Privacy and Research Issues in the #change11 MOOC

I am participating in the #change11 MOOC (massive open online class) as I mentioned last week, and while I am still not sure what sort of time or resource commitment this will mean for me in practice, I think it may have some potential usefulness for my doctoral research.

With this stated, I am very interested in how the facilitators of the course will use the information provided, so was happy to read the posting of privacy information that was shared with participants. Good for them to discuss this all so openly at the beginning of the course.

If I am reading this correctly, the researchers who are facilitating this course state that anything publicly shared that is related with the course (most readily identifiable by the #change11 tag), can be used for research purposes. This seems consistent with the current (though somewhat dated and in the process of revision) Association of Internet Researchers guideline for ethical researcher and participant consent – Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Recommendations from the aoir ethics working committee document.

I am wondering what sorts of ethical issues around consent or identification may surface in this, especially given the enormous data set that is being created related to this course? For example, I published this posting (anybody can see it), it is tagged with the course (#change11), and is identifiable (my name and picture are on this site). Does that mean the researchers can quote me or otherwise identify my if they want to in their research around the MOOC? Do they need my permission to quote me, given I am saying this publicly? Will I know this even happens? If I am stating all this publicly, is that my default consent? Is anything online really ever private?

These are not easily answered, and having engaged in Internet research myself I know that various ethical boards will interpret these questions in different ways, I do think it is valuable to ask them, especially as (I suspect) many participating in this course will not even consider them . . . until they get quoted or referred to, of course!

8 thoughts on “Privacy and Research Issues in the #change11 MOOC

  1. Hi Jeffrey,

    you might want to join a thread on Research Ethics in MOOCs in the Google Group devoted to research interests:
    There are some interesting posts. I also posted my take on issues of anonymity, informed consent as a work in progress.
    To tell the truth I regret the ‘public’ Moodle forums of the previous MOOC (PLENK 2010): they provided a sort of narrative of coherence to the mass of contributions. This way it seems to me more dispersed. But maybe it is only the first week…

    1. Antonella, thanks for your comment.

      Are you saying you preferred the Moodle version or the more diverse format now? I think the previous Moodle versions were easier to follow, and this more diverse form is so diverse that I am struggling to find the connections (which in many ways is distributed people just doing their own things, just like the Net has always been).

      I will take a look at the Google Group; why are there threaded discussions going on in a semi-private group, if the focus is more distributed and public? Hmm, will have to think about this.

      Thanks for helping me to move this along.


  2. I assume that the precedent is set with “letters to the editor” in a public domain.
    If no login is required, the subject matter is public.

    However, there is difference.
    1. With a newspaper, there is no easy way of seeking consent. With a blog or twitter or facebook…there is. Post a comment and ask does not seem too arduous.

    With the mooc, the use for research is an interesting one as the course advertises this on one site (its own,and in amongst a huge amount of writing that might not be read), but the data collected is on another site- the writers own, where the writer may never have read of intent for use for research…now that just has to be dodgy. So having read the Aoir and informed by Buchanan, E. A. (2004). Readings in virtual research ethics. issues and controversies. Hershey: Information Science Publishing.

    how about doing no harm as primary…
    ask, its not like its something likely to be made worse by asking…

    As always, never post anything on the net that one isn’t prepared to shout in a full lecture theatre.

    1. Ailsa, these are interesting issues to consider, ehh? I love Internet Research.

      Can’t help but wonder, given your final sentence, of why you think we need to seek consent to quote from something that is made public and archived online? If I quote your website and give a reference, why isn’t that enough? How about if I do a textual analysis of your posts, anonymize you, and then present my findings. Do I need your consent for that? I can imagine both these situations coming out of this #change11 MOOC, yes?


  3. Because there is no harm in asking, people have a chance to respond, to decide if they still mean what they said and to have this shifted to a new venue where its intent will be different.

    If i say something to you in a public space do you have the right to quote me in your research even though you have put a notice somewhere else saying that you will, even though that notice is somewhere you might expect me to go and to see? The answer is no.

    Now if you anonymize me, deidentify the information, then its probably again not legally wrong but i would argue ethically suspect- because you could ask but you didnt, and there is nothing difficult in the asking, you have my address- the blog, and a posting option, and the subject matter probably isnt distressing, and chances are if im cognitively astute enough to make a blog, then chances are i am cognitively capable of being classed grown up enough to know what im doing and that this is public…so Im probably a grownup and capable of giving consent…so where was the harm in asking?

    Meantime I suggest there is risk in not asking. Will I participate if at any time someone can pounce on what i say and move it to new spaces for their own benefit and not necessarily for mine.

    Meantime what i have read of internet and CCT mediated areas of interest (my own is in sms messaging) there are no hard fast rules, the best guidelines are 8-10 years old and are most certainly not universal. We are still finding out way/s.
    My own study btw does not ask…but i have made many moves in justifying this:
    The content is deidentified and anonymized and sometimes even altered to make it unidentifiable by any future means.
    There is a significant need for knowing, and significant reasons for not asking at the time as it is at a time of distress…and there is risk in revisiting the trauma of the moment…and of not being able to physically trace the person,
    i have treated this in a similar way to much health research where patient notes have been accessed.
    My study has also interviewed young people and without parental consent either (the young person decides whether they want parental involvement or not or another significant person present if they agreed to an interview), and the subject matter of their relating to a counselling organization by text messaging might be highly sensitive or emotionally charged, and there are divergent views in the literature on what is and is not acceptable…
    Some say never, EU countries particularly have stringent regard on this.

    I just hope in my own study that i do not get a marker who decides what i have done is unethical and therefore a fail phd – either because i did not ask, as with the sms messaging…or in the one scenario where i do interview a child, i have not gained parental consent.

    Meantime I take guidance from Simone de Beauvoir, ethics isnt about recipes, its about being thoughtful.

    And as said by Magdalena Boberchxvi on Virtual Youth research: An exploration of methodologies and ethical dillemmas from a British Perspective p. 288-316 of Elizabeth Buchanan’s book: Buchanan, E. A. (2004). Readings in virtual research ethics. issues and controversies. Hershey: Information Science Publishing.

    “One should neither let moral considerations, aimed at protecting young people, paralyze the research, nor should ethically difficult questions be avoided. ”

    And again by Susan leigh Star and Ansel Strauss in m Star, S. L., & Strauss, A. (1999). Layers of silence, arenas of voice: The ecology of visible and invisible work Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 8, 9-30.
    In trying to map the invisible, one risks destroying the positive aspects of invisibility – should the map
    simply be marked, “here be dragons?”

    And I would answer no. We need to learn how to relate to what’s difficult. Sometimes this involves trying things out rather than avoidance or labelling it as too hard.

    1. Wow, Ailsa, this is rich. In many ways you have highlighted how complicated these issues are and while there is increasing research as to these ethical topics, there is certainly no full agreement. I can only hope that the long-working AoIR ethical workgroup helps to shed more light on these issues. As you mentioned with your own research, while you have done everything for your research that you believe is needed, you can get a marker who questions things nevertheless; lack of clear guidance. Many institutions do not have clear approaches to Internet research, and in this way there is such a lack of consistency that the entire issue seems murkier now than it did a few years back.

      I am working on a follow-up posting, this time exploring the issue at “Researching #Change11” on the bottom of, which seems more along the lines of what I was asking (though not necessarily agreeing with!) than how you perceive the issue. Have you seen this statement they made?


  4. i have now read it, in its entirety along with each of its links. I perceive it to be fairly typical.
    Does not mean i am in total agreement either, but forewarned, I can live with it.
    Ahh but is it ethical? well yes for some people, and for others not.
    All depends on what ethical means:
    Risk aversion or respect ?

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