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Ethics in L&D (Part 2): Practitioners Allay Fears

Bob Little 

June 16, 2017

It’s a fact of L&D life that, thanks to continual technological advancement, we can collect more data about more learners than ever before. This raises questions of ethics, and we should ask whether having this data is beneficial to:

  • The individual learner.
  • The learner’s organization.
  • Learning materials producers.
  • Learning/career/employment product or service providers, who use it to market their wares to learners.

Nick Hindley, Head of L&D at Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group in Cambridge, U.K., said, “Data isn’t the problem. It’s how it’s obtained and used that raises potential issues [of ethics]. But these should disappear if you’re clear about what data you’re collecting and why, then clearly communicate this to learners and follow data protection laws, which aren’t that onerous.”

Hindley’s view on ethics is shared by Iva Matasić, a member of international e-learning think-tank, The Company of Thought, and CEO of Croatian consultancy Consulio, Inc. She said, “Today, everything’s better controlled and legal issues that used to exist are now solved with strong non-disclosure agreements between the parties involved in data analytics.”

And Kallidus’ digital learning strategist, Tim Drewitt, said, “The more we know about what makes our learners tick, the better our solutions will be.”

Ethics and Data

Drewitt added, “I’m not concerned about any perceived ethical dilemmas here. Outside of the workplace, most learners are used to companies using data to offer them a personalized service, and one of the key L&D themes for 2017 is how to do more to deliver a personalized learning experience.

“We can only deliver on that promise for our learners if we know more about their needs and preferences. Increasingly, learners are looking for learning support systems that deliver an Amazon-like experience, and they acknowledge that that’s only achievable through the clever use of data.”

Over the past 60 years or so, there’s been a growing consensus on the key ethical principles that should underlie applied social research, including corporate L&D. Yet changes to this consensus are based on previous, firmly-held ethical beliefs, which explains why attitudes on ethics are, generally, slow to change.

This can pose problems, however, given the speed at which technology advances. In recent years, in medical and social research, including L&D, the principle of voluntary participation by subjects (learners) in data collection activities has emerged.

Allied to this is the requirement for “informed consent,” that is, learners should be fully informed about the procedures and any risks involved in the data collection, and must give their consent to participate. Ethics also require that data collectors don’t put learners in a situation where they might be at risk of harm, physical and/or psychological, because of their participation. Furthermore, there must be a procedure ensuring that data collectors will consider all relevant ethical issues in formulating research plans.

Applying Ethics

Even when clear ethical standards and principles do exist, no set of standards can anticipate every ethical circumstance. When it comes to applying ethics relating to data collection and interpretation in L&D, Hindley believes that individual learners can provide feedback all the way through the process, anonymously if they wish.

He said, “We want learners to be open and honest about their experiences. From this feedback, changes are made to training design, delivery and evaluation. The initial evaluation asks learners to reflect on their contribution and how they could have maximized the training. This can then be passed to future learners as part of their preparation.”

While Hindley, Matasić and Drewitt agree that safeguards are needed to protect the integrity of data collection, and they believe that those safeguards are present, they argue that the more data L&D providers can collect, the better the service they can provide.

Matasić added, “With individual learners being increasingly oriented to personalized learning, collecting their data helps to develop their personal learning environment. Social media plays a key role here because it facilitates connections between people with similar interests.”

She continued, “Thanks to algorithms and artificial intelligence, many applications use this data to better control the learning process. You can see examples of this at duolingo.com and grammarly.com

She said that collecting learner data can help organizations to monitor them and give them rewards. She added, “Data analytics can also help to define the organization’s future key performance indicators.”

Drewitt said, “There are examples of providers using the collective data obtained from their entire user base to deliver more personalized learning experiences. So far, this has been delivered with sufficient assurances that the privacy rights of an individual learner and their employer are protected, and that only aggregated data is used.”

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