Proactively Teaching Technology Ethics
Library Media Connection, January 2004
“Mrs. Hanson, please come here,” fourth grader Jennifer called out in a wavering voice from behind her computer screen. “I think I’m somewhere I shouldn’t be!” The librarian walked over to Jennifer and glanced at her computer screen. While searching for information about shoes, Jennifer had clicked to a page with pictures of models wearing nothing but shoes.How Mrs. Hanson handles this situation will have a big impact on whether Jennifer gains the skills to keep from accessing other inappropriate sites, how she uses on-line resources wisely in the future, and even how she views her school and teachers. What’s the best way for a librarian to respond?
Schools in which students consistently practice safe and ethical behaviors don’t just happen. The relative newness of the Internet itself and almost daily new resources on it lead to uncertainty about its use by both students and teachers. Just having an Acceptable Use Policy, an Internet filter and a set of restrictions as long as one’s arm, does not insure
students will use the Internet well.
Business Ethics magazine suggests that businesses take a proactive approach to ethical issues. That advice is also good for schools and libraries. As librarians, we must:
- Articulate personal values. Talk to your students about what you believe to be ethical conduct online. Set clear limits about what is allowed and what is not allowed. Be knowledgeable about your school’s Acceptable Use Policy. Make sure your labs, libraries and display lists and have available handouts of conduct codes.
- Build student trust. In the example above, I hope that Ms. Hanson gave Jennifer the benefit of the doubt that accessing the page was accidental and used the incident to teach some strategies about using clues in search result findings to discriminate between relevant and non-relevant sites. Using humor and understanding will go far in helping lessen student anxiety. All educators should make it a goal to build the willingness of their students to discuss ethical dilemmas with them.
- Allow students personal use the Internet. If the Internet computers are not being used for curricular purposes, you should allow students to research topics of personal interest (that are not dangerous or pornographic, of course), send email to friends, etc. The best reason for allowing this is that students are far less likely to risk loss of Internet privileges if that means losing access to things that they enjoy.
- 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 such behaviors should be the same. It is important not to overreact to incidents of technological misuse. If a student was caught reading Playboy would you take away all his or her reading privileges?
- Model ethical behaviors. All of us learn more from what others do than what they say. The ethical conduct we expect from our students, we ourselves must display. Verbalization of how we personally make decisions is a very powerful teaching tool. It’s useless to lecture about intellectual property when we as adults use pirated software!
- Create environments that help students avoid temptations. Computer screens that are easily monitored (no pun intended), passwords not written down or left easily found, and getting into the habit of logging out of secure network systems all help remove the opportunities for technology misuse. Our simple presence is a far more effective means of assuring good behavior than any filtering software.
- Encourage discussion of ethical issues. “Cases,” whether from news sources or from actual events from your students’ experiences, can provide superb discussion starters and should be used when young people are actually learning computer skills. Children need practice in creating meaningful analogies between the virtual world and the physical world. How is reading other people’s email without their permission like and unlike reading their physical mail?
- Design practice activities on making good ethical choices. Direct teaching of ethics should be a part of your information literacy curriculum. The Allen (Texas) Independent School District has incorporated a program called “Chip and Friends” into its schools. The curriculum includes an hour-long videotape that uses puppets to teach little kids right and wrong online. Deborah Maehs, LMS, from Kingfisher Middle School, Kingfisher OK, offers a plagiarism-prevention plan in workshops for her staff that includes laying the foundation of technology ethics, examining the assignment’s purpose, and teaching the writing process.
- 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 children in the long run. By applying guidelines rather than following rules, young learners engage in higher level thinking processes and internalize behaviors that will continue into their adult lives. Think how wonderfully the Golden Rule applies to so many situations. Children who have internalized such ethical concepts can make good choices whether in the classroom, on the playground, or at home.
- Help children understand that ethical behaviors are in their own long-term best interest. Rules of society exist because they tend to make the world a safer, more secure, and more opportunity-filled place.
- Assess children’s understanding of ethic concepts. Technology use privileges should not be given until an individual has demonstrated that he or she knows and can apply ethical standards and school policies. Schools need to test appropriate use prior to students gaining online privileges such as email accounts or Internet access. Teachers or librarians should keep evidence of testing on file in case there is a question of whether there has been instruction on appropriate use.
- Educate parents about ethical technology use. Through school newsletters, talks at parent organization meetings, and through school orientation programs, librarians can inform and enlist the aid of parents in teaching and enforcing good technology practices.
- Be personally knowledgeable about the ethical and safety issues surrounding Internet use. Keep your eyes peeled for articles and stories in both professional journals and the news. New ethical situations regarding schools and technology seem to appear everyday. A current bibliography of books, periodical articles, and websites can be found at <www.doug-johnson.com/ethics/>.
“Well, Jennifer, you certainly found a site with shoes!” Mrs. Hanson said humorously, dispelling the student’s tension. “I appreciate your sharing this problem with me. Now, let’s back up to the results of your search and see if there may not have been some clues in the description of the site that may have indicated it wasn’t the best one for your project. Ready?” Jennifer smiled and clicked on the back arrow of her browser.