Teaching, learning, & ethics

I should have written this up 10 days ago when Chris Tompsett first mailed me. Chris offered some interesting and important comments on the project, blockquoted below, re-ordered, and (where appropriate) commented. I’ve arranged these under three headings, the third–‘Teaching & learning in SL as itself an object of research’–raising significant questions with respect to broadly ethical issues arising out of the use of SL as a viable platform for teaching and learning.

Module-specific integration

The Faculty offers a small number of modules (Virtual Reality, Multimedia Design, Multimedia Production) and a half-field (Games Technology) for which SL as an environment offers by its very nature an appropriate arena for teaching concepts and skills:

for teaching about 3-D design — it is evidently interesting and should of course be investigated and be made available to the students

for teaching about avatars — sounds both interesting and should of course be investigated – and perhaps some students will have learned enough about programming to actually try some scripting …

SL as a faculty marketing platform

for advertising it is dirt cheap – so any work that could advertise the Faculty’s work should never be begrudged – especially if staff are willingly prepared to experiment themselves – if it proves more cost effective than other channels – then we should be prepared to increase the investment

Teaching & learning in SL as itself an object of research

as a social phenomenon – yet another of the web resources that is, more or less, owned by those who live within it. Unless certain countries are banned from becoming members that is – except even that represents a socio-political phenomenon that is worthy (in IS terms) of investigation and research

Chris then goes on to highlight the ethical issues arising out of using SL as a platform to support teaching and learning:

when whenever we require students to use it, we are engaged in research that should meet the same ethical standards that are required of any other research that we do. That does not preclude experimentation – far from it – but it does suggest that any ‘medicine’ that the student (patient) is required to take – should at least have a reasonable chance of getting them better.


0. does it work technically – irrespective of whether it has an effect. This may sound trivial but … one could take interactive white boards as an example of unreliability – despite the fact that they have been around for a number of years (they can go out of focus for all number of reasons and then take 10 mins to refocus).

That’s, of course, the minimal and very basic (technical) requirement. And this has to mean that, if it is to become an integral component of our (blended) learning strategy for the faculty, it works not only within the university but also from anywhere else in the world–and this will paradigmatically mean students’ own computers. I leave the rest uncommented–it speaks eloquently enough of the issues–though append some personal reflections at the end.

1a. Even on a small scale, with suitable technical resources – does introducing 2nd Life have any measurable positive effect on student behaviour
1b. Even on a small scale, with suitable technical resources – does introducing 2nd Life have any measurable positive effect on student learning – and you are not allowed to shift the educational objectives to claim that it has done so

2. Does it have the same effect when used on a wide scale, without additional staffing resources (or against the same level of additional resources made available elsewhere), when both staff and students use it as it should be used

2. Does it have the same effect when used on a wide scale, without additional staffing resources, when made available to staff and students on a wide scale (i.e. some students who chose to work rather than use it are allowed to do so as at present with other learning opportunities) and the only additional resources being those that are for evaluating the educational impact

3. If it is effective, what is the most appropriate way to use it if the effectiveness is varied

4. What are the unknown changes that occur over the long term (the more obvious ones will occur at level 2).

Almost all research work with technology at HE level is currently at level 1a or 1b …..

so it is an experiment … and there is a long way to go … and it is ethically unsound until it has reached level 2 (unless we wish to argue, as in medicine, that some students are already terminal and anything is justifiable with their consent.

In the section ‘Why Second Life’ (see sidebar menu) I list 10 answers to the fundamental question of why we would want to use Second Life, or any other multi-user virtual environment, as a platform for supporting teaching and learning. Against that background, how do we address the issues of paedogogic ethics that Chris raises? 1(a) and 1(b) are essentially about the effect SL may have on meeting educational objectives: what measurable positive effect will SL have on behaviour and learning with respect to achieving those objectives? It’s obviously an important question; but my suspicion is that the very fact of adopting SL as an additional learning platform will in turn prompt us to review and revise our educational objectives. Just as the invention of the printing press, the computer, and the web revolutionised the way we study and work, and redefined the sets of skills we’d need to acquire in order to live successfully and productively in the worlds they created, so I expect that the metaverse will engender further learning objectives and skills that will in time render our current objectives as quaint and as obsolete as pre-Gutenberg learning objectives in the era of the printed book. But for the present Chris’s question remains pertinent; it would be unethical to treat our students as guinea pigs in a socio-paedogogic experiment that is not solidly rooted in observance of and compliance with the learning objectives we have at the present time; the rest is a research issue.

Chris’s second question–“Does it have the same effect when used on a wide scale, without additional staffing resources, when made available to staff and students on a wide scale”–with regard to the effectiveness of using SL will, I suspect, imply rethinking currently ingrained practices. In one sense, universities still inhabit a pre-Gutenberg universe: with the scarcity of the orthographic word, the only access learners might have had to intellectual authority would have been by attending lectures given orally by acknowledged scholars. The printed book consequently created the first opportunity for distance learning: the scholar may have been bodily absent but his words lay between your open palms. The rise of the textbook, beginning in the late 19th century and burgeoning from the middle of the 20th century, not only gave readers access to scholarly authors but also to complete vocational curricula. The university lecturer increasingly becomes the medium of transmission of the voices of others, the facilitator, and less the unique authority. “Staffing resources” becomes less an issue of “how many staff?” than “what is the most appropriate role for teaching staff in a learning environment rich in paedogogic materials designed to promote, nurture, and support self-guided and peer-supported constructivist learning?” That’s a contentious statement, of course, but I shan’t defend it here and now.

“What”, Chris finally asks, “are the unknown changes that occur over the long term?” I honestly don’t know (I guess that’s why they’re “unknown”) but I think that, in consultation and collaboration with our students, we need to be brave enough to take bold steps in exploring radical new learning opportunities, visionary enough to think innovatively about how we devise new ways of learning, cautious enough to keep a steady eye on where we’re coming from and keep learning objectives (however they are to be achieved) at the forefront of our endeavours, and responsible enough to know when educational ethics should mould and curb our enthusiasms. But these, as Chris notes, are themselves important research issues.


About Christopher Hutchison

Museologist, cognitive dissident, political grouch, curmudgeonly bibliophage, and all round jolly nice chap.
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