ALT’s Framework for Ethical Learning Technology (EdTechEthics Part 1)

Some context

Over the past couple of years I have been reflecting on the importance of ethical principles related to learning technology (LT), particularly as several ethical concerns have been surfaced related to use of LT during the pandemic, at our institution and elsewhere.

For example, I was part of a working group that created guidelines for use of online invigilation tools in 2020 (currently posted on the front page of the UBC Keep Teaching website), that included considerations of privacy and equity. But the institution still had and supported this kind of technology for awhile (and did before the pandemic as well). It took work by many people, both through public advocacy and behind the scenes, but eventually the UBC Okanagan and UBC Vancouver Senates voted to “restrict the use of remote invigilation tools that involve automated recording and algorithmic analysis of data captured during invigilation to only cases explicitly requiring ‘remote proctoring software’ by external accreditation bodies” (from the UBC Vancouver Senate minutes of March 2021). Looking back, there are things I wish I had done differently, but my own view is that I am happy that we have at least now reached this point where the institution no longer centrally pays for or supports this kind of online proctoring tool.

This was just one example where a focus on the ethics of learning technology came to the fore at the institution, and I had every intention of starting to dig more deeply into working on a possible set of ethical principles in the last year or so. But the pandemic, and the ups and downs of continual changes in teaching and learning that have accompanied it, along with significantly increased workload for staff in our unit and myself, have meant it kept getting pushed off. But it’s long past time to get started, and I’m taking the first steps by reviewing what others have already done. I’ll be doing summaries and reflections in a set of posts on this blog over the next … well … however long it takes!

I’m starting with the Association of Learning Technology’s (ALT) Framework for Ethical Learning Technology (FELT), a project that I have been watching from the sidelines and following updates about. It’s a comprehensive project that I think is very promising.

ALT’s Framework for Ethical Learning Technology

Work to draft this framework began in October 2020, with community consultation on a draft in May-June 2021. The framework was launched in September 2021, and ALT is now looking for example policies and case studies from practitioners, institutions, and vendors to help illustrate how the framework can be put into action.

The Framework

There are four areas in the FELT, each with several principles and practices within it (see the list of areas and principles in text form at the end of this blog post).

 Awareness, Professionalism, Values and Community and Care. The full text version of the framework is included below.

Awareness: The way I’m reading this area, it focuses on awareness of one’s own beliefs, values, practices, and possible biases, as well as of the needs and interests of others that may be impacted by one’s decisions and actions.

Professionalism: Focuses on acting according to laws, policies, and the ethical values of integrity and honesty. It’s also about ongoing learning and professional development, basing one’s practices on evidence, and using research to continue to support ethical practices.

Care and Community: Focuses on care, collegiality, minimizing harm, and recognizing one’s responsibilities beyond one’s own institution.

Values: Focuses on values such as inclusivity, diversity, equity, fairness, accessibility, transparency and accountability in decision making, and supporting agency of learners.

According to the document explaining the framework, it is not meant as a set of rules for all to follow, but rather broad set of considerations for practitioners, institutions, and industry that can apply in many contexts.

  • For practitioners, the framework can be used to guide individual reflection, conversations, and practice. There are self-assessment worksheets for individuals and teams that can be used for this purpose.
  • For institutions, the framework can be used to guide strategic decisions and policies, and the collection of sample policies and case studies (noted above) will help in this effort. There are plans to also provide prompts for discussion related to the framework with internal audiences as well as with vendors.
  • For industry, the framework can help vendors discuss with institutions how they are taking ethical considerations into account, and a checklist for vendors is also being developed to go along with the framework.

Some reflections on the framework

These are pretty broad principles, designed to be such. They all sound like excellent principles to me, though from my perspective one thing that is missing is something recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples and how learning technology could be used to support or undermine those rights. What such a principle might entail is something that would need to be discussed and determined in consultation with Indigenous people, but it seems to me an area that is missing here. [Added later: Consider also a comment below about the context in which the framework was created; I can say at least that this is something that would need to be addressed were we to adapt the framework in our context.]

In addition, I was somewhat surprised that privacy does not appear directly as a concept or a value in the framework, given that that has been a significant concern for many during the last few years, particularly in relation to many learning technologies used during the pandemic. Perhaps it could be encompassed in things such as minimizing harms, or supporting agency of learners.

There are some really thought-provoking principles here I might not have thought about otherwise, such as responsibilities to broader communities–“consider the wider environments you can influence,” “recognizing responsibilities and influence beyond your institution,” and “share and disseminate best practice.” I really appreciate this focus on the impacts one’s decisions and actions can have on the community outside of one’s own practice or one’s own institutional policies and practices. By acting in certain ways, or failing to act in others, we can influence what others do–for example, policies we may create could impact not only users in our institutions but also vendors and other institutions who may follow our lead (or point out flaws in our approach).

I’m also thinking about: what might these principles look like in practice, when making decisions around learning technology at an individual or institutional level?As I look through the various materials linked above, I’m thinking that the point of the framework is not necessarily to be used as a sort of checklist or to be directly applied to particular decisions.

In the document explaining the framework, it is noted (p. 3) that for individuals, the framework can be used to guide self-reflection, or to guide discussions with others. The self-assessment worksheets provide reflective questions for individuals or teams, such as asking one to consider current practice in each area, as as well as areas for growth/improvement. They ask for reflection on what barriers may exist that could hinder further growth, what practical next steps one could take, and what areas are particularly urgent (among other topics). These are very useful for broad self-reflection and discussion that could themselves lead to changes in practice.

Thus, the framework doesn’t provide a blueprint of exactly what to do, but rather a set of topic areas and questions that can lead one to decide, with others, what should be done.

For my own purposes, I’m particularly interested in specific policies and principles that could be applied at an institution, as I’m thinking about what we might develop here. This framework is broader than that kind of purpose, but such policies could be tied to the framework. As noted above, ALT is currently in the process of collecting various policies and case studies that can be connected to the framework. Not having looked at such examples yet myself, I’m just at this point imagining that the principles and practices in them could be mapped onto the bullet points in each of the four areas. Perhaps, as various examples are collected, the bullet point may be refined over time if it becomes clear something is missing or not quite captured as well as possible.

In upcoming blog posts in this series, I will be looking at various articles, blog posts, or other resources related to ethics in learning technology, as a kind of background to hopefully having conversations at our institution about how to create a set of ethical principles and practices for learning technology here.

Here is a direct link to my post on Ed Tech Ethics Part 2.

Note: this post has been edited a couple of times since publication, largely for clarity.


FELT principles in text form

Framework for Ethical Learning Technology (FELT)

Awareness

  • Respect the autonomy and interests of different stakeholders
  • Be mindful, reflective and reflexive
  • Think critically about your practice and consider the wider environment(s) you can influence
  • Recognise the limits of one’s own knowledge and the possibility of unconscious bias

Professionalism

  • Demonstrate accountable, evidence-led practice
  • Commit to ongoing professional development and enhancing your skills
  • Act with integrity and honesty
  • Ensure practice complies with relevant laws and institutional policies
  • Apply knowledge and research to advocate for and enhance ethical approaches

Values

  • Support the agency and development of learners
  • Promote fair and equitable treatment, enhancing access to learning
  • Develop learning environments that are inclusive and supportive
  • Celebrate diversity as a route to innovation
  • Design services, technologies to be widely accessible
  • Be accountable and prepared to explain decision-making
  • Be as open and transparent as is appropriate

Care and Community

  • Practice care of oneself and others
  • Promote collegiality and mutual understanding
  • Minimise the risk of harms
  • Recognise responsibilities and influence beyond your institution
  • Share and disseminate best practice

2 comments

  1. That’s a great overview of FELT; what struck me was the comment “What such a principle might entail is something that would need to be discussed and determined in consultation with Indigenous people, but it seems to me an area that is missing here.” –
    As ALT, though now global, is mostly UK based, it’s decolonisation that is more critical; as we don’t have an indigenous population to consider – how could that be phrased to cover both heritages

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Mary. It’s important to be reminded of different contexts. In my post I was thinking that that element is “missing” in the sense of being something that is critical here and in other places, but you’re right to point out that contexts differ significantly, and FELT is coming from a UK perspective.

      This is making me reflect further on decolonisation, and I’m really interested to hear how understandings may differ across contexts for that as well. I am still on a learning journey, but how I currently think about decolonisation is the dismantling of colonial approaches and frameworks, for knowledge, practices, whole institutions. And here in Canada, that is quite intimately connected to the history of colonization that involves deep past and present violations of Indigenous human rights. The way I understand it in our context is that decolonisation requires recognizing and changing systems that have and continue to harm Indigenous peoples in the places where we live and work. Decolonisation may mean different things elsewhere, though, and I’m very interested to hear more if you’re willing!

      Thank you again for your comment, which is really making me reflect more!

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