Archive for the 'Ethics' Category

Ethics, Learning Analytics and Disability

Today I have been writing a contribution for a paper requested by the Open University’s Ethics Committee about ethics in Learning Analytics.  This blog post is adapted from that.

There are two broad use case scenarios where learning analytics approaches may benefit disabled students:

  1. Targeting support to disabled students or their tutors (Support)
  2. Identifying online activities that seem to be problematic for some disabled students (Accessibility)

As far as we are aware these approaches are yet to be deployed anywhere world-wide but we are actively researching them here at the Open University where we have approximately 20,000 disabled students.  We envisage that if the early promise of this research holds up, deployment on about a 3 year horizon.  These approaches, especially the accessibility one, are reported in more detail in Section 5. of Cooper et. al. 2012.

Firstly, a few definitions:

IMS Global Learning Consortium offered education-specific definitions of both disability and accessibility when introducing its work on the development of technical standards for accessibility in e-learning:

[…] the term disability has been re-defined as a mismatch between the needs of the learner and the education offered. It is therefore not a personal trait but an artifact of the relationship between the learner and the learning environment or education delivery. Accessibility, given this re-definition, is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners. Accessibility is determined by the flexibility of the education environment (with respect to presentation, control methods, access modality, and learner supports) and the availability of adequate alternative-but-equivalent content and activities. The needs and preferences of a user may arise from the context or environment the user is in, the tools available (e.g., mobile devices, assistive technologies such as Braille devices, voice recognition systems, or alternative keyboards, etc.), their background, or a disability in the traditional sense. Accessible systems adjust the user interface of the learning environment, locate needed resources and adjust the properties of the resources to match the needs and preferences of the user. (IMS Global 2004)

Thus disability is not an attribute of a person, but an attribute of the relationship between that person and the tools they are using to meet their goals; in this case online learning.  And, accessibility is a property of the learning resources that makes is usable by all, including those traditionally labelled as disabled.

The principle ethical dilemma when approaching learning analytics and learners who might experience a disability in the context of online learning is:

  • For what purpose has the individual students declared their disability to the university or other educational establishment, and is this consistent with how that information is to be used in the learning analytics approaches?

No other literature has been found explicitly addressing this issue.  So this blog post might represent the first public statement of the problem.

At the Open University students who declare a disability so that they can be provided with support in their studies.  This is consistent with the first use case scenario (Support).  It is a moot point if it is consistent with the second use case scenario (Accessibility).  More critically at this stage of development of these approaches it is not obvious that it is consistent with research into these approaches.  Is it ethical to use historic or current data relating to students with disabilities to undertake research into future approaches of applying learning analytics?


Cooper, M,Sloan, D., Kelly, B.,  and Laithwaite, S. (2012) A Challenge to Web Accessibility Metrics and Guidelines: Putting People and Processes First, Proc. W4A2012, April 16-17, 2012, Lyon, France. Co-Located with the 21st International World Wide Web Conference.

IMS Global Learning Consortium (2004), IMS AccessForAll Meta-data Overview. Available online at: (accessed 17/02/14)

Martyn Cooper

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