Open University (UNITED KINGDOM)
About this paper:
Appears in: EDULEARN09 Proceedings
Publication year: 2009
Pages: 5442-5450
ISBN: 978-84-612-9801-3
ISSN: 2340-1117
Conference name: 1st International Conference on Education and New Learning Technologies
Dates: 6-8 July, 2009
Location: Barcelona ,Spain
This paper develops a particular aspect of e-learning pedagogy, focusing on the benefits for informal and formal learning with a diverse group of students whose routes into university were 'non-traditional' (Rai 2004). The author demonstrates that e-learning can afford cognitive and affective safe spaces for student learning.
E-learning was introduced into a final year Ethics module for undergraduate Social Work students in England. The student cohort was diverse in terms of age, race, class, gender and previous educational experience. Many had been educated outside the UK and a number identified religious faith as the source of their ethical views.
The author had previously taught this module through face-to-face lectures and seminars. The diversity of the student group always added an interesting dimension to teaching and learning about ethical thinking. As well as traditional ethical issues such as informed consent or choices about end of life care, students engaged in heated debate about the place of individually determined moral viewpoints. The validity of moral relativism and the place of religion were hotly debated themes. (Pack-Brown and Williams 2003)

This six month module had previously been evaluated as interesting, challenging and controversial for students. Students consistently indicated a high level of satisfaction with the material studied and discussed. However, a significant proportion of students had stated that they would have welcomed more private and informal opportunities to work out their ethical views. Some told the author that the Ethics module proved a challenge to their way of thinking about moral dilemmas which was unexpected and disturbing. Encouragement to think about issues such as abortion using ethical theoretical frameworks rather than 'gut reactions' or reliance on faith expectations was valued by students. But this was combined with feelings of separation from and betrayal of previously held values and assumptions. A number of students from minority ethnic backgrounds reported a challenge to their sense of identity which was stressful at this final period of their studies (Jones 2006).

Others stated at having to debate ethical views in face-to-face sessions, before they had had a chance to think these through in a more considered way, was anxiety provoking and undermined their confidence. They wanted the opportunity to 'think aloud’ without having to voice (and be seen as committed to) particular opinions in class. A large group of students highlighted that face-to-face seminars were not conducive to expressing uncertainty. They remained silent and this undermined their self-esteem and echoed previous difficult educational experiences.

The author wished to ensure that this is largely non-traditional group of students was not disenfranchised by the teaching method. Face-to-face discussion has been promoted as optimising potential for student participation (Gregory and Holloway 2005). Personal interaction is central to Social Work and e-learning is not an obvious approach to use (Johns 2003, Madoc- Jones and Parrott 2005)

The author hypothesised that a structured e-learning approach to ethical debate might afford students an increased opportunity to 'think aloud' (Cook and Smith 2004). The results of this innovation in teaching will be detailed and a new aspect of e-learning pedagogy suggested.

ethics teaching, social work, innovation, technology.