Disruptive innovation for higher education in emergencies: Ethical concerns.   Presentation at Canada’s Collaboration for Online Higher Education Research Conference, October 20, 2017, Toronto, CA

COHERE 2017 powerpoint slides

This presentation discusses research ethics concerning the use of disruptive innovations in higher education in emergencies.  The draws from a case study centred on a June 2017 York University course called Education and International Development.  It was an international multi-site blended learning course with learners in either Toronto, Canada or a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya.  On several levels, the course design mirrors the course curriculum exploring how education changes the world. For years, Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) at York University has been delivering international multi-site blended learning courses via the learning management system called Moodle.  Past experience showed that there was a limited amount of online collaboration between learners from separate geographies.  A contributing factor is that the Kenyan based learners’ access to the Internet based Moodle course was limited to the one day a week that they could travel to the BHER Learning Centre.  In early 2017, the Moodle course was redesigned, and included the use of the mobile chat application called WhatsApp.  Using WhatsApp removed all time constraints for learners to communicate asynchronously but notably compromised the protection of learners’ privacy.  This is the research ethics concern that is addressed in this presentation.

The specificity of the WhatsApp technology will be used to raise the broader ethical considerations pertaining to any disruptive innovation deployed in higher education in emergencies.  Disruptive innovation refers to bringing new customers into an existing market through innovation.  In this case study, the innovation was to adopt for educational purposes a mobile chat app that was widely used socially in the Kenyan refugee camps.  The intent was to encourage learners to become active online collaborators engaged in meaningful course communication, thus fulfilling the three core elements of disruptive innovation.  A secondary characteristic of disruptive innovation is that the technology used is lesser in price and quality than those primarily used in the market place.  This is true when choosing WhatsApp for online course discussions.  It is significantly cheaper than the learners paying for Internet data plans in order to access the Moodle course from their homes.  Learning management systems are more robust than WhatsApp for sharing documents; creating various threads of discussion; and messaging individuals and the whole class.  Additionally, Moodle protects the private information of the learners, e.g. personal email addresses.  Unfortunately, by enabling members of a WhatsApp group to be able to communicate with other members in the group, it means disabling the privacy protection of the group members’ private phone numbers.  This case study explores the compromise between using a current communication technology to improve opportunities for learners and maintaining high ethical standards of research set out in the Canadian Tri-Council policy statement and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies minimum standards.  This presentation will highlight the success of achieving ethical approval to use WhatsApp in a multi-site blended learning course and the potential future impact on research ethics in light of the current landscape of digital communication technologies.


Bower, J. L., & Christensen, C. M. (1995). Disruptive technologies: Catching the wave. Harvard Business Review,73(1), 43-53.

Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. (2014).  Tri-Council policy statement: Ethical conduct for researching involving humans.Ottawa, ON:  Queen’s Printer.

Christensen, C. M., Raynor, M., & McDonald, R. (2015). Disruptive innovation? Twenty years after the introduction of the theory, we revisit what it does – and doesn’t – explain. Harvard Business Review, 93(12), 44-53.

Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies. (2010). INEE minimum standards for education: Preparedness, response, recovery.New York, NY: Author. Retrieved from

MacIsaac, P. L. (2017, March 27). Diaspora higher education: What’s next for displaced learners? Interpretations Blog– Journal of Interrupted Studies, Oxford. UK: University of Oxford.