New Learning Enviroment and Technology Lecture 2. The ethics of learning technology

This is the second reflection blog for the course I am doing for a New Learning Environment and Technology course. The first reflection is here. We have been asked to answer these three easy-peasy question about (digital) technology and schooling….

1) Access for all?

2) Equal opportunities?

3) How to consider an ethical approach in technologically supported learning contexts.

Not so easy-peasy, hey? It is not so easy-peasy for me because these questions are touching on my masters thesis which is looking at these kinds of assumptions for technology in education in South Africa. So, what is going to be a big fat essay one day, will try be a 1000 word blog post today. Secondly, if you start thinking about the ethics of having different ethics and wondering if global ethics even exist and if it is ethical to impose ethics on other ethical communities and of course that human beings are generally inconsistent with keeping to whatever set of ethics we hold on to, the conversation will never progress beyond “ethics”.

But let’s climb out of that rabbit hole for a moment and watch a video that shows how someone else has approached these questions. I will then give my thoughts on the video which will hopefully ground my discussion.

What we are learning from online education by Daphne Koller

So what does this all mean?


What if your education is not dependent on how much your family earns? What if boundaries around access to knowledge are taken away and what you know is not dependent on how much you could afford? Could this be the beginning of a world-wide revolution in education, work, wealth and poverty? While Daphne Koller and others would like to think so, I very much doubt it and here’s why:

1) While there may be “access for all” because the courses are freely available on the web, there are still  high costs in other areas. For this “free education” to happen there needs to be a confluence of many factors: people need electricity and computers; cheap, reliable, fast internet connections; and computer skills. Beyond the technological aspect of access, people also need to have free time to do the courses, they need to have access to the language the courses are presented in and if it is not their first or second language, they may need more time than if they were doing it in a language that they were more comfortable with. Lastly, while the issue of language sometimes hides this topic, something else to think about is how knowledge and learning and logic is conceived of in different expressions of culture. The universities featured here all hold to a certain worldview and understanding of pedagogy. I think it is access for some rather than access for all.

2) Coming to the issue of equal opportunity, I think the things I raised in the previous “access for all” section may cover the social part of this question, so, here I will discuss the idea of equal opportunity regarding the subjects and assessment methods chosen in Koller’s method (and now I am going stay within the understandings of Western education). Of course for some aspects of every subject there are right and wrong answers and a right and wrong way of getting that answer (yes, even in the high and mighty Humanities), for these, I would suggest that this Koller’s method works well. However, when you get to the higher orders of learning (according to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning) this method does not yet create space for analyzing, evaluation and creation. Although Koller alludes to critical thinking only really being in the Humanities, is it not imperative in all disciplines (yes, even in Business Science)? This is not to say that online learning cannot create these things, it’s just that by having learning and assessment in formats of multiple choice or pre-programmed games create half-educated students. So yes, they have equal opportunity but equal opportunity to what kind of education?

Bloom's Cognitive Domain

Bloom’s Cognitive Domain

3) So, considering these factors above, how do you have an ethical approach in technologically supported learning environments? Maybe you think I am a Luddite and that I think digital technology has no place in education and that online learning is not real learning. This is not true. I have done a few online university courses in the humanities with Finnish universities. The courses that I did also face the criticisms I spoke about in “access for all” but I thought I would share how they created an ethical space.

– The ethics of the course were stated in the front page of the course website. The lecturers also often reminded participants of the ethics of the course. It was understood then that these were not generalized or assumed ethics but the ethics of this particular course.

– We had a mixture of readings and YouTube videos to engage with which made the preparation part interesting.

– We were put in discussion groups of 4 or 5 people. All discussion groups could be seen by everyone including the lectures. When I have been in online courses that the discussion groups were bigger than this, the discussion just turns into a complicated, noisy conversation when people are only listening to their own voice rather than engaging with each other.

– At the end of each week, the lecturers gave their feedback on the discussions and also located the discussions within the readings of the week helping to keep it “academic”. In these feedback emails, patterns of answers were picked up and commented on. This helped to continue the thinking process beyond the discussion you were contributing to.

– Koller’s programme allows teachers/lecturers to constantly survey students: to know their time of task, if they are concentrating all the time, how many mistakes it takes them to get to the right answer etc. This big brother form of teaching assumes that a) learning can happen in this type of heavily observed environment and that b) the things that they are looking at (time on task etc.) are indicators of proper learning. Why this is problematic is that this kind of high surveillance might actually retard learning Have you ever had to write or type with a teacher/examiner watching you from behind. It’s unnerving. So with this in mind, what I liked about the courses that I have done was that the documents and videos could be viewed (or not viewed) away from the site and the work for assessment was also done offsite. This meant that tasks, mistakes and thoughts could be done in their own time.

We can see then that learning is possible in the digital environment however the obstacles of practical access as well as the possibility of non-inclusion of different ways of thinking limit it’s purported “world wide” appeal and impact whether the course is aware of these challenges or not.


(sidenote: If you look at the map of South Africa in the beginning of here presentation you might notice that Johannes is pointed to as being somewhere in the middle of South Africa. There is probably nothing quite as embarrassing as starting out a presentation giving your genetic academic heritage and then getting a simple geographical fact wrong.)

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