Stepping into Web 2.0; Blogging as a Rite of Passage for Educators’ in response to the needs of teaching staff who want to use flexible, reflective and participatory online tools and techniques.

Beth talked about the sense of responsibility that motivates her in her work, and expressed a deep commitment to being an educator.

“We are on the cusp of great change. I feel I have a responsibility to help staff use a variety of tools so they are part of this change. They need the opportunity to experiment, explore and learn from each other. And our students need to experience the new technologies as well. They need to learn how to discern – what is a useful tool, what information is sound.”

Interestingly, while nearly all our students in their teens and 20s are probably adept at using YouTube and Facebook, it is likely that only a minority are actively involved in using tools such as Evernote or blogging. Beth points out an ethical dimension to this: a good understanding of how to use technology and the internet enables democracy. “These technologies can alter power relations,” she says. “They can put the students more in control of their learning, and help them to be active and informed. They can enable them to have a voice.” (Beth then mentions the ‘flipped classroom’ – here’s a case study of a flipped maths class.)

There is a utilitarian element to keeping up with e-learning and the related technologies. “Some of these tools make learning and research much easier,” Beth says. “They can expand your professional and personal networks. And Bradford College will have a major new building in 2014, where technology and space will be combined in a new way – we need to prepare for that shift.”

Beth and I (along with another colleague, Ronan O’Beirne) are doing a free five week MOOC together – a  Massive Open Online Course. I won’t go on about what a MOOC is right now. You can find out by reading this blog entry, or this one, or visiting the course site. The focus of our MOOC is elearning and digital cultures, and this College Ethics blog post is a contribution: it will be shared across the course newsfeed, twitterfeed (#EDCMOOC ) and google plus. Beth is also blogging for and about the course.

So welcome to any new readers from the extraordinary, exciting and bewildering world of MOOC! It’s great to have real world companions in learning such as Beth, as well as 40,000 online fellow students. And welcome to everyone else. It seems to me education has an ethical duty to embrace and reflect on technological change.  I hope all Colleges in the UK have an embedded Beth as they head towards the new horizons that are opening up.

Photo and interview by Ruth Wilson, Bradford College.