The ethics of ones and zeros


Dr Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

This year, the ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN debate will be tackling a pertinent issue relevant not only to educational technology specialists, but every sector, organisation and individual that uses technology in their life and work:  the ethics of mass data collection, sharing and analysis. On Thursday evening (December 4), four experts in data and education will be going head-to-head as they battle over the provocative motion: This House Believes that Data is Corrupting Education.


Speaking for the motion will be Dr Ellen Wagner and Inge de Waard. Based in the US, Wagner is the Chief Research and Strategy Officer for the PAR (Predictive Analytics Reporting) Framework, a national research project of the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education (US). PAR will launch as an independent non-profit multi-institutional learner analytics collaborative in January 2015. PAR uses predictive models to reveal patterns about student loss and momentum. In other words, Wagner explains, they use data to find out what causes students to drop out and to empirically determine what can be done to support students at risk.


In response to the 2014 debate motion, Wagner points out that the term ‘data’ has become a meme – a term that stand for something much bigger than its literal definition – and reveals some of the topics that could be laid open for discussion on Thursday evening: “data-as-a-meme ends up standing for everything from loss of privacy, profiling and exclusionary practices, to personalisation, student success and institutional efficiencies.”


Inge De Waard is currently working towards a PhD at the Open University and researching self-determined learning in MOOCs for experienced online learners. Her work follows the concept of ‘heutagogy’ developed by Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon in the early 2000s, which prioritises student-centric learning and ‘learning how to learn’ over the traditional mode of teacher-centric pedagogy.


Taking the opposing stance will be Prof Dr Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Dr George Siemens. Dr Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University’s Internet Institute and co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think (2013) and Learning with Data (2014), will be making his second appearance at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN this year. In 2013, Dr Mayer-Schönberger gave an opening keynote at the conference, espousing the far-reaching benefits of judiciously applied data analysis – in education, manufacturing, science and many other areas – but also delivered a few words of warning to the audience: “We must harness data whilst making sure we remain its masters”, he urged, “We must carve out a space for the human – for our irrationality, our creativity, our imagination, for acting in defiance of what the data says.”


Dr George Siemens is the Executive Director of the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab at University of Texas, Arlington. Technology, networks, analytics, and openness in education form the core of his research, though he is perhaps most widely known as the co-creator of the first ever MOOC (along with fellow OEB 2014 keynote, Stephen Downes). In addition, Dr Siemens is a founding member and first President of the Society for Learning Analytics Research, an inter-disciplinary network of leading international researchers who are exploring the role and impact of analytics on teaching, learning, training and development.


Also participating in the debate will be the audience of international education, technology and training experts, as the discussion is opened to the floor before a final vote taken. As the term ‘data’ evolves to signify far more than just amassed ones and zeros, the outcome of Thursday’s discussion may yet elude predictive analysis.


Find out more about the ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN Debate here.

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