The use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) to enhance the student higher education experience has continued to grow during the last decade. There has also been a corresponding growth in publications and conferences pertaining to their usage. The main focus of this work has been towards technological and pedagogical concerns with ethical issues being addressed to a much smaller extent. However, a range of ethical aspects, significant to VLEs, have been identified and discussed [McRobb and Stahl, 2007; Brey, 2004; Pearson and Koppi, 2006]. Research specifically addressing students’ attitudes towards the use of VLEs exists but is less common [Stahl, 2002].
This paper, firstly, identifies a range of ethical issues that are of relevance to students’ day-to-day usage of VLEs in their studies. Secondly, it discusses the results of an investigation into the levels of awareness and the attitudes of students to the ethical dimensions of VLE usage. This is distinct from much of the previous work that has been undertaken which address the ethical issues of VLEs from an institutional perspective, for example, Jefferies et al, (2007); Jones and Conole (2006), or those that include VLE usage as part of a broader study [Grodzinsky, et al, 2008; Prior, 2004; and Leigh and Prior, 2008].
A literature survey was undertaken which, together with the questionnaire results of a previous investigation into VLE usage [Leigh, 2006], was used to ascertain a range of ethical concerns pertaining to Higher Education, in general, and the use of VLEs in particular. Focus groups [Bryman, 2008] were employed in order to explore the students’ awareness of the ethical issues identified and their attitude towards them. Participants of these groups were chosen whose profile represented a cross-section of the divergent backgrounds of the university students including gender, age, ethnicity and particular learning requirements. This included the perspective of an unsighted student.
The ethical concerns explored in the focus groups included access to the VLE and to the learning activities within them; students’ expectations of behaviour when participating in such activities; the impact of VLEs on student learning styles; and privacy issues associated with their use of the VLE.
This paper addresses the findings from the focus group discussions which highlighted some interesting ethical gaps in the students’ awareness of issues pertaining to their VLE usage. For example, with regards to access to VLE materials and learning exercises the students’ awareness and attitude was largely governed by their own personal experience. If they had not faced access problems they were generally “not bothered” by potential inequality of access. Not surprisingly the converse of this was the case with the unsighted student. Similar attitudes and levels of awareness were seen around the issues of student behaviour when undertaking group learning activities and also around issues of privacy. However, in these cases students tended to have stronger opinions when they were affected by an issue.
It is clear from this study that there is an apparent ethical gap within the mindset of these students when using the VLE for their studies. It is perceptible that VLEs have been adopted to help enhance the student experience without sufficient attention being paid to ensuring that students are equipped to utilise such facilities in an ethical way. It would seem that although a subset of ethical issues are dealt with proactively by institutions, many ethical dilemmas are not addressed until something happens. This conclusion has been seen in other aspects of institutional VLE usage such as with online monitoring of staff and student activities [Leigh and Prior, 2008]. The implications of this shortfall are explored in this paper.
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