Continuing the Conversation on Ethics

Stephen Downes, an information philosopher (my characterization) and blogger, whom I respect greatly, has seen fit to criticize my recent entry, where I featured an Information Code of Ethics for teachers and students. I want to thank this Canadian academic for all of his criticisms and enormous contributions. Questioning blogs and even disagreeing helps to make blogging what it is best at — conversation. So thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about this a little more.

Among his statements, Downes said,

I personally think that a code of ethics is not useful, because if one believes in the ethics, the coded is not needed, and if one doesn’t, the code will not be followed.

On the outset, I agree with this statement. But as my friend, Terry Freedman, says in a comment,

You’re right about the code of ethics (cf Shankara, which I will blog about on, but I don’t see how your position actually helps anyone working in schools.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I think that it is also in the nature of a blog that we can repeat things. Several years ago, during a shuttle ride from an airport to some conference facility, I found myself sitting beside of Donna Miller, a project editor for Linworth Publishing. Out of the conversation that we had, I found myself in a book writing agreement to produce a manuscript about technology in schools.

As I worked on the project, I increasingly came to believe that what I was writing about was not technology, but literacy, the basic skills requires to accomplish goals using information. I was learning, through my research and planning that it was the dramatic changes in the nature of information that is impacting us, more than the dramatic changes in technology. So the project evolved into a literacy book called, “Redefining Literacy for the 21st Century.”

It became obvious to me, as the manuscript grew, that the power of information and the enormous personal power that information skills afford their users, demand considerations that were not so important in a published print information environment, and that these ethical considerations were not being taught as part of standard curriculum in most schools.

I began to write a code of ethics, but quickly realized that I’m not smart enough to do what I wanted to do. So I tried to think of a community of people who were already practicing contemporary literacy. It didn’t take long to realize that one professional community is already Exposing Truth, Employing Information, and Expressing Ideas Compellingly — journalists. Their job is not merely to be able to read, but to find appropriate information, decode it, evaluate its value, organize it, process it, and plan for the most effective format that the message should take.

I suspect that most would agree that journalists should follow a code of ethics, and upon investigation, I found that the Society of Professional Journalists had established a Code of Ethics on their web site that followed, amazingly, the structure that I was presenting to general contemporary literacy. After some correspondence, the association’s executive editor gave me permission to adapt their code of ethics for a document that I could make available to schools.

The first three elements are almost identical. I added a forth element to address spamming, malicious hacking, and viruses.

Again, I agree with Downes conclusion that we don’t really need a code of ethics. However, in school, our job is to teach and to help students to learn. And I suspect, as much as I might not like it, that in this time of rapid change, somethings do need to be shown and explicitly taught, as well has helping students to discover.

2¢ Worth!

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Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.