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Developing an Ethical Compass for Worlds of Learning

Developing an Ethical Compass for Worlds of Learning
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MultiMedia Schools, Nov/Dec 1998

Two worlds
Even very young children can quickly identify whether the behaviors in these examples are right or wrong:

  • A boy finds a magazine with sexually explicit photographs and brings it to school. He shows its contents to others in his class who become upset.
  • A student steals a set of keys and uses them to gain access to the school office where she changes her grades and views the grades of other students.
  • A student locates a story, recopies it in his own writing, and submits it to the teacher as his own work.
  • A student steals a book from a local store. She says the only reason she stole it was that she did not have the money to purchase it.

When students start using technology, especially information technologies that consist of computers and computer networks, they start operating in a new world: a virtual world. Suddenly behaviors may not be as easily judged to be right or wrong. What would your students’ responses be when given these situations?

  • A girl downloads a sexually explicit picture from a site on the Internet on a computer in the school library. Her classmates can easily view the computer screen.
  • A student finds the teacher’s password to the school’s information system and uses it to change his grades and view the grades of other students.
  • A student uses the copy and paste command to place large parts of an electronic encyclopedia article into an assigned paper. She turns the paper in as her own work.
  • A student makes a copy of software program borrowed from another student to use on his computer at home.

What’s different about “computer ethics?”
Computer ethics, better labeled “information technology ethics,” deal with the proper use of a wide range of telecommunication and data storage devices. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with moral judgements, issues of right and wrong, and determining what behaviors are humane and inhumane. Most (Western?) codes of ethical behavior describe actions as “ethical” that do one or more of the following:

  •     promote the general health of society
  •     maintain or increase individual rights and freedoms
  •     protect individuals from harm
  •     treat all human beings as having an inherent value and accord those beings respect
  •     uphold religious, social, cultural, and government laws and mores

A simplistic way of saying this is that an “ethical action” then, is one that does not have a damaging impact on oneself, other individuals, or on society.

In direct or indirect ways, children begin to learn ethical values from birth. And while families and the church are assigned the primary responsibility for a child’s ethical education, schools have traditionally had the societal charge to teach and reinforce some moral values, especially those directly related to citizenship and school behaviors. Most of the ethical issues that surround technology deal with societal and school behaviors and are an appropriate and necessary part of the school curriculum.

Why do technology ethics then deserve special attention? There are a variety of reasons. Using technology to communicate and operate in a “virtual world,” one that only exists within computers and computer networks, is a new phenomenon that is not always well understood by many adults who received their primary education prior to its existence. Both fear and romance usually accompany new technologies. Our mass media has produced movies like War Games, The Net, and Mission Impossible that capitalize on the unfamiliarity many adults have of communications technologies. Movies, as well as book and television programs, often make questionably ethical actions such as breaking into secure computer systems seem heroic or at least sympathetic.

Our new technological capabilities also may require new ethical considerations.

  • The ability to send unsolicited commercial messages to millions of Internet email users (spamming) was not possible before there was email or the Internet. Does the fact that the financial burden of unsolicited advertisements now falls on the recipient rather than the sender create the need for new rules?
  • Digital photography has made the manipulation of images undetectable, an impossible feat with chemical photography. What obligations do communicators have to present an undoctored photograph, even if its message may not be as powerful as one that has been digitally “enhanced?”
  • Prior to the Internet, minors faced physical barriers of access to sexually explicit materials. What safeguards do schools, libraries, and parents need to take to keep children from freely accessing inappropriate materials? Which will better serve our children in the long run - software filtering devices or instruction and practice in making good judgements?
  • Intellectual property in digital format can now be duplicated with incredible ease. Do we need clearer definitions of property? Can an item that is taken without authorization, but leaves the original in place, still be considered stolen?

One of the most significant reasons that computer ethics deserve special attention is because of our rather human ability to view one’s actions in the intangible, virtual world of information technologies as being less serious than one’s actions in the real world. Most of us, adults or children, would never contemplate walking into a computer store and shoplifting a computer program. Yet software piracy (the illegal duplication of computer programs) costs the computer business billions of dollars each year. Most of us would never pick a lock, but guessing passwords to gain access to unauthorized information is a common activity.

Information technology misuse by many people, especially the young, is viewed as a low-risk, game-like challenge. Electronic fingerprints, footsteps, and other evidence of digital impropriety have historically been less detectable than physical evidence. There is a physical risk when breaking into a real office that does not exist when hacking into a computer database from one’s living room or den. Illegally copying a book is costly and time consuming; illegally copying a computer program can be done in seconds at very small expense. The viewed pornography on a website seems to disappear as soon as the browser window is closed.

Not long ago, ethical technology questions were only of interest to a very few specialists. But as the use of information technologies spreads throughout society and its importance to our national economies and individual careers grows, everyone will need to make good ethical decisions when using computers. Studies show that persons involved in computer crimes acquire both their interest and skills at an early age.

 Ethical codes
Many organizations and individuals have written lists of ethical standards for technology use. One of the mostly widely used and easily understood sets of computer use principals comes from the Computer Ethics Institute.

The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics by the Computer Ethics Institute
  1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.
  2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people’s computer work.
  3. Thou shalt not snoop around in other people’s computer files.
  4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
  5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
  6. Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid.
  7. Thou shalt not use other people’s computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.
  8. Thou shalt not appropriate other people’s intellectual output.
  9. Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.
  10. Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that insure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.

Association for Computing Machinery’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (1993) stresses many of the same ideas as The 10 Commandments of Computer Ethics. Their “moral imperatives” include:

  1. I will contribute to society and human well-being
  2. I will avoid harm to others.
  3. I will be honest and trustworthy.
  4. I will be fair and not discriminate.
  5. I will honor property rights including copyrights and patents.
  6. I will give proper credit for intellectual property.
  7. I will respect the privacy of others.
  8. I will honor confidentiality.

Arlene Rinaldi has written a well-respected set of Internet guidelines called “The Net: User Guidelines and Netiquette.” This more informal set of expected behaviors helps new users learn the manners and etiquette of an often-impatient online community. In her guide, newbies (inexperienced telecommunications users) learn that:

  • typing in all capital letters is considered shouting and therefore rude
  • sending chain letters via email is improper and a waste of resources
  • humor and sarcasm are easily viewed as criticism and should be used with care in electronic communications

Rindaldi isolates proper conduct for a variety of areas of telecommunication use including telnet, FTP, e-mail, discussion groups, and the World Wide Web.

Most schools now have adopted an “Acceptable Use Policy” that governs the use of the Internet and other information technologies and networks in a school. The rules in these policies often apply to both staff and students. Everyone in the school, as well as parents, needs to know and understand these policies. The Mankato School’s Acceptable Use Policy (adopted from the Minnesota School Board Association’s recommended policy) can be found at: <http://www.isd77.k12.mn.us/guidelines.html>. Included in the policy are some explicit rules of use:
Users are prohibited from using school district Internet resources or accounts for the following purposes:

  1. To access, upload, download, or distribute pornographic, obscene or sexually explicit material.
  2. To transmit or receive obscene, abusive or sexually explicit language.
  3. To violate any local, state or federal statute.
  4. To vandalize, damage or disable the property of another person or organization.
  5. To access another person’s materials, information, or files without the implied or direct permission of that person.
  6. To violate copyright laws, or otherwise use another person’s property without the person’s prior approval or proper citation, including the downloading or exchanging of pirated software or copying software to or from any school computer.
  7. Unauthorized commercial use or financial gain.

Internet uses shall be consistent with other school district policies. (These are listed.)

A variety of guides should be made available to staff and students and one should either be adopted or an original set of guidelines written. While an entire school or district may wish to use a single set of guidelines, each classroom teacher needs to understand, teach, and model the guidelines. Simple, easily remembered for children are probably the best:

Johnson’s 3 P’s of Technology Ethics:
  1. Privacy - I will protect my privacy and respect the privacy of others.
  2. Property - I will protect my property and respect the property of others.
  3. a(P)propriate Use - I will use technology in constructive ways and in ways which do not break the rules of my family, church, school, or government.

Educators need to be aware and understand that another, counter set of “ethical” behavior also exists - that espoused by hackers. Being described as a “hacker” once indicated only a strong interest and ability in computer use. Popular use of the word has changed, so that now “hacking” describes gaining unauthorized access to computerized systems and data. The term “cracker” is also used, but is often used to describe a hacker who has a malicious intent. Some common hacker beliefs, stated by Deborah Johnson in Computer Ethics, 2nd Edition (Prentice-Hall, 1994) include:

  • all information, especially digital information, should be free and available to all people
  • breaking into computer systems points out security features to those who are responsible for maintaining them
  • hacking is a form of learning about computers and is harmless
  • hackers help monitor the abuse of information by the government and business

Teachers need to know and understand these counter-culture beliefs and be able to offer reasons why they need to be questioned for their logic and ethics.

Major areas of concern
The scope of information technology ethics is very broad. For the purposes of this short guide, we will be looking only at some common cases where younger children will need to make ethical choices or have the unethical actions of other effect them. I have categorized the issues under the major headings of privacy, property, and appropriate use. These cases and others like them should be used to foster classroom discussion. Other areas of ethical concern for older children and adults are listed below in the section “Further Objectives/Questions.”

Privacy - Does my use of the technology violate the privacy of others or am I giving information to others that I should not?

John fills out a survey form on a computer game web page. In the following weeks, he receives several advertisements in the mail as well as dozens of email messages about new computer games.

Children need to understand that businesses and organizations use information to market products. Information given to one organization may well sell it to others. An interesting discussion can revolve around how much a person would like a company to know about him or her. Will a company who knows a lot about me use it to customize products for me or only to manipulate me?

Adele “meets” Frank, who shares her interest in figure skating, in an Internet chat room. After several conversations in the following weeks, Frank asks Adele for her home telephone number and address.

All individuals need to know that a stranger is a stranger, whether on the playground or on the Internet. The same rules we teach children about physical strangers apply to virtual strangers as well.

The principal suspects Paul of using his school email account to send offensive messages to other students. He asks the network manager to give him copies of Paul’s email.

Schools (and businesses) have the right to search student and employee files that are created and stored on school owned computer hardware. Ask students if they know the school’s search policy on lockers and book bags, and whether the same policy should be extended to computer storage devices.

Helen is using the word processor on the classroom computer to keep her journal, but Mike keeps looking over her shoulder as she types.

As one librarian puts it, just because information appears on a computer screen doesn’t make it public. Students who are accustomed to the public viewing of television monitors need to realize that student created work on a computer screens should be treated as privately as work created in a paper journal.

Ms. Eastman, Terry’s teacher, needs to leave the room to take care of an emergency. While she is gone, Terry finds that Ms. Eastman had been working on student progress reports and that her grading program is still open. He checks to see what grade he is getting and finds the grades for several other students.

Information inadvertently left accessible does not mean that it is appropriate to access it. Ask students: “Is forgetting to lock one’s home is the same as allowing anyone to enter it?” While information may be about students (such as grades), that information does not necessarily belong to them. And students certainly do not have the right to look at information about other students. One question that might be raised is: “What right do I as a student have to check the accuracy of the data gathered about me and what would be correct procedure for making that check?”
Property issues - Do my actions respect the property of others and am I taking the correct steps to keep my property safe?

Jerry borrows Ben’s game disks for Monster Truck RallyII and installs them on his home computer. He says he will erase the game if he does not like it, or will buy the game for himself if he likes it.

Students need to know that computer software is protected by copyright law. It is unlawful, as well as unethical, to make copies of computer programs without permission or payment of the producer of those programs. It also needs to be understood that when purchasing software, one is usually only purchasing the right to use the software. The ownership of the code that comprises the program stays with the producer. This means that one cannot alter the program or resell it. The vast majority of software licenses require that one copy of a program be purchased for each computer on which it is to be run. And no, the inability to pay for software is not a justification for illegal copying anymore than the inability to pay for a book is any justification for shoplifting it from a bookstore.

Betty downloads a solitaire card game from the Internet that is “shareware.” It can be legally used for 30 days and then Betty must either delete it from her computer or send its author a fee. Betty has been using the game for 30 days.

Software falls into three main types: freeware (that which can be used without payment indefinitely); shareware (that which can be use for a trial period and then must either be erased or purchased); and commercial software (that which must be purchased before use). Understanding the concept of shareware is a good way of helping students understand why purchasing software benefits them. The profits that software producers make are partially used to fund the development of more software. If the profit motive is lost from software creation, less software and fewer improvements are likely to be made.

Cindy finds some good information about plant growth nutrients for her science fair project on a CD-ROM reference title. She uses the copy function of the computer to take an entire paragraph from the CD-ROM article and paste it directly into her report. She also forgets write down the title of the article and the CD-ROM from which it was taken. When she writes her report, she does not cite the source in her bibliography.

Plagiarism is easier than ever, thanks to the computer. Students need to understand when and how to cite sources in both print and electronic formats.

Albert finds a site on the Internet that is a repository of old term papers. He downloads one on ancient Greece, changes the title, and submits it as his own.

Academic work is increasingly becoming available for sale or downloading from the Internet. On-line services now offer help in writing “personal” essays requested for college admissions offices. How are such services alike or unlike ghostwritten biographies and speeches of celebrities and politicians?

Fahad is upset with his friend George. He finds the data disk on which George has been storing his essays and erases it.

Does deleting a file or erasing a disk constitute the destruction of property? After all the magnetic medium of the hard drive or the plastic case of the computer disk is left intact. All that has changed is the polarization of some magnetic particles bonded to a circle of plastic. Students need to learn to treat intellectual property, existing only in virtual spaces, the same way they would treat physical property and that the theft or destruction of such property is unethical (and unlawful).

With her teacher’s permission, Lucy uses the classroom computer to download a program from the Internet that has instructions on how to make paper airplanes. After using the program, the classroom computer does not seem to work very well, crashing often and randomly destroying files. Lucy thinks she might have downloaded a virus along with the paper airplane program.

Students need to know about the unethical practices of others and how protect themselves from those practices. Computer viruses, often infecting a computer through downloading software from the Internet, can be detected and destroyed by virus protection programs. Students need to know how to find, install, and use these programs.

Henry’s older friend Hank, a high school student, has discovered the password to the school’s student information system. Because Hank feels a teacher has unfairly given him a poor grade, he plans to create a “bomb” which will erase all the information on the office computer.

Citizens (including students) have the ethical responsibility for reporting wrongdoing, including destruction of property. And while there are lots of reasons why students are reluctant to do so, as adults we need to express our beliefs that reporting unethical or criminal behavior serves a social purpose. Younger students often believe that school property is owned by the teachers and administrators, and are surprised to learn that it their parents’ taxes or fees that must be used to pay for vandalized or stolen school resources.

Appropriate use - Does this use of the technology have educational value and is it in keeping with the rules of my family, my church, my school and my government?

Jack’s class has been using the digital camera to take pictures for the school year book. Jack has found that he can use a computer program to change the photographs. He has used the program so far to make himself look like the tallest boy in the class, to blacken out the front tooth of a girl he doesn’t like, and to give his teacher slightly crossed eyes.

While this example may seem frivolous or even like “good fun,” journalistic integrity is a serious issue which even young writers and photographers need to be aware of. Deliberate distortion of events whether through words or pictures may harm both those involved in the event as well as the reputation of the reporter.

Just for fun, thirteen year old Alice tells the other people on her electronic mailing list that she is twenty years old and a nursing student. Others on the list have begun emailing her health-related questions.

Disguise, impersonation, and other forms of “trying on” new personalities are common childhood and adolescent behaviors. The anonymity of the Internet limits such impersonation only to the degree that a lack of a student’s writing skills or sophistication of thought allows discovery. Role-playing in a physical context is often seen as both healthy and educational. We need to help students ask when such activities are productive and when they might be harmful.

Penelope has found a Web site that has “gross jokes” on it. She prints the pages out and shares them with her friends.

A good deal of Internet content, if not obscene, is certainly tasteless, offensive, and lacking in educational value. Schools should define and teachers should help students understand the qualities and conditions under which an item becomes inappropriate for school use. Students need to understand the concepts of pornography, racism, and sexism. Students may be exposed to information produced by hate groups and political extremists. Such experiences may be springboards to meaningful discussions about propaganda and free speech issues.

Chang sends an email message to his sister who attends a school across town. In this email he uses profanities and racial slurs.

Most schools have harassment policies. Students need to understand that such behavior is wrong regardless of its medium.

The computers in the library always seem to be busy. Otis tells the librarian he is working on a research project, but actually uses the computer to access the latest soccer scores posted on the Internet.

Most schools allow students to use free time in school to complete personal tasks -to read a book or magazine for enjoyment, to write a letter to a friend, or to draw for pleasure. Technology, too, should be available for student to use to pursue individual interests - to play a game, to send personal email, or to search for Internet information of personal value. The ethical issue here becomes that of an allocation of resources. For most schools, the demand for technology has outpaced its acquisition. Computers and Internet access are usually in short supply, and priority needs to be given to students who have an academic task to complete.

Just for fun, Nellie sets the print command on her computer to print 50 copies of an electronic encyclopedia article she’s been reading, and then walks away.

Deliberate waste of school materials is not uncommon, and students again need to understand that it is wrong to waste finite resources. As with the vandalism questions, students need to understand that everyone is effected by such activities.

What students need to understand.

It is quite obvious that students need to understand and apply both school rules and local and national laws that apply to information technology use, especially those related to privacy, property and appropriateness as described above. They need to know the consequences, both immediate and in the long term for society, if they choose to act against school rules or their country’s laws.

Students also need to know that the ability of officials to catch individuals breaking these rules and codes of conduct is growing. Network security systems are becoming more sophisticated in tracking who uses what resource at what time. Students need to realize that most web browsers keep a viewable log of recently visited sites, that most email includes a return address, and that some schools are using programs that record all the keystrokes a student makes during a computer session. All of us need to understand that organizations have the right to search file server space and read the email of students (and staff), especially if there is probable cause. Electronic fingerprints, virtual footprints, and broken digital locks are growing more visible each day.

Students need to understand both their rights and responsibilities related to information technology use. In your school is Internet access a right or a privilege? As the Internet becomes a more indispensable source of information and learning activities, it may become viewed as an integral part of one’s right to an education. We have an obligation to teach students that they have a right to due process if charged a violation of rules or laws. Our Acceptable Use Policies need to articulate what that due process entails. Pragmatically, students need to know how to protect themselves and their data from strangers, hackers, computer viruses, and unauthorized use.

What activities teach ethical behaviors?
Business Ethics magazine suggests that businesses take a proactive approach to ethical issues. That advice is also good for schools and classrooms: Teachers must:

  • Articulate values. Clearly display lists and create handouts of conduct codes.
  • Reinforce ethical behaviors and react to non-ethical behaviors. Technology use behaviors should be treated no differently than other behaviors - good or bad - and the consequences of student behaviors should be the same. It is important not to over react incidences of technological misuse either.
  • Model ethical behaviors. Students learn more from what we do than what we say. All rules of ethical conduct we expect from our students, we must display. Verbalization of how we personally make decisions is a very powerful teaching tool.
  • Create technology environments that help students avoid temptations. Computer screens that are easily monitored (no pun intended), passwords not written down or left easily found, and the habit of logging out of secure network systems all help remove the opportunities for technology misuse in a classroom.
  • Encourage discussion of ethical issues. “Cases,” whether from news sources or from actual school events, can provide superb discussion starters and should be used when students are actually learning computer skills. Students need practice in creating meaningful analogies between the virtual world and the physical world. How is reading another person’s email without their permission like and unlike reading their physical mail?
  • Stress the consideration of principles rather than relying on a detailed set of rules. Although sometimes more difficult to enforce in a consistent manner, a set of a few guidelines rather than lengthy set of specific rules is more beneficial to students in the long run. By applying guidelines rather than following rules, students engage in higher level thinking processes and learn behaviors that will continue into their next classroom, their homes, and their adult lives.

Additionally, students’ understandings of ethic concepts need to be assessed. Technology use privileges should not be given to students until they have demonstrated that they know and can apply ethical standards and school policies. Testing of appropriate use needs to be done especially prior to student gaining on-line privileges such as email accounts or Internet access. The teacher should keep evidence of testing on file in case there is a question of whether there has been instruction on appropriate use.

Schools also have an obligation to educate parents about ethical technology use. Through school newsletters, talks at parent organization meetings, and through school orientation programs, the school staff needs to inform and enlist the aid of parents in teaching and enforcing good technology practices.

Finally, ethical instruction needs to be on going. A single lesson, a single unit, or a single curriculum strand will not suffice. All teachers, librarians, and staff members must integrate ethical instruction into every activity that uses technology.

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McEwan, J. “Computer Ethics.” National Institute of Justice Reports. January-February, 1991.
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Posted on Friday, July 13, 2007 at 08:57AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments Off

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