Ethical behaviours online

Ethical behaviour in teaching and learning, particularly in online learning environments, has been very much on my radar this year – or I should say unethical behaviour.

I am not alone in my concerns. I notice that in my Evernote Notebook on ethics, the number of links to articles expressing concerns about ethical behaviours online is growing. Looking back I notice that my interest in ethics went up quite a few notches as a result of my involvement with the Rhizo14 MOOC, which I subsequently began to research collaboratively with my friends/colleagues Frances Bell and Mariana Funes. When we started this research we were concerned about how to deal ethically with the data we were collecting and shared our thoughts with Rhizo14 participants, before determining how we would approach this.

My Evernote Notebook has quite a few references to Ethics Guides (e.g. the Association of Internet Researchers’ Guides ) and I note a post by Martin Weller on the Ethics of Digital Scholarship.

But my concerns go beyond ethics in researcher practice to ethics in teaching and learning, particularly on the open web.

An article that I picked up this week by Max Bazerman bears the title ‘You are not as Ethical as you Think‘ and outlines many of our blind spots in relation to ethical infractions which he believes are ‘rooted in the intricacies of human psychology rather than integrity’. This is interesting, but I think we need to go further if we are to understand and counter unethical behaviour.

Also this week my friend and research colleague Carmen Tschofen, sent me a video in which Dan Currell talks about unethical behaviours and misconduct in the workplace. Carmen and I ‘met’ in CCK08, the first connectivst MOOC about connectivism convened by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. In the paper that we collaborated on as a result of our CCK08 experience we explored the meaning of individual and psychological diversity within connective environments and were aware of some of the concerns raised by Dan Currell in his video.

Currell’s video not only identifies how we can recognise unethical behaviour when it occurs, but also provides a picture of what ethical behaviour might look like – and unlike research ethical guidelines he is not talking about policies, rules and regulations.

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 21.33.31

Click on the image to go to the video

The title of Dan Currell’s talk doesn’t pull any punches. He asks straight out ‘Why are people such jerks?’ defining jerks as people who behave badly or unethically. Although his talk is aimed at an audience of businessmen and women, I could easily relate it to educational settings, although I don’t think the word ‘jerks’ would go down too well in educational settings. It might promote even more unethical behavior and confrontation rather than working towards solutions.

Currell tells us that he asked his own children if they have to contend with ‘jerks’ (people who behave badly) at school and they all agreed that they did. Then he asked them why they thought these children behaved badly and they came up with four answers:

  • The behavior is modeled and then copied
  • The behavior occurs when children get together in groups
  • Nobody stops it
  • It is contextual – the same children are not always ‘jerks’ – it depends on the circumstances.

In his research Currell conducted surveys in 150 organisations with about a million people to explore the cultural conditions which lead to misconduct or unethical behavior. As a result of this he identified indicators of what a good workplace looks like, and I would suggest, what a good educational experience looks like.

  1. Comfort in speaking up. If people are uncomfortable about speaking up, then the rate at which others behave like ‘jerks’ is higher and the rate at which people report it is lower.
  2. Trust in colleagues
  3. Direct manager leadership (I would exchange manager for ‘teacher’)
  4. Tone at the top
  5. Clarity of expectations
  6. Openness of communication
  7. Organisational justice (i.e. employees – or in educational settings, learners – believe that the organization will do something about unethical behavior).

These indicators have been identified from both quantitative and qualitative data suggesting that ‘bad behaviour’ cannot be simply a matter of individual perception.

Currell thinks that you can’t have too much of these 7 indicators, but the problem is that ‘bad news wears lead shoes’, i.e. people don’t speak up about unethical behaviour. The two big reasons why people stay quiet are:

  • Fear of retaliation
  • No confidence or belief that the organisation will do anything about it.

These two reasons for silence also exist in online learning environments, but online unethical behaviour not only silences people for fear of retaliation, but also causes them to walk away which is not so easy to do in an organisational setting. This makes it much more difficult to address online unethical behaviours.

So what can we do about unethical behaviour? Currell provides a long list of possible actions in his video, but highlights 4 as being very important.

  1. Be honest
  2. Take action on unethical conduct
  3. Listen carefully to the opinion of others
  4. Respect and trust employees (I would exchange employees for learners)

On his LinkedIn profile Currell has described his presentation as follows:

Unpacking what a million people told us about misconduct, harassment, bullying and enforced silence in the workplace. Punchline: there are a few keys to an environment that fosters and multiplies jerks, and those keys can be identified and fixed.

Currell has identified keys and possible actions which could counter unethical behaviour, which is a definite advance on simply making a subjective judgement about whether a behaviour is ethical or non-ethical. But my sense is that there is further work to be done on identifying the role and responsibilities of leaders (teachers) and in particular in acknowledging the power they hold and how that might enable or disable ‘comfort in speaking up’ and the other characteristics of an ethical working/learning environment.

 

2 thoughts on “Ethical behaviours online

  1. Gordon Lockhart October 4, 2015 / 7:46 pm

    The 4 actions seem excellent advice if not too surprising but I think that many ethical problems arise not because people are dishonest or unwilling to take action etc but because what constitutes unethical behaviour in particular circumstances may not be at all clear. People may be reluctant to be make a judgement that could be inherently subjective, or thought to be nit-picking or out of tune with the prevailing climate of opinion among colleagues and the consequences of a wrong call can be severe. There are probably no easy answers but I’d certainly go along with ‘comfort in speaking up’ or at the very least, seeking the advice and opinions of others before doing so.

  2. jennymackness October 5, 2015 / 10:11 am

    Thanks for your comment Gordon. I have been thinking about your comment that it is difficult to know what constitutes unethical behaviour. What I liked about Currell’s video and ideas is that they are based on quantitative and qualtitative data from a sample of a million people. This suggests to me that it is possible to objectively know that there are indicators of unethical behaviour that many people would recognise. His list of 7 points certainly resonated with me and do seem to align with situations where I have seen unethical behaviour. I agree that there are no easy answers, but sometimes it feels too easy to take no action simply because what you know to be wrong might be perceived as being a subjective judgement. Hope that makes sense. As you intimate, these are difficult ideas to grapple with 🙂

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