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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A new ethics for Web 2.0? I'll drink to that

Time to get personal!

The boundary between the personal and the professional was a thread that wound its way through this morning's debate on ethics.

Steve Wheeler traversed the territory of the ethics of Web 2.0 engagingly. He started by taking a photo of us all and threatening to post it to Facebook. How would we feel? What are the issues? What if the photo were of us reeling out of the conference bar at 11.00 pm? Steve argued that the new issue introduced by social media is their persistence. Existing paradigms no longer obtain: we need new bottles for new wine.

In one sense this is true. Our behaviour is governed and limited by codes, laws, guidelines and professional expectations that are derived, ultimately, from ethical considerations. These codes no longer fit comfortably to regulate our online behaviour for many of the reasons Wheeler observed. John Traxler had earlier made the distinction between ethics as regulatory practice, and a "lighter, informal ethics" that is about our individual non-professional behaviour. But how easy is it now to separate the two?

However, are the underlying ethical issues all that different? Privacy, respect, obscenity, tolerance, freedom - all the value-laden ethical signifiers are as relevant as ever. Or are they?

Frances Bell examined one aspect of this question in detail. She explored the fuzzification of the "public/private" binary opposition that occurs in the digital world, and called on educators to exercise a responsibility to model and make explicit ethical behaviors for our students. But for me, this begs the question as to what constitutes ethical behaviour in a world of public/private confusion.

Andy Black seemed to relish the confusion. He cited the tangled timelines of his Twitter feed, wi running, canoeing, general observation and educational reflection interweaving. This is my personal enthusiasm, I will admit. In Andy's Twitter feed, we cannot escape the human being, separate it off from the professional identity. Sure, Web 2.0 makes it necessary to do this more explicitly and overtly. If we want to! Surely this is a key ethical point; that we can now actively destroy the boundary not so much between public and private, but between personal and impersonal? Our learning and teaching (among other online behaviors) can be now more personal and intimate. This almost certainly allows it to be more powerful: and this ups the ante, increase the risk of success or disaster.

This is the point that engages me. Are these technologies in fact redefining the underlying concepts which determine our ethics (concepts like "privacy" and "freedom")?

Karl Royle's slightly oblique presentation on ethics and gaming was neatly complemented by Mark Childs, who immediately raised the issue of "seriousness" in how various online experiences ( for example, Second Life) are treated by students and observers. Students sometimes reject participation, and their reasons and reasoning are illuminating. This notion of seriousness was one of the points he has observed (students not taking online social media learning opportunities as serious); others were new ways of attachment to online environments, the potential for deception, the potential for disturbing or unfamiliar social (or anti-social) behaviors. His most telling example was to do with offense. Some students refused to or worried about participation because of the potential for them to be offended.

Do students have the the right not to be offended? Can education take place in a "walled garden" in which individuals can be protected from challenge? Not intellectual challenge, obviously - but Mark was essentially asking us the question "do we have a responsibility to protect students from ethical or moral challenge, or indeed do we have a responsibility to challenge students ethically?"

It probably is clear already that I would favor the second approach. Much of the experience that social media provides can be deeply confronting. But confrontation, I would argue, is a central part of education. I think we have a tendency to cocoon students in tailored learning environments, when we think about "meeting student needs". But what a student needs is not always what makes them comfortable. Sometimes, students need to be challenged and confronted, and sometimes even offended.

(As do conference plenary audiences! The ethics of this are not always simple, as we found yesterday morning.)

Finally, James Clay asked the question that had been the elephant in the room. "Who determines the framework of right and wrong behavior in our (online) lives?". The clearest answer from the panel was "the Ethics committee". Which just missed the point, of course.


  1. Re: the points made by Andy Black - I wasn't present and so may be missing the point but it seems to me that they way we chose to blur our own personal/professional boundaries (or not) is our choice and not really an ethical issue. The ethical questions lie more in how we chose to blur other people's personal/professional boundaries.

    For example - a number of my work colleagues have chosen to separate their personal and professional lives on Twitter thru the use of multiple accounts. I typically follow both. It's an ethical issue (for me) if I choose to re-tweet a personal tweet of theirs to my mixed personal/professional followers - because some of my professional followers will also be followers of their professional accounts.

    I think the framework of right or wrong behaviour necessarily emerges over time - and will continue to emerge as technology changes. Ethics committees will (IMHO) typically follow that emerging practice, rather than setting it.

    In short, it's up to us, as a community, to determine what is right and wrong.

  2. I agree, Andy. The session was a good one because there was a wide variety of views held on ghe panel (both explicitly and implicitly) on how that community determination should occur, regulate itself, be expressed in social media and learning environments ...

    As usual, some pushed for rapid and radical re-evaluation, others for a more conservative, legislative, committee-overseen response.

  3. It's _Karl_ Royle :-p

    Fair comment about "the ethics committee" I was consciously dodging the question. I think ultimately, in everything, behaving ethically is our own personal responsibility. But my issue at the moment, is that I'm not sure of my own position here. I think there are a lot of different perspectives that need to be melded first - taken with the caution that students' and peers' rationales for lack of participation may not be totally honest. I have the impression (but that's all) that some "ethical" concerns are a smokescreen for a desire for lack of change. So yes, an ethics committee, but one that has me on it :-)

  4. First of all thanks for blogging for those of us who cannot attend the event.

    Separating personal from professional life in social networks has had me troubled for some time. I have ended up settling for a split - mainly because my friends on Facebook are not that interested in reading about my geeky interest in learning technology (which I keep to twitter and my blog).

    In the classroom I can see the material that the 16 year old learners are adding to their profiles; pictures of their nights out, discussions on their relationships and a record of the amount of time they are playing games online. However, these 16 year olds are only recently joining the social network revolution. Like us 30 (ish) year olds, they have only just begun to develop an online presence. What about the Internet savvy 10 year olds? How much information will be stored on the Internet about my 4 year old by the time he is eighteen? How will this effect future employment?

    Richard Nelson

  5. Hi and thanks for making all this available. Irrespective of the positions this level of reporting and rweaction can only be a good thing. Sadly I made characterisation of ethics sound like alternatives or a spectrum .... it was only supposed to suggest a variety of constituents including the solid, discrete and formal and the transcient, vague and informal.

    John Traxler

  6. I think you are being a bit harsh on yourself there, John. I think that idea of alternatives did come across in what ypou said, and was most useful. Sorry I didn't give it a bit more consideration above; I was taking notes in real time and was getting set up during your bit!

  7. Thanks for this reflective post Jonathan (and sorry I am coming here a little late). It's really interesting to hear audience perceptions of what one says - provoking further reflection. I do believe that modelling ethical behaviour is much stronger than 'teaching' it. However, one of the points I was trying to make is that ethics are personal not universal (i.e. capable of being taught) and so teacher input is mainly to provoke reflection. Student experiences (in their personal lives) of Web 2.0 provides a rich site for reflection. In my teaching this becomes - I don't want to 'visit' you on Facebook but let's use your and my experience there, along with study of business use of Facebook, to create a critical dialogue on the use of Facebook by service providers, consumers and producers.