Cyberethics: Social Ethics Teaching in Educational Technology Programs

By Mahfood, Sebastian; Astuto, Angela et al. | Communication Research Trends, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Cyberethics: Social Ethics Teaching in Educational Technology Programs


Mahfood, Sebastian, Astuto, Angela, Olliges, Ralph, Suits, Betsy, Communication Research Trends


1. Introduction

   Technology is bringing postmodernism down to
   earth itself; the story of technology refuses modernist
   resolutions and requires an openness to
   multiple viewpoints. Multiple viewpoints call
   forth a new moral discourse. The culture of simulation
   may help us achieve a vision of a multiple
   but integrated identity whose flexibility,
   resilience, and capacity for joy comes from having
   access to our many selves. But if we have
   lost reality in the process, we shall have struck a
   poor bargain. (Turkle, 1996)

Human societies have wrestled with ethics at least since Plato's and Aristotle's writings on the nature of social responsibility and the role of the individual in society. This ethical system was joined by another within half a millennium with the advent of the Judeo-Christian presence in the West. Both ethical systems formed the foundation of Western social development over the following centuries though changing social realities have necessitated a re-envisioning of what they mean for each new era.

In response to these changing social realities, including a greater emphasis in the West on the creation of intellectual property rights, personal property acquisition, and individualism, and the fact that ethics "must also consider the conditions under which what ought to happen frequently does not," the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1785) introduced the idea of the categorical imperative: "Act only [in such a way that your actions] may be capable of becoming a universal law for all rational beings." In the next half century John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham articulated the theory of utilitarianism, which states that all persons should pursue the greatest good--which is that which is good for the greatest number. This was juxtaposed in 1859 against a further argument by John Stuart Mill that "the liberty of the individual, in things wherein the individual is alone concerned, implies a corresponding liberty in any number of individuals to regulate by mutual agreement such things as regard them jointly, and regard no persons but themselves." These ideas were proffered to reinforce a sense of social responsibility that respects the rights and property of all--a social responsibility that seems dichotomous in its recognition of both individual rights and social obligations. This dichotomy, however, creates a both/and rather than an either/or situation in its attempt to reconcile social responsibility with individual rights, and it is for that reason that it is quite useful to us today in our response to the social realities of cyberspace (a term coined by William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer).

In "Teaching and Learning in the New Millennium: Transformative Technologies in a Transformable World" (CRT, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2003), we focused on "the transformative nature of distance learning as it affects the teaching and learning environment created by the teacher and developed by the student." There we traced trends in the development of distributive learning initiatives, in the education of the various stakeholders, and in the management of courses and materials. This was only part of the story, however, as a new trend has been emerging as a result of the development of the virtual communities these technologies have made possible. When people come together online, their interaction with one another is called virtual because there is no face-to-face contact between them. The community that results often exists exclusively in cyberspace--that is, a communicative space in which there is no physical contiguity between communicants. People interact with one another through discussion boards or email (asynchronous forms of engagement) or through chat rooms or virtual worlds (synchronous forms). The viability of the community rests on the integrity of its members. Social responsibility, then, has become an issue of great importance in this new medium, and educational environments that are developed entirely within cyberspace have a great obligation to ensure the authenticity of communal interaction. …

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