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Ethical debt and the great online pivot

The sudden shift to online provision has failed to consider the needs of all students, and may have been built on tools of uncertain provenance. For Samantha Ahern, there is an ethical debt that needs to be paid.
This article is more than 4 years old

Samantha Ahern is Digital Education Innovation and Development Officer at University College London.

Technical debt is a well-known concept to those in technology. But here I consider the idea of ethical debt.

In our rush to deploy technical solutions in response to the online pivot are we employing due diligence? Why should we care?

The first consideration is that of social justice. What content are we sharing with our students and in what formats? What are the requirements to be able to access the resources? Many UK higher education institutions have been working very hard over the last year in response to the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. We are still working with colleagues in our institutions to create and share accessible teaching and learning materials. However, with the rush to move online and source additional resources, are they key principles still to be adhered to?

Video nasty?

There has been a lot of use of video – the sharing of previous year’s lecture capture, pre-recorded mini lectures, or live interactive sessions. All of these have issues for those with hearing impairments. At present videos are not legally required to have captions or transcripts. There are some workarounds but these are not ideal, adding additional burden to students and colleagues that are already struggling in an ableist system.

There is also the other meaning of accessible, having access. There is an inherent assumption that all students have sufficient IT equipment and internet access to be able to view video content. Also, there needs to be an awareness that students are now scattered all over the globe and may find attending live sessions difficult due to time zone differences. All of which has an impact on other members of our community and may be detrimental to their learning and relationship with their institution.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

In addition, vendors are taking the opportunity to promote their services through special offers and “helping” during this time of crisis. These “solutions” become part of an institution’s eco-system, but how ethical are they? Some of these services have known concerns over privacy and have had their use in education questioned by our European neighbours.

In her presentation for the Accessibility Scotland 2019, Laura Kalberg spoke about accessible unethical technology. She defined unethical technology as technology having:

  • Inequality in distribution and access
  • Lack of accountability and responsibility
    • Misinformation
    • Profiling
    • Automated decisions
    • Targeting
    • Insufficient Security
  • Environmental Impact
  • Business ethics
    • Proprietary lock-in
    • Industry monopoly
    • Tracking
    • Data brokers

Almost all web-based technologies do some of these things. By requiring students to use specific platforms and online tools we are removing their ability to give consent to these practices. Where students are being encouraged to use social media, we are also subjecting them to a programmed sociality predetermined by the platforms that they are using.

The only way is ethics

Is it ethical for us as institutions to do this? The power is in our hands. Students may feel that they have no choice but to use these recommended platforms. This is even worse in the compulsory education sector where many people are not considered old enough to make these decisions for themselves regarding consent and GDPR. Should we be making these decisions for them? Creating a digital footprint and tracking history that they have no control over? Who will own that data?

As surveillance capitalism increasingly becomes the norm, I think that we need to remain mindful. Who are offering these services? To what end? And most importantly at what cost to our staff and students?

10 responses to “Ethical debt and the great online pivot

  1. There’s much here that I simply don’t recognise. I am sure that I and my colleagues are not alone in giving very serious consideration to students’ access to IT – both hardware and internet connections – as well as to their increased caring responsibilities, the fact that many of them now have children at home, the effects of the situation on their mental health, and many more factors, as we work to develop alternative assessments and decide what, when, and how to teach from here on.

  2. Well this is just unspecific waffle isn’t it? Which vendors? Which systems? Why do hearing impaired people have “issues” that differ from being in a physical class? Anyone with half a brain would realise that while hearing impairment is tricky to accommidate, a physical one-shot lecture is so much worse than a recorded version.

    Can we please all stop with this luddite analysis and actually develop proper criticism rather than “I don’t like this sort of thing”

  3. Responses in a crisis are less than perfect, but necessary. There is constant learning going on, and no one, I’m sure, is not attuned to the challenges. All systems are being refined constantly, but they are imperfect. What’s the choice at this stage? With luck, the Easter break will allow a little time for better reflection, the last two weeks has produced little time for this. But keep the questions coming.

  4. I wouldn’t class this as either unspecific or waffle. The article talks about video technology, of which there are countless examples – do you need the author to list them all? Re: hearing impairments: in a physical class the student has the potential to lip-read the lecturer, use a hearing loop, situate themselves in a position that is best for them, have someone accompany them to help as they need it (e.g. note taker) etc. When a lecture solely relies on a video stream or a narrated slidedeck these options are removed. Transcripts are time-consuming and in the rush to move online can be low on the pirority list or completely forgotten.

  5. In the current situation we are pulling together the ability to continue education in a format that doesn’t entail classroom or campus presence. We haven’t had long to prepare for this, as the virus didn’t send advance notice. We are all doing our best in a crisis and trying to compensate for individual circumstances as our students reveal them to us. Longer term, it needs to be done in a more systematic way. Is the suggestion that we do nothing if we can’t do it perfectly?

  6. Hi Samantha, interesting stuff but would be keen to have a few more specifics. What is happening at UCL to over come these issues? Everyone should really be using university approved technologies like Moodle VLE and TEAMs. Do your comments apply to these as well? If so is this message directed not at the lecturers (who are doing their best) but at central university services and Digital Education Offers such as yourself who I assume design the systems and specify their use? I also think most of us have spent vast amounts of time recently discussing exactly these issues with our students and coming up with bespoke solutions for individual students who are marginalised by these technologies. Would be great to get a more specific steer as to how to address these challenges in a more generic way rather than the array of elaborate work arounds currently in place. Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking discussion would love to hear more.

  7. Learning NOT social justice is the first priority in ANY educational environment. If there is no learning then it is NOT an educational environment. The responsibility of any educator is first to teach and support learning. Social justice is important, but without learning there can be no social justice in education. ALL the arguments presented above could also be used to condemn classroom-based educational environments. Students are forced into classrooms with no choice. Classroom accommodations for visually and audio impaired students are much more limited than in online environments

  8. Ahem: “the virus didn’t send advance notice …” I think it did. there have been too manyincidents *in recent years* for us to doubt the likelihood.

    Frank Ryan published “Virus X”in 1996 (

    The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report for 2016 begins its section on Global Disease Outbreaks “The recent Ebola crisis will not be the last serious epidemic the world faces; indeed, public health outbreaks are likely to become ever more complex and challenging.”

    Except everyone doubted the wolf existed because it wasn’t at the door.

    Do you maintain risk registers and business continuity plans? Shouldn’t they include preparations for mass absence of staff, loss of use of university buildings?

    The problem is, of course, that it’s hard to justify investing in precautions against remote events when your rivals aren’t doing so and using their resources for something else. So we go with the crowd. We all let it go. but we can’t say we weren’t warned.

  9. It’s hard to say we weren’t warned; it’s just that none of us took the prospect of global pandemic seriously enough to do anything about. The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report for 2016 says “The recent Ebola crisis will not be the last serious epidemic the world faces; indeed, public health outbreaks are likely to become ever more complex and challenging.” but that was 2016. Twenty years earlier Frank Ryan wrote “Virus X” which warned of the same thing. We had no cause to doubt the likelihood, but when the wolf’s not at the door who is going to invest in precautions?

    So we all have risk registers, and business continuity plans. Doesn’t your business continuity plan plan for mass absence of staff and loss of access to your estate? Haven’t we been aware for a decade that teaching needs to move with the expectations of people who grew up with smart phones in their hands and do practically everything on-line? Of course we have. It was just too difficult and there was lots of other stuff going on.

    Well, we’re all catching up now. Let’s not forget to keep going when the pressure drops.

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