Virtual reality is gathering place in the education sector, gradually infiltrating a broader range of curriculum areas. But how far are we thinking about ethics? As a relatively new technology in the education sector, we ask if there is a need for an immersive technology ethical framework.
Simply put, ethics is a system of moral principles. They shape the decisions we make, providing a justification for our actions and behaviours. Existing across multiple sectors, professions, and our everyday lives they are important considerations. But are they really being thought about in immersive technology for education? Is a dedicated ethical framework really needed?
According to Moore’s Law, there is a positive correlation between technological advancement and ethical impacts. Coupled with recent movements by professional organisations, there is an emerging narrative that an ethical framework for immersive technology could be beneficial.
One of the largest professional learning technology organisations published their ‘Framework for Ethical Learning Technology’ (FELT) this year. Introducing four broad areas for educators and technology companies to consider, the framework offers some guidance and a framework to stimulate discussion and thinking around ethics in learning technologies. But it isn’t squarely aimed at immersive technology, instead it offers a guideline for the wider use of technology in education.
As far back as 2018 the British Standards Institution (BSI) noted a requirement for standards in the VR and AR sectors, but these are still absent. Why does this matter to us? The answer is simple, because we are an ethical VR company that cares about our end users.
At the heart of The VR Hive is a commitment to provide equitable, wholesome and good virtual reality learning resources to the education sector. When we started scurrying around for an ethical framework we found quite a fragmented bunch of resources, ranging from the Oculus Accessibility Virtual Reality Checks, to academic literature but there wasn’t much available for us to draw on. Even contacting some of the big brand VR hardware companies, surprisingly didn’t yield many meaningful returns.
Why does an ethical framework for immersive technology matter more now, than ever before? Aside from our ethical values and ethos of technology for good.
Well, there are a triad of key matters. Firstly, the pandemic has cultivated a segment of new students who have an appetite for online learning over traditional models of learning. We have to question how online students will acquire the employability, meta-skills, and soft skills to meet modern workforce demand. One part of the solution is virtual reality which can expose learners to a raft of scenarios anywhere, any time. If you haven’t already, check out some of our recent developments in both gamified learning and 360 simulated conversations.
Secondly, the continued wider interest in virtual reality by the education sector suggests there is likely to be an accelerated pace of adoption in the not-too-distant future. Thirdly, despite the enthusiasm around VR in education, there is still a fair bit of work to be done until we really understand the learning gains and best pedagogical practices around immersive technology. After all, virtual reality is new technology to the education sector, perhaps posing more questions than answers including: What is the optimum VR experience length? Are single user or multi-user experiences more beneficial? How much VR in the curriculum is too much?
More pressing, tip of the iceberg ethical challenges underpinning immersive technology use point to the risk of physical discomfort, or injury e.g. cybersickness, falls and trips when wearing a VR head mounted display (HMD). To pertinent, legal issues of privacy, data protection and accessibility. As well as considerations of psychological safety, encompassing emotional and psychological responses to virtual worlds, referred to as the illusion of embodiment. In short, there are complex ethical issues that need thorough exploration to support the education sector and the student’s it serves.
Let’s not forget the education sector, at least further education colleges are a public service supporting diverse populations and students. At the very least the education sector should be able to benefit from a set of ethical guidelines, including practice based guidance to assist in the safe and effective deployment of immersive learning. This doesn’t have to be complex, but does need to provide a set of broad functional principles that work at scale.
We suggest four key ethical principles presented by Beauchamp and Childress may offer a framework for deeper discussion:
- Beneficence: Promoting the welfare of students and their learning.
- Nonmaleficence: Avoidance of unnecessary harm whenever possible.
- Autonomy: The ability to take control of one’s own learning (independently or in collaboration with others).
- Justice : Fair distribution of resources, ensuring technology is accessible for all.
In common with the Association of Learning Technology, we recognise the publication of any ethical guidelines for the education sector requires a shared understanding between education and technology companies. We believe an edtech company cannot develop content in silo from education, as it runs the risk of breaching key ethical considerations that are deal breakers to adoption. Conversations between both need facilitation and a commitment to collaborate to build a shared ethical framework to set the foreground for real innovation.
As a final thought, we must keep in mind that all relatively new technological innovations for humans present unique challenges as well as benefits. In adopting technology we accept trade-offs e.g. eye strain when using screens, signing away our privacy when downloading phone apps. But, we need to be aware of what these are and how they can be managed safely. In the absence of a robust ethical guideline, the education sector is likely to be more cautious of this technology, compressing innovation and the inclusion of immersive tech in digital pedagogies.
Moor, J.H. (2005) “Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies,” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 111–119.
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British Standards Institution (2018) The Requirements for Standards in the VR and AR Sectors [online]. London: BSI. [Accessed 1 30 September 2021].
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