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Digital education

ALT Winter Conference 2020, blog post 1

22 January 2021

Updates from the ALT Online Winter Conference 2020

On 15-16 December 2020, members of Cardiff University’s Digital Education team attended the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) Online Winter Conference. In total, 300 delegates from over 12 countries took part in the event with the virtual conference, hosted on Blackboard Collaborate, bringing together experts to discuss the most urgent questions facing institutions as they scale up the use of technology for learning, teaching and assessment.

Given the pivot to digital education during 2020 at a scale not previously seen, the conference was also an opportunity to reflect on what had been a very challenging year, and to look at building on this experience and to transition from ‘emergency provision’ to the new normal, where learning technology will become ever more critical.

This post summarises the opening plenary with a panel discussion on the development of a new ethical framework for learning technology, with summaries of other key conference sessions to follow in future posts. All the session recordings are now available online:

A new ethical framework for Learning Technology

The opening plenary, chaired by ALT Chief Executive Maren Deepwell, consisted of a panel discussion on developing a new community-wide ethical framework for learning technology. The requirement for a framework has become even more apparent over the past year with the use of learning technology adopted at a much larger scale and complexity than previously seen.

ALT’s aim in the first instance is to develop a practical checklist that can be used to inform the ethical use of learning technology by institutions and industry. Building on the checklist and outline framework, ALT will then develop a full framework with input from its members during 2021.

Ethical considerations in the use of learning technology

The panel discussion highlighted a range of issues related to the ethical use and application of learning technology that require consideration as part of the development of the framework:

Data privacy including learning analytics and other data automatically collated within learning technology platforms and collaborative software applications and services, and the levels of transparency on what data is being collected and how it’s being used.

Inclusivity ensuring that digital education services are truly inclusive and provide fair access. This includes consideration for the skills requirements, along with technical device and infrastructure requirements to access learning technology services.

Automation and the associated risks of bias in the use of automated technologies.

Reliance on third parties for learning technology and collaborative software services, often with complex terms and conditions of use.

Risk of discrimination both in terms of accessibility of services, and in terms of delivering services to students globally and the associated legislative and cultural considerations.

During the panel discussion, a survey undertaken by Mozilla was cited that highlighted those working within the digital domain were most likely to be concerned by the issues relating to data privacy. It was noted therefore that there is a level of responsibility for the community to develop an ethical and critical understanding of how technology and data is used, and a duty to develop digital literacy and understanding of data ethics to ensure ongoing trust in the integrity of learning technology services.

How an ethical framework could be used in practice

Areas highlighted by the panel where an ethical framework could be used included consideration for ethics and duty of care as part of institutional assessment of learning technology solutions. For example, when solutions for proctoring exams are being assessed, the framework could inform and guide institutional decision-making to consider the ethical risks associated with the use of specific learning technology solutions. The panel acknowledged that this would require ALT to engage with professional bodies to look at how assessment in a digital environment could meet both regulatory requirements and ethical considerations.

Another area highlighted where the framework could be a key driver is informing the levels of data privacy, and improved transparency in the use of this data, within learning technology services that reflect the values of the community and may surpass UK legislative requirements. This is particularly relevant as the increased global delivery of digital education will require universities to work with staff and students located across the world, including countries where data privacy and surveillance regulations are more robust.

Summary and next steps

It was clear from the panel discussion that whilst the issues are complex, an agreed community-wide ethical framework based on clear principles could be used by institutions to ensure appropriate consideration is given to the broad ethical issues related to the application of learning technology, and how the associated risks can be mitigated.

ALT is seeking further input from the community during 2021, including from staff, students and service providers; individuals and organisations to help road-test the framework; and existing research and frameworks to draw on. Further details are available on the ALT website –

Watch the opening plenary panel discussion

Written by Owain Huw, Learning Technology Manager