Digital Ethics Issues in Education

As Gerd Leonhard pointed out in this week’s introductory video, technology in and of itself has no ethics. We decide how to apply ethical standards to the use of technology. In education, we often refer to our field-specific tools as “EdTech,” encompassing everything from our learning management systems platforms (Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, etc.) to lesson-specific tools or a myriad of other items.

Educators generally face two sets of ethical issues that often intertwine: a professional code of ethics that applies to both analog and digital activities, and the digital ethical skills we believe the educational system should inculcate in our young charges.

The Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio Educators, which is currently undergoing its first major revision in several years, consists of eight areas. At least five of those areas cross-apply to the digital world. Here are a few examples (not an exhaustive list):

  • Standard 1 - Professional Behavior

    • 1b: A violation of law online could occur at any time. The standard does not apply just to “school time” and the offense does not have to result in a criminal charge to incur formal sanction.

    • 1c: Disparagement of a colleague can easily occur via e-mail, during an online chat, or similar.

    • 1g: “Using technology to intentionally host or post improper or inappropriate material that could reasonably be accessed by the school community.”

  • Standard 2 - Professional Relationship with Students

    • 2i (in addition to others in this section): “Using technology to promote inappropriate communications with students.”

  • Standard 3 - Accurate Reporting

    • So much reporting to the local district (absences, licensure compliance, etc.) and the state (evaluations, student records, etc.) is online.

  • Standard 5 - Confidentiality

    • 5a: “Willfully or knowingly violating any student confidentiality required by federal or state laws, including publishing, providing access to, or altering confidential student information on district or public Web sites such as grades, personal information, photographs, disciplinary actions, or individual educational plans (IEPs) without parental consent or consent of students 18 years of age and older.”

  • Standard 7 - Accepting Compensation for Self Promotion or Personal Gain

    • The online world makes it so much easier to fall into an ethical morass as it relates to the willful (or accidental) use of institutional privileges for personal gain.

Beyond our own professional code of conduct, the development of digital citizenship skills in students is a current hot topic. The International Society for Technology in Education has developed one of the best sets of standards as it applies to this issue - for students, teachers, and administrators alike. The ISTE Standards for Students contain indicators for digital citizenship that include the following definition of ethical behaviors: “Interactions that align with one’s moral code, for example, preventing or not engaging in cyberbullying, trolling, or scamming; avoiding plagiarism; supporting others’ positive digital identity.” In my experience, these standards are not well-known or implemented in our state. A more piecemeal approach predominates.

Insofar as policy recommendations, the Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio Educators is undergoing an update. The draft of the “new” code creates a new standard, Standard 9, that is entirely focused on the ethical use of technology. It incorporates all applicable sections of the previous standards and creates a few new ones, as well. It makes sense that a standalone section would be created, but the new code, once implemented, may already be behind the times in terms of artificial intelligence (AI), virtual/augmented reality, and more. Further changes will need to be made to keep up.

It may also be useful for educators at all levels (and in many districts this is already happening) to adopt digital citizenship standards and implement them across the content areas. Currently, the language of student handbooks and board policies contain a lot of variety. It would be interesting to see if a consensus will emerge and that language can become more standardized across districts and states, and (this is key) across individual classrooms, so that we are all using similar language and adopting similar strategies with regard to digital citizenship skills.

If there is to be a society-wide consensus about ethical behavior as we prepare for the future of technology (in some circles, enhanced AI; in others, nothing short of the singularity), education will (?) play a key role in the process. Who knows, perhaps classic philosophy will make a grand comeback!