You need to think carefully about the ethical issues surrounding your piece of ethnographic work over the coming weeks. The Association of Internet Researchers guidelines are a good starting point for thinking through ethical issues in relation to internet research. The questions they raise will help in terms of establishing whether there are ethical issues that have serious implications for your own MOOC micro-studies. Being relatively recent phenomena, ethical frameworks for the study of MOOCs are yet to be established, and our explorations here may highlight important directions for future work in this area.
1) What ethical expectations are established by MOOC providers?
The greater the acknowledged publicity of the venue, the less obligation there may be to protect individual privacy, confidentiality, right to informed consent, etc. However, MOOCs present an interesting case because while they are open, many are not public.
2) Who are the MOOC participants under study?
The greater the vulnerability of the subject – the greater the obligation of the researcher to protect them. What can we know about MOOC participants, and where might our obligations lie in such ‘open’ educational settings?
3) What are the initial ethical expectations/assumptions of the MOOC participants being studied?
Do MOOC participants assume/believe that their communication is private? The assumption of privacy may be there regardless of whether exchanges actually are private or not. Does the notion of ‘open’ education have implications for how we might understand privacy?
4) What ethically significant risks does the research entail for the subject(s)?
If the content of a subject’s communication were to become known beyond the confines of the MOOC being studied – would harm likely result? The communications you observe may be within the ‘open’ setting of the MOOC, however they might be viewable only by those enrolled on the course. Hence, the reporting of such findings would make them public.
Perhaps the best way forward would be to ask these questions of the specific MOOC you wish to study, and if you have serious doubts on any of these points just choose another course. This is a small-scale, 4-week activity, in which only something very contained can be achieved.
In most cases you would want to avoid the need to gain individual consent in such a small-scale piece of work, though it may in many instances be appropriate just to post a message within the MOOC discussion spaces letting people know you’re doing the research and to let you know if they don’t want you to cite them. Or it might be appropriate to contact the course convener to gain permission that way.
One final point – if you have doubts about ethical implications for your own study, please talk to your tutor about them. Your tutors carry ultimate responsibility as far as the School is concerned, if anything goes wrong.
If you feel constrained by the limits of this micro-ethnography, bear in mind that you can come back to an activity like this for a more sustained piece of research for the dissertation.