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Technology and Ethics

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We recently heard from a principal with a serious concern about parents' "helping" their children in a blended learning (hybrid) course they were piloting at his school. He held in his hand, evidence that the IP address used to access the course was not one in the school, and the course was accessed during school hours in which the student was in attendance. He also shared, that there is "talk in the community" that this is happening in several cases and that other parents are concerned.

This is a leadership moment in which we can accelerate the teaching of ethics for our students (and their parents) who live in this increasingly digital world, or we can perpetuate our own lack of knowledge and confidence in the digital environment for learning and say, "We can't do this. Remember, I warned you." If we choose the latter, we will slow the progress these tools can bring into our schools. Be aware, however, we cannot stop this technology from infiltrating our walls. We can resist, fearful of all the control we lose but we cannot stop the world in which our students now live from its catapulting advance. We can introduce purposeful applications to serve our mission, open capacity to more students and, along the way, teach ethics.

First, we have to take a considered risk to see, objectively, what is the same. Haven't parents always helped students with their homework? Isn't that a traditional family image in America? The classic case is the diorama built exclusively at home. Teachers have always noted the ones that have been aided by an artistic parent who has lent a helping hand to the project. There have always been brilliantly conceived and composed essays that teachers knew were inspired by adult involvement at home. Sometimes, this is extensive, to the degree that students actually fail to learn the assignment and simply get the answer right. Don't we invite and hope for parents and other adults in children's lives who are invested in the learning in which their child is engaged? Do we know when that investment brings them dangerously close to cheating?

Ethical behavior must exist no matter the learning environment. The emerging digital learning environment requires that we develop a new approach to teaching ethics. Actually, we will have more indisputable data. Tracking access is available to us. We may not be able to be in the home to see who is actually building that volcano, but we can track the IP address and the time of the access to help us understand what is happening. Nevertheless, an IP address is not the single criterion upon which to pass judgment. This is not a case of "gottcha" but a leadership moment that we must grasp.

Before offering any digital learning opportunities for our students, we must become informed ourselves. We must consider what technology skills our students have already and what their parents know and understand. Knowing our communities is key, but we can assume most people, unless deeply engaged in the use of technology, have only some sense of the potential of the technology they use, and little sense of the ethical rules as they transfer into this environment. Most of us wouldn't think of copying directly from a book in print, but presently we see less concern about the cutting and pasting from a website into our own documents. 'Who owns the information?' resurfaces as a new question. We had this challenge when photocopy machines first became a common piece of equipment to which teachers had access. Taking a purchased workbook and photocopying pages without thinking about the legality of doing so was a challenge that was faced back then. The only difference is the difference in the tool. The lesson remains the same. It is not the fault or weakness of the technology. We should stand strong to make that clear.

So what are some common sense steps we can take to successfully lead the implementation of this necessary and valuable learning tool? First, we must investigate its capacity ourselves. We must become familiar with its potential and its vulnerabilities. We cannot leave it to the teachers who are using it. Often, enthusiastic, forward thinking teachers leap into its use without themselves knowing the implications that we would see. We encourage them and we must learn with them. We must both learn the technology and engage the ethical deliberations central to the successful implementation. Presentations to parents and students on the use and value of the tool, why it was chosen, how to use it correctly, and consequences for using it incorrectly are essential. Posting all of this on the district's website, in newsletters, in classrooms is always important. As always, getting it into parental hands via social media targets those who need it most.

More than all of that, let technology remind us that we have a responsibility to be models and shepherds of ethical behavior in our schools. The use of technology should not be accompanied by threats of consequences should it not be used correctly. The introduction of its use should be accompanied by lessons in ethics and expectations. We all should feel the responsibility that accompanies the wonder that technology offers. It is a responsibility and a tremendous gift to society to fully prepare our students for their lives, to bring essential human behavior along with the growing technology.

We love our technology and we take it for granted. A cleaned up version of a bit by comedian Louis CK demonstrates how we sometimes use our technology without appreciation for how amazing it is and without understanding truly, what it does. He comments on our willingness to complain about sitting on the tarmac at an airport for 40 minutes before taking off. He replies, "and then what happened? Then did you fly through the air like a bird incredibly? Did u soar into the clouds impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly on giant tires that you couldn't conceive how they put air in them? ...YOUR FLYING! You are sitting in a chair in the sky!" The wonder of the technology in our lives must be understood, appreciated, and respected.

The parent who logged in to their child's work may have simply been interested to see what their child was doing, or if their child had begun the assignment. Conversations with the parents are still the best options. Those interactions help build ethics in our schools and ripple out to our communities. They diminish the power of "talk in the community." Technology simply cannot be ignored; it will change the way we work and the way we learn. We must take it into our hands, experience the wonder it offers, and use it to its fullest potential to close the gaps and to open doors for all. In this case, its potential is also helping us to teach, expect, model, and maintain ethical behavior. That can't be a bad thing.

Let us not become complacent about the potential of the technology this generation of learners can access. Technology gives us a 21st century motivation to teach ethics. Thank goodness. We have only to look around, pick up a paper or open a home page to be face to face with how badly that lesson needs to be taught.

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