In Pursuit of Ethics and Technology: Are Distributed Educators Up to the Challenge?

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The proliferation of communications technologies has transformed every major institution in society ranging from education, business, and government to entertainment, banking, insurance, and medicine. Moreover, this ubiquitous assimilation of technology predicated on the dictum that "technology = progress" has inadvertently blinded us to the unanticipated consequences of these choices:

Today, we embrace technology as the inevitable evolution of modern science. And yet, our preoccupation with pushing back the "technological" frontiers of knowledge has created an ostensible delusion that technology is synonymous with progress. We embark upon each new endeavor with the illusion that technology can expurgate any problem . . . efficiently, economically, and without impending social consequences. (Olcott, 1997, p. 22)

Paradoxically, given the unlimited questions that technology poses for education, few educators have left the cyberspace highway long enough to examine questions related to the ethical choices surrounding technology. Ask most educators the last time they heard a keynote address on ethics and technology, and you will provoke a perplexing silence.

Perhaps the human condition precludes us from reflecting upon ethical issues because it exposes our most cherished values to personal introspection. And, if this introspection is unleashed for public discourse, more often that not, it raises our deepest fears about our own attitudes, values and beliefs. This is a challenging proposition for most of us, particularly if these issues weave themselves through our profession. We may console ourselves with the misguided belief that it's not our problem, which ironically makes us part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

This commentary challenges all professionals who embrace distance and distributed education as their profession to examine the ethical issues associated with educational technology. It is a challenge embedded in common sense rather than empiricism. There will be intrinsic differences is how educators define ethics, prioritize issues, determine sound solutions, and impart this knowledge to colleagues, students, and even their own children. In few instances, will the answers be simple. In fact, some questions may have more than one right answer. As Henry L. Mencken summed up so succinctly, "for every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it's wrong." Similarly, answers to the ethical issues related to technology will not be simple.

Defining Ethics

The concept of ethics has been defined as "the systematic exploration of questions about how we should act in relation to others" (Rhodes, 1986, p. 21). Moreover, these questions become more evident where the actions of others may cause harm. A related concept is ethical sensitivity. This refers to an individual's (and by extension and organization's) awareness that his or her actions can affect the welfare of others (Bebeau, Rest, & Yamoor, 1985). This suggests that decisions or behavior related to the use of technology that may have an adverse effect on others falls within the ethical domain.

Given this general definition, educators must first determine if technological choices adversely affect someone else directly or indirectly. Second, an ideal course of action must be developed. Third, the most important values associated with the situation must be identified. And last, a solution or course of action must be implemented, monitored, and evaluated (Rest, 1982).

What's Wrong with this Picture?

The Simon Wisenthal Center in Vienna (1999) recently reported that in February 1999, there were 1400 hate sites on the World Wide Web. By July 1999, less that five months, this number had increased to 2000. Today, access to pornography for adults and minors is higher than at any time during the twentieth century due primarily to web access.

Newspaper headlines have also documented emerging problems associated with the Internet. "Alleged Gang Members Charged over Web Site" and "Internet Use Leads to Loneliness and Depression." Children today spend more time playing video games than watching television, and usually do both alone or with friends rather than with parents. Internet dating has resulted in murder, rape, stalking, sexual harassment and a range of other crimes. Without question, this new environment challenges our cherished belief in, and tolerance of, freedom of speech at any cost. And while these examples certainly are at one end of the continuum, what's wrong with this picture is readily apparent. An anonymous source once said that awareness is the first step towards wisdom. It's time for distance and distributed learning professionals to take this first step.

The Challenge

This commentary is not intended to identify every ethical issue associated with technology or to pose definitive solutions. It is, however, intended to challenge professionals to expand their awareness of the issues in their environments and to engage in much needed discourse about ethics and technology. The question is simple: Are you up to the challenge? If so, reflect upon the following questions and using Rest's (1984) four-step criteria, establish some parameters for addressing technoethic issues in your environment.

The Choices are Yours

The ethics and technology arena will increasingly become more complex as we progress to a mature information society. Technology as progress will continue to be a powerful psychological and intellectual force that if unchallenged, will result in many unanticipated ethical issues associated with the use of technology. Technology, in and of itself, is only a tool. Its purpose and optimum use are left ultimately to people. And people inherently have different views of what values are important and consequently what courses of action regarding ethics and technology are appropriate.

Education, by its very nature, is always an endeavor with ethical implications (Cunningham, 1987). Embracing ethical questions will not be easy and the answers will seldom be definitive. What is definitive, however, is if the questions are not being asked, and not being discussed, they will not be answered. And from an ethical perspective, that would be the ultimate travesty for our children and their children. Are you up to the challenge?


Bebeau, M. J., Rest, J. R., & Yamoor, C. M. (1985). Measuring dental students ethical sensitivity. Journal of Dental Education 49(4), 225-235.

Cunningham, I. (1987). Openness and learning to learn. In V. E. Hodgson, S. U. Mann, & R. S. Snell, (Eds.), Beyond Distance Teaching—Towards Open Learning (pp. 40-58). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Olcott, D. J., Jr. (1997). Where are you George Orwell? We got the year . . . missed the message. Open Praxis 2, 22-24.

Olcott, D. J., Jr. (1998, Fall). An Orwellian view of technology. Promise or peril? Continuing Higher Education Review 62, 75-81.

Rest, J. R. (1982). A psychologist looks at the teaching of ethics. The Hastings Center Report 12(1), 29-36.

Critical Reviews

Critic NN

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Critic V

"In Pursuit of Ethics and Technology: Are Distributed Educators Up to the Challenge?" should cause a stir in the Commentary section of the Technology Source. It will definitely press reaction buttons among online educators. However, I'd like to see a shift in emphasis to what I perceive as the "meat" of the article: the ethical questions or "challenges." Each should be developed in greater detail: What are the specific events or observations that prompt this question? What exactly is the ethical issue? To generate a dialogue, the writer will need to provide details and specifics that potential respondents could sink their teeth into. The events described in the "What's Wrong with this Picture" section are the kinds of examples that need to be attached to each challenge.

Critic I

Publishable as a commentary… needs revision. The article is interesting and offers a challenging scheme and food for thoughts.

There is a need in this article to define new technology, cyberspace and Internet, are these one and the same (technology) or different technologies on a continuum (theoretical framework needed). Are other technologies (cable, video, videophone, telephone, books, printed material) facing the same ethical challenges, or are there differences among these and the «distributed» technology of the article. And, there is a need for an order or grouping to the questions in The Challenge portion (theoretical framework or the author's partial list?)


Some typos, 5th paragraph, in versus is «There will be intrinsic differences is…» 6th paragraph, an versus and «and by extension and …»

Some missing or incorrect references, Rhodes, 1986, p.21 - not in References; Rest (1984) - not in References; The Simon Wisenthal Center (1999 report) - ?????