UCL EDUCATE’S Principal Research Lead, Dr Alison Clark-Wilson, is a keynote speaker at the Ethical Issues and Gaining Ethical Approval Roundtable, being hosted by the British Educational Research Association next month. In this Q&A article, she explains why ethics are such an important aspect of EdTech development.
Q: What problems do EdTech companies face with ethical approval?
Alison: Many companies worry that research they do themselves will be seen as biased by their clients because they have a product or service to sell.
Another aspect is that companies don’t always know what an ethically grounded piece of research should look like. For example, if they have learner data in their product or service, understanding that this data is personal and sensitive is crucial! So, if they’re going to use this data in their research, they need to make sure they’ve got consent from either the people whose data it is, or their parents or guardians if it relates to children. This can be difficult and time consuming to do, but it must not be overlooked.
An ethical review process is essentially an explicit checklist, in which you ensure that the people who are involved in the research know what the research is about and what they’re required to do (if anything). If they decide they don’t want to be part of the research for any reason, they must have the right to withdraw their involvement and any associated data from the research at any time.
Everyone need to be clear about where the information and data are coming from, and how it’s going to be used and analysed – all of which is standard educational research procedure.
Also, if the research shows some negative findings, for example the EdTech product or service does not ‘work’ in the particular context of the study, the results should still be published.
Q: Who conducts an ethical review?
Alison: Within the UK university sector, each university has its own ethical review committee. This is because researchers can expect a high level of scrutiny, because their research is normally published in peer-reviewed academic publications, with a wide academic audience. Consequently, student and staff research proposals are required to be presented to the university’s ethical review body for approval before the research can begin. Within education, many universities use and adapt the British Educational Research Association’s ethical guidelines, a free downloadable resource.
The way in which we think about ethics can look very different in different domains. In health research, which involves human participants, there are very high ethical standards about what you can and can’t do, for example. This sort of research is not the same as doing research in a school or an adult learning setting because you are dealing with different sorts of data.
However, in both cases there must also be awareness of any potential harm that might be caused by that research. Therefore, clear processes are needed to ensure everyone understands what’s happening in the research, what’s happening with the data, and who owns it. With artificially intelligent products and services appearing in the education sector, there is an even greater need to rethink the implications of the use of learners’ personal data, and issues of informed consent.
Q: What is the purpose of this BERA event?
Alison: The event is a roundtable, to get interested parties together to discuss the challenges for independent research and industry-based researchers in gaining ethical approval for their work. Right now, BERA offers the guidelines but does not offer any service to people who don’t have access to an academic route to ethical approval for their research.
If BERA was to start offering such a service, companies could gain that badge of approval to show that the research they’re doing is ethical, which would enhance their messaging and the validity of their marketing materials.
The meeting aims to explore how independent researchers and companies, who are outside of academia, get access to an ethical review service.
The participants have an opportunity to play an active role in defining the solution. The more EdTech companies attend, the greater the diversity of opinion and the more it will challenge people’s traditional view on what educational research looks like. Ultimately, this could be a resource that they will want to buy into, and their technical expertise could help us shape how this service might look.
To attend this BERA event, please register here.