Power, Proximity, and Placelessness: Implementing An Ethical Framework for Research and Engagement in Online Higher Education

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session Research Equity and Inclusion

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The Framework for Inclusive Research and Engagement explores the principles of reflection, refraction, and response to support research that centers underrepresented students. By recognizing that research epistemologies inform how education functions, we are better prepared to acknowledge the active role that universities continue to play in reinscribing marginalizing practices.


Benjamin Croft is an education researcher in online higher education. His professional background spans many roles and levels: an instructor for first year college mathematics, a program coordinator and grant writer, a high school speech and debate coach, and many others. His interests center on diversity, equity, and inclusion within higher education, especially through the lens of institutional strategy, quantitative and qualitative research, and instructional design and pedagogy.

Extended Abstract

Developing an ethical framework

As researchers, it can be difficult to navigate the constantly shifting landscape of online higher education. The constant state of sociopolitical flux, shifting student demographics, and rapidly growing calls on public institutions to be answerable to the communities they serve place pressure on online programs to demonstrate the value and impact of online learning. Amidst this pressure, it can be difficult to identify new and innovative research methods that center historically marginalized student populations in ways that lead to productive changes in teaching online. At times, the difficulty of building momentum for online research can lead to decision-making that does not prioritize the needs and concerns of online learners.  

To assist researchers in navigating these complexities, we have developed a Framework for Inclusive Research and Engagement (FIRE) that leverages the principles of reflection, refraction, and response. The goal of these principles is to guide researchers through the process of research in online learning that is grounded in equitable decision-making. This framework speaks to broad trends and practices that marginalize research participants - students - while providing specific, concrete examples of how these abstract principles influence research practices that impact online students in higher education. 

Key themes of the framework are described below:

  1. Refraction draws on the principles of intersectionality, positionality, and situated knowledges in order to critically examine the relationships among researchers, researchees, and research subjects. Refraction understands that each research agent is located within certain identities, places of privilege and power, bias, and perspective, all of which play a material role in the research conceptualization, design, process, and analysis. 

  2. Reflexivity is the dynamic, continual examination of how narratives created through the research process are situated within larger structures shared by the researcher and the researchee. Reflexivity asks researchers to critically assess their position and power while describing and analyzing concepts, patterns, and relationships throughout the research process. Researchers are asked to “flip the script” or “reverse the microscope” before constructing knowledges and narratives about the researched. 

  3. Response is the ongoing commitment to ensure that research practices are answerable to the people impacted by research. Researchers should acknowledge historical injustices and ongoing power dynamics among the communities they are working with and seek to build accountable, collaborative relationships to repair harm. This answerability entails sharing both the process, outputs, and benefits of research with those being researched. This means ensuring research decisions are aligned with the interests of students and faculty, gathering feedback from participants, and allowing that feedback to change and inform the course of study. 

These principles serve as foundational concepts that can inform researchers throughout the process of designing and implementing research studies on online learners. To explore these principles in practice, this framework was implemented during a multi-semester research fellowship in online learning. It served as a part of the curriculum for faculty researchers who were new to educational research, guiding conceptualisation, design, implementation, and analysis of their research. Throughout the process, their reflections informed both the conceptual and practical development of the framework. Lessons learned will be shared as a part of this session. 

By recognizing that research epistemologies inform how educational systems function, we are better prepared to acknowledge the active role that universities continue to play in reinscribing marginalizing practices. To shift an institution’s active participation in oppressive systems both locally and across the world (wherever online students are and are not), education professionals must reject harmful historical practices and adopt inclusive, critical practices. We bring an interdisciplinary approach, synthesizing intersectional approaches to justice in education and focusing on three core principles: power, proximity, and placelessness. 


The production and consumption of knowledge have, historically, been the privilege of very few. However, with the advent of distance learning mediated by technology and the rapidly growing interest and enrollment in online courses and programs, established university power systems are being challenged unlike ever before. Public institutions are increasingly being called upon to operate in ways that are answerable to the communities they were not originally built to serve. As new models of education evolve in response, they pose a challenge to existing hierarchies by distributing knowledge to populations that have formerly had little access to formal education. 

While the potential for online higher education to disrupt systems of oppression is promising, it is imperative for education administrators and researchers to critically assess how vestiges of institutions historically rooted in systemic exclusion are being perpetuated within distance education. To understand how the university system exerts its power, one must recognize how knowledge production practices create, encode, and maintain knowledges that are supportive of systems of oppression. Since knowledge production plays such a pivotal role in reinscribing existing social structures that are fundamentally inequitable, the university, then, is a major participant in maintaining and furthering these oppressive systems. As such, it is imperative for institutions to create and sustain policies and frameworks for ethical research and engagement in order to minimize the propagation of marginalizing practices as the field of distance education grows.


To better understand how their identities, experiences, and knowledges inform their work, practitioners can draw on the concept of proximity. Proximity is the extent to which a researcher or decision-maker interacts with the individuals and communities they study and/or for whom they make decisions. Through reflection on assumptions, identities, and privileges, the concept of proximity can help dismantle harmful institutional practices. 


In theory, online programs of study enable learning to be physically placeless - in other words, access to the classroom is not entirely bound by location. This concept - what is known as the concept of placelessness - is the belief that knowledge and social worlds can exist devoid of material context. However, as Patel writes, “learning and knowledge are never placeless” (2015). While online programs may loosen the place-boundedness of learning, it is not accurate to say that students are learning from anywhere. They are learning from somewhere - whether or not we see or know that place. The distinction here is between education that is not bound by place and education existing devoid of place.

Placelessness privileges dominant identities. By allowing practitioners to presume that a student’s learning context is much like their own. In doing so, placelessness may erase or minimize diversity. Without a commitment to understanding placelessness, faculty, educational designers, and researchers are left to imagine the students they are working with and thus prone to implicit bias. In the historical context of the university, this serves to further systems of oppression that actively exclude historically marginalized populations. 

Section 2: What the attendees are going to learn from the presentation (the takeaways)

While the framework is grounded in the larger principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, and advocacy (IDEA), it does not remain purely at the conceptual level. Instead, the framework seeks to help practitioners weave together underlying IDEA principles with practical action steps. Attendees will be better able to design and implement research and engagement practices and reduce the potential harmful impact of research and engagement on historically marginalized student populations. Our presentation will strive to help attendees co-construct an ethical approach to research in online higher education. Attendees will leave with both a code of practice for inclusive research and a research checklist that assists them in applying these principles to each stage of the research and engagement process. 

Section 3: Plan for Interactivity (include a strong engagement strategy)

This session will offer attendees an introduction to reflexivity, refraction, and response as pillars of an ethical framework for research and engagement within higher education. While the 20-30 minute presentation will explore critical perspectives, the remainder of the session (15-25 minutes) will embrace active learning, sharing of lived experiences, and hands-on engagement with adapting an ethical framework for research and engagement for each attendee’s home institution. Attendees will engage with session material through scenario-based design thinking activities, where they will work in teams to assess case studies and apply the research framework as appropriate. Time will be reserved for a question-and-answer forum at the end of the session.


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Enosh, G., & Ben-Ari, A. (2015). Reflexivity: The Creation of Liminal Spaces—Researchers, Participants, and Research Encounters. Qualitative Health Research, 26(4), 578–584. doi: 10.1177/1049732315587878

Nind, M. (2014). Inclusive research and inclusive education: why connecting them makes sense for teachers’ and learners’ democratic development of education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 44(4), 525–540. doi: 10.1080/0305764x.2014.936825

Patel, L. (2015). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. Routledge 
Walmsley, J., & Johnson, K. (2003). Inclusive research with people with learning disabilities: past, present, and futures. London: J. Kingsley Publishers.