Morality, social media and the educational researcher

Leigh-Anne Perryman @laperryman and Tony Coughlan @tjcoughlan
The Open University

Many claims have been made for social media’s potential in enhancing higher education students’ learning experience. Naturally such claims should not be taken at face value and indeed there is a growing body of research investigating the impact of social media in ‘transforming the ways students communicate, collaborate and learn’ (Tess, 2013). However, such studies rarely address the ethical challenges of researching learning in social media spaces.

Ethical practice is central to educational research and guidelines have long existed outlining how a researcher should behave, for example those from the British Educational Research Association (BERA).  Informed by our own research on the educational impact of Open University student-led Facebook groups we argue that ‘traditional’ guidelines are not always appropriate to researching learning in social media spaces where:

  • The distinction between public and private is blurred;
  • Individuals may be prone to ‘online disinhibition’ and confessional activity (Suler, 2004), revealing information that may harm them if published in a research report;
  • Gaining informed consent for research can be problematic.
  • Suler, J. (2004) The Online Disinhibition Effect, CyberPsychology & Behaviour, 7(3), pp. 321-326. Available from [Accessed 10 August 2015]
  • Here we suggest ways in which the responsible researcher might manage such considerations, drawing both on traditional ethics guidelines and on debates around open and ‘guerrilla’ research.  We argue that the researcher should be particularly attentive to content and context when researching in diverse social media settings and that a new set of ethical guidelines appropriate to researching this terrain is needed.

Tess, P. (2013) The role of social media in higher education classes (real and virtual) – A literature review. Computers in Human Behavior. 29(5), pp. A60-A68. Available from [Accessed 20 August 2015]