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Thoughts on ethical issues surrounding studying younger students in virtual worlds and online


Young people


Their use of mobile phones and networked devices


Immersive Virtual Worlds and virtual inhabitants (not everyone’s cup of tea)

  • Informal learning settings

  • Ethical challenges across the full range of contexts


  • Keep ethical questions open given the changing environment.
  • A participatory and iterative approach (Lally et al. 2012 : 02 )
  • Assumption that ‘developments in mobile and networked technologies change young people’s culture landscape, allowing them to communicate, socialise and collaborate on their personal projects in new ways’. (Lally et al. 2012 : 02 )
  • Indeed, outside the formal education system (Sharples, Graber, Harrison, & Logan, 2009)


  • Outside the classroom
  • How to research
  • New ‘ecologies’ of learning (Looi, 2001)
  • Hanging around the changing rooms after a swimming session – banter that leaks out into the general public.


  • Integration of these platforms/worlds into learning design.
  • Merging formal and informal.
  • Bridging formal and nonformal/informal contexts (TEL-TLRP) projects – ‘Inter-Life’ and ‘Personal Inquiry’  (Lally et al. 2012 : 04)

‘The projects have to negotiate territory that by its very informal and collaborative nature requires ethical and educational processes to be negotiated and distributed amongst participants, rather than pre-determined by their institutional context’. (Lally et al. 2012 : 04)

Like bringing a game of British Bulldogs or ‘Kick the can’ into a teaching setting, like boy scouts … and killing it off in the process. Kids would run a mile if they spotted a teacher. Even at university, extracurricular that had nothing to do with the course … and faculty associations which did.

Ethics – and Aristotle and ‘phronesis’. (Unnecessarily pretentious or a valid grounding in ethics.

If we go back to Aristotle then why miss out all the philosophical thinking and development since, at least via humanists such as Hegel)

  • Quest for external and universal truths
  • Skills required to pursue a particular end

Elliot, (2006)‘disciplined conversation in which reasons for action are scrutinised, critiqued and modified’.

Phronesis – underpins the argument for iterative and participatory research.  (Lally et al. 2012 : 02 ) = practical wisdom (wikipedia).

Learning in informal and non-formal settings already constitutes the majority of educational interactions during a person’s lifetime (Livingstone, 1999)

Actually it starts in the womb as the brain forms in the foetus from around five months and never ends … a person continues to learn to the moment they die … possibly even moments after the heart has stopped and the brain finally shuts down and everything is lost.

I wouldn’t count on anything that is said by Marc Prensky (2005)

A more reliable source might be the OII Annual Survey for GB usage, Rebecca Eynon.

Emergent social network technologies (Selwyn, 2008)

Prohibition at school.

Skills learnt: online collaborative learning, development of skills in web-based social networking, occur almost entirely outside the formal education system. (Lally et al. 2012 : 04 )

  • The perpetual consumer (Lawson, 2004) and the net savvy adolescent.
  • Direct link between economic activities and consumption.  (Lally et al. 2012 : 04 )

AdBlocker, scrambling facebook, if you get ads in blogs pay to exclude, tape over screen, block pop-ups, move platform (e.g . AOL).

Edutainment rarely competes with the games that have 100m invested.

Novel ethical issues  (Lally et al. 2012 : 04)

The study of people’s personal use of digital technology for learning (Buckingham &Willett, 2009; Crook & Harrison, 2008; Sharples et al., 2009), and their engagement with digital technologies across formal and non-formal/informal settings for education (Vavoula, Sharples, Rudman, Lonsdale, & Meek, 2007), presents novel ethical issues.


Davies, C., & Eynon, R (2013) Teenagers and Technology (Adolescence and Society)

Eynon, R (2009) Mapping the digital divide in Britain: implications for learning and education.

Kelly, D (Forthcoming 2011) ‘Karaoke’s Coming Home:  Japan’s Empty Orchestras in the United Kingdom’, Leisure Studies 30.

Lally, V; Sharples, M; Tracey, F; Bertram, N and Masters, S. (2012). Researching the ethical dimensions of mobile, ubiquitous,and immersive technology enhanced learning (MUITEL) in informal settings: a thematic review and dialogue. Interactive Learning Environments, 20(3), pp. 217–238.

Livingstone, D.W. (1999). Exploring the icebergs of adult learning: Findings of the first Canadian survey of informal learning practices. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 13(2), 49–72.

Looi, C.K. (2001). Enhancing learning ecology on the internet. Journal of Computer Assisted

Learning, 17(1), 13–20.

Prensky, M. (2005). Don’t bother me mum – I’m learning. St Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Selwyn, N. (Ed.). (2008). Education 2.0?: Designing the web for teaching and learning. London: Institute of Education, University of London, TLRP-TEL.

Sharples, M., Graber, R., Harrison, C., & Logan, K. (2009). E-Safety and Web2.0 for children aged 11–16. Journal of Computer-Assisted Learning, 25, 70–84.

Using Computer-based Text Analysis to Integrate Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Research on Collaborative Learning (1997) Wegerif and Mercer.

Primary Questions

What research questions are being addressed?

The incorporation of computer-based methods into the study of talk offers a way of combining the strengths of quantitative and qualitative methods of discourse analysis while overcoming some of their main weaknesses. (Wegerif and Mercer.  1997. p. 271)

What contribution can computer-based text analysis make to the study of ‘researching talk’ and ‘educational activity’ in classrooms?


Can computer-based text analysis better demonstrate the differences between post-intervention task talk and pre-intervention task talk?

A method for the study of collaborative learning.

  • The study of talk would benefit from use of computers.
  • Talking approaches only previously used on ‘large corpora of written text’ (Wegerif and Mercer.  1997. p. 271)
  • Can the issues regarding the use of qualitative and quantitative techniques be ameliorated through the use of software to analyse texts.

What is the sector and setting? (e.g. school, higher education, training, informal learning)

  • Primary School Classrooms
  • Software that allows the micro and the macro, picking out words or working on a piece of text from the transcript.
  • Intellectually in the heads of those involved in post-doctoral research – there can, I sense, be a disconnect between the subjects (9-10 years and their teachers).

What theories, concepts and key terms are being used? Use of quantitative and qualitative techniques to try to extrapolate meaning from the concrete, complex and absolute.

  • Coding schemes and publicly verifiable criteria to make categorisations. (Wegerif and Mercer.  1997. p. 271)
  • = quantitative
  • Interpretative analysis of transcribed speech = qualitative.
  • Are the techniques valid?
  • The study of shared knowledge over time. Crook (1994)

What methods of data collection and analysis are used? (e.g. the number of participants; the type of technologies; the use of interviews, surveys, observation, etc.)

  • Informed Observation
  • Concordancing software !KwicTex as midway between quantitative and qualitative research and complementary to both.
  • Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices
  • Strengths and weaknesses to current approaches to the study of talk and collaborative activity.
  • Integration of computer-based analysis
  • Coding schemes – quantitative
  • Interpretative analysis – qualitative
  • Discourse analysis of Barnes (1976) and the ‘illusion of proof’ (Edwards & Westgate)
  • ‘Different methodologies can be taken to embody different views of the nature of meaning’. (Snyder, 1995)
  • ‘Qualitative analysis can be effective for generating theories but not so effective for rigorously testing them (Hammersley, 1992).

What did this research find out? Computer analysis of text creates and maintains a connection between the abstract quantitative and qualitative findings.

  • It is a valid and valuable new research tool.

What are the limitations of the methods used?

  • Frankly expressed (Wegerif and Mercer.  1997. p. 273)
  • Critiques of coding approaches
  • Qualitative methods based on close scrutiny of extracts from a lengthy transcript.

Are there any ethical issues associated with the research?

  • Only if data gathered is released or leaked, particularly these days actual video footage of children.
  • Child Protection protocols when working with children.
  • If video footage gathered shows inappropriate behaviour of teachers to students, or students amongst themselves how do the observer/researcher respond?
  • Not an issue in 1997 but what if video footage finds its way onto the internet and so children, the school and teachers are then identifiable and their actions then open to scrutiny?

What are the implications (if any) for practice, policy or further research?

  • Over a decade on the sophistication of text analysis has massively advanced. As the authors intimate, it is now reasonable to video all interactions for later analysis and scrutiny. Great care has to be taken when doing this in this setting – the technique has been used extensively by Yrjo Engestrom forming part of the analysis approach using Cultural Historical Activity Theory. (Engestrom, 1997).

Supplementary Questions

What counts as evidence in this work?

What are the implications (if any) for practice, policy or further research?

Clusters of words categorised using agreed criteria gathered and sorted using computer software so easing and facilitating the research process.

How does the research question relate to the design of the research?

The research question is the design of the research. It is the trial of a new tool or technique.

In what ways is the wider literature used in the paper?

Extensively and systematically woven into the paper to provide background and balance and even trying hard to offer contrasting perspectives so setting out clearly the pros and cons of the methodology and past experiences with these techniques in this kind of setting.

  • Systematic observation. Croll, 1986
  • Fourteen mutually exclusive categories. Teasley 1995
  • Length of utterance, pragmatic functional categories. Kruger, 1993
  • Neo-Piagetian concept of ‘socio-cognitive conflict’ (Doise & Mugny, 1984)
  • Counting the number and type of disagreements in interactions . Joiner (1993)
  • Handling large amounts of data.
  • Critique of coding (Edwards & Mercer, 1987)
  • Ambiguous nature of negotiated meanings (Draper & Anderson, 1991) (Potter & Wetherell)
  • Inventories of utterances (Crook, 1994)
  • Benefits of discourse analysis (Barnes, 1976) and others …

Critiques of qualitative discourse analysis (Edwards & Westgate, 1994)
Qualitative analysis can be effective for generating theories but not so effective for rigorously testing them (Hammersley, 1992).

What views of education and learning underpin the research?

Importance of exploratory talk. The patterns can be found in the massive and the complex. This is ‘big data’ for the 1990 Supplementals – questions I would ask if looking closer at a paper.

Out of curiosity and because you can courtesy of the Web. I will Google search an author to see if they have written a more current paper on a subject – I’d prefer to hear what they have to say, on blogging, in a 2011 paper, than one written in 2005.

What ?

Together the above developing the conept of ‘Thinking Together’


The Open University, followed by University of Exeter and University of Cambridge Education Departments.


Concordancers used in linguistics to explore changes in word meaning and create modern dictionary entries (Graddol et al., 1994)


‘In this way the old dichotomies of process and product, quantitative and qualitative, were at least to some extent transcended. (Wegerif and Mercer.  1997. p. 272)

One-tailed Mann-Whitney test ?

Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices ?

Degrees of concrete to abstract from the event, to a video, to audio, a transcript, or clusters of words.

Given it is ‘Week One’ I gave RefWorks a workout – all of these I had to cut and paste from the PDF as I couldn’t find them in the OU library and haven’t figured out to use the automated Ref with other online libraries. RefWorks seems great for papers – though all I’ve done so far is to collate various subject in folders rather than starting to read then generated bibliographies.


Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Barnes, D. and Todd, F. (1995) Communication and Learning Revisited. New York: Heinemann.

Crook, C. (1994) Computers and the Collaborative Experience of Learning. London and New York: Routledge.

Croll, P. (1986) Systematic Classroom Observation. Lewes, Sussex: The Falmer Press.

Doise, W. and Mugny, G. (1984) The Social Development of Intellect. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Draper, S. and Anderson, A. (1991) The significance of dialogue in learning and observing learning. Computers and Education 17 (1), 93–107.

Edwards, D. and Mercer, N. (1987) Common Knowledge: The Development of Understanding in the Classroom. London: Methuen/Routledge.

Edwards, A. and Westgate, D. (1994) Investigating Classroom Talk. London: Falmer Press.

Engeström, Yrjö From teams to knots: activity theoretical studies of collaboration and learning at work Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii, 261 pp. ISBN: 978-0-521-86567-8.

Graddol, D. (in preparation) !KWICTex — a computer-based tool for discourse analysis. Occasional Paper, Centre for Language and Communication, Open University.

Hammersley, M. (1992) What’s Wrong with Ethnography. London: Routledge.

Kruger, A. (1993) Peer collaboration: Conflict, cooperation or both? Social Development 2

Joiner, R. (1993). A dialogue model of the resolution of inter-individual conflicts: Implications for computer-based collaborative learning. Unpublished PhD thesis, The
Open University.

Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1994) Discourse Analysis and Social Psychology. London: Sage.

Snyder, I. (1995) Multiple perspectives in literacy research: Integrating the quantitative and qualitative. Language and Education 9 (1).

Teasley, S. (1995) The role of talk in children’s peer collaborations. Developmental Psychology 31 (2), 207–20.


Roussos, M, Johnson, A, Moher, T, Leigh, J, Vasilakis, C, & Barnes, C 1999, ‘Learning and Building Together in an Immersive Virtual World’, Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments, 8, 3, pp. 247-263, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 8 February 2013.

I’ve become a convert to the value of collaborative learning.

This has required a behavioural shift that I find I have carried into my every day life. I am less precious about what I do, open to critique, comment and sharing in a way that is liberating. It may be presumptuous to assume that all around me are as enlightened but I feel better able to offer comment and feedback, invited or not.

In relation to the exercise, this is our second collaborative effort within the Tutor Group and my third (or fourth) given the Supplementary Activities. I can also reflect on collaborative efforts and frustrations from H807.

The key to success is to abandon the idea, more or less, that people will behave as a group would in the real world. Not only does it matter that I am doing this at 4.00am, but I am in my PJs. This has to effect my attitude and thinking. Being asynchronous I can waffle on to my heart’s delight too, leaving it to others to extract whatever may be of worth here (if they get this far).

Here I go …

Even in a synchronous meeting might someone be in transit, on a train, another getting up, a third going to bed, a fourth trying to do this with food cooking, a child pestering them about homework, the TV on, the Radio on or off … someone at the door, the phone ringing … or as my 12 year old does his homework, while watching streamed cartoons. Not only are we ‘not there,’ how much of us/that person is with us?

What if we are all sheep, or all sheepdogs? Or all the shepherd? What if we care a lot, or not at all?

The trick is to accommodate all comers nor to care about someone else’s circumstances. i.e. set the thing in motion, contribute how and where you can to keep the thing in motion, be fluid, and contribute. Be open, ask questions, be willing to make mistakes …

We are exposing both the contents of our minds (a part of it at least) and revealing how we operate. Treat this with respect. Our differences may be extreme. Or not.

Treat the collaborative task as a raft. We’re on the Kontiki Ra crossing the Pacific together. We need to get along, anyone of us could sink the thing if circumstances don’t overwhelm us.

Accept that it won’t always work.

You may wait forever for a contribution that never comes; use this as part of the learning process rather than let it trip up the exercise. Role player a second or third person if needs – role play being something that is easily accommodated in this environment.

Don’t presume anything. Just begin, and keep going. Resist the temptation to see the output of others and redirect your group whole-scale in that direction. Each journey has its own lessons and will be different, however many times the exercise is carried out. Can tutors concur or are we like lemmings? (or sheep).

Do it for the learning experience and for the fun of it … not for the marks! The parameters of success and failure and suitably broad, accept that you’ll fall in the middle of this very broad road. To expect failure or to court brilliance are both doomed to failure in equal measure and to tip this Kontiki Raft of a collaborative exercise over.

My contribution?

Do do when you can. Try to contribute a bit regularly, as piling it at the beginning and the end can be like a Bull in a china shop … or a ghost entering a room.

The contribution of others?

Accept that it is their business. If the environment you are part of seems inviting and you each play host, however is around, then there will be an interest in ‘coming out to play,’ and even participating.

Remember what your first online collaborative exercise with a group of strangers was like, avoid the mistakes of the past … and work with behaviours/approaches you have seen are successful.

What happened?

We lined up, and made a start. We found our way and found our roles. There is no Seargeant Major telling us what we do, but someone or two needed to step forward. You can wait politely a little while, or offer your services if you feel you have the time to give and the wherewithall not to let others down.

Don’t be precious about anything. Respect all ideas as a catalyst for direction, improvement or redirection. Accept that things can shift. Accept that no one knows what you think until you express it. If you can’t touch type go get lessons!

Personally I am neither pilot nor co-pilot, if such roles exist. I may not be using this exercise to show initiative or leadership, but I can play several other roles as participant, as court jester … as an observer who will reflect on it, who will make a start and offer views, and insights, and make mistakes, and admit them, and be around (because I am and can be).

So what?

Like blogging making regular contributions probably works better than piling in at the weekend. Not a surprise that more are able to do this than not. Accept that my working day isn’t – I tend to be out evenings and weekends. Time zones mean little to extreme owls or an extreme lark … I am that lark, working best long before the dawn chorus, coming into my own as its volume increases.

Be guided. If not host, play the role of a good party guests. Acknowledge the contribution of others. Allow yourself to be cajouled by their thinking. Say it … it can be read, ignored, commented on or not. This is a process, not an end result.

Use what you or others know has worked in the past. Trying to assemble a moment when most of us can gather matters. Synchronous work acts like a milestone, a deadline … it galvanises contributions before the cut of point. It is always surprising how this joint enterprise can temporarily morph into a joint entity where instead of us each writing a paragraph, we write one paragraph together. Use the exervise to summise and find common ground.

What next?

Get some sleep. I’ll not be able to join in a proposed early afternoon Skype if I am napping.

Prepare. Understand what others have said. Identify strengths and weaknesses of our approach. Maybe take a look at what others are up to … even search the OU Blog for what H808ers made of this last year or the year before (its all out there!).

Be wise and be willing to accept guidance if my ignorance is also revealed. This is the point … you learn more from your mistakes, than from showing off.

Does this even count as reflection?

Am I doing it for myself or because the course requires it? Having not followed a template have I gone astray?

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