Does technology change how schools teach ethical behaviors?
Real Questions, Good Answers Knowledge Quest, Vol #3 no. 2
It wasn’t a week after we had given email address to about 600 middle school students, when Principal Jane stormed up to me, upset and confused. “Doug, they’re sending each other email with bad language! What are we going to do?”
“Jane, what would you do if your students were passing paper notes to each other with bad language?” I asked.
Jane’s face lit up. She was back on familiar ground. “We have harassment policies to handle that.”
Principal Jane is one of the most knowledgeable, competent administrators with whom I’ve ever worked. Her new school is our district’s “high tech” model site. Her media center and classrooms have been wired and the kids have had access to the Internet and other technological goodies longer than anyone else in the district. Through a long career of working with middle school students and parents, she has dealt successfully with a huge range of behaviors and situations. Yet, Jane, like many adults working in schools, does not always feel comfortable making decisions about the proper use of technology, especially networked technologies. And at the same time, the media is full of stories of young people (who always seem to a whole lot more about this than adults do) sending threatening messages to the President, hacking into computer files, viewing pornography on the Web, and placing themselves at risk by corresponding with cyberspace strangers. And digital resources add a layer of complexity to the chronic issues of plagiarism and copyright abuse that are already confusing for most educators.
So does technology change the way we need to address ethical and acceptable behaviors in school?
What exactly are ethics and do schools have a role in promoting them?
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 judgments, issues of right and wrong, and determining what behaviors are humane and inhumane. Most 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. 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. Since most of the ethical issues that surround technology deal with societal and school behaviors, they are an appropriate and necessary part of the school curriculum.
So why single out “computer ethics?”
Why then do behaviors that involve technology 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 with new 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.
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, a nearly impossible feat with chemical photography. What obligations do communicators have to present an undistorted 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 judgments?
- Intellectual property in digital format can now be duplicated with incredible ease. Do students and staff need a clearer understanding 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, adult or child, 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 den or bedroom. 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.
Steps all schools that allow student use of technology need to take
Many the underlying principles of ethical decision making remain the same between the physical and virtual worlds. Harassment is harassment, whether on paper or by email. Copyright infringement is copyright infringement whether through downloading or photocopying. Safety issues are safety issues whether at the mall or in a chat room. However the technologically-enhanced environment is sufficiently new and different that it begs for schools to give it special attention. All schools that use technology need to have:
1. Written guidelines, statements, and policies
No technology should put in place and made available until acceptable use policies and guidelines are clearly written, adopted and understood by both staff and students. Current policies like copyright, harassment, and privacy need to be reviewed to make sure the language covers electronic resources and activities as well as physical ones. Individual buildings and teachers may want to add local guidelines to school policies. Posting rules of computer use in classrooms, labs, and libraries is helpful. Simple guidelines like Johnson’s 3 P’s of Technology Ethics are easy even for the youngest child to remember and apply.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.
(See my article MultiMedia Schools, “Developing an Ethical Compass for Worlds of Learning,” November/December 1998 <http://www.infotoday.com/MMSchools/nov98/johnson.htm> for a full explanation of these guidelines.)
2. Awareness, training, and reinforcement
The appropriate use of technology is one area where it is not enough just to toss a policy into a student handbook and hope someone reads it. A formal program conducted by a media specialist or technology coordinator must be a part of every student and new teacher orientation. The school will be doing a favor to parents by helping them understand safety and legal issues regarding home computer use.
Not only should there be a formal orientation session, but no training in technology use should be given that does not address ethics. Training in using the web should also speak to privacy issues. Training on how to download software should include cautions about viruses and copyright. Learning how to use an on-line periodical database should address plagiarism issues.
Lets face it, more than a few educators practice “deliberate” ignorance of copyright rules and other school acceptable use policies. Such excuses have always been lame, but with adequate training there is no reason they should be accepted at all!
Finally teachers themselves need to be great role models for ethical technology use. Students seeing teachers use pirated software, use network resources for non-educational purposes, or violate copyright laws rapidly destroys any understanding of the issues gained through formal instruction about appropriate use. But happily, the opposite is true as well: the demonstrated ethical use is a powerful teaching tool, especially if the teacher verbalizes the process he or she uses to arrive at good decisions. Metacognition, discussion of incidents, and reactions to technology misuse that are in keeping with other inappropriate behaviors need to be an ongoing part of every classroom and library culture.
More important than ever
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.
In many schools, it has been one of the roles of the library media specialist to help staff and students understand the ethical issues behind copyright, plagiarism, and intellectual freedom. This role is not always an easy or comfortable, but one that is important and unique to the library profession. Logically as technology resources expand in schools, so must training in their appropriate use. Please give your library media specialists the encouragement and support to provide that training.