On Ethics in #edtech

In the recent move to remote teaching, the interest in and “need” for online proctoring of tests students complete at a distance has come to the front of many educators’ and instructional leaders’ attention. increasingly, as well, this discussion focuses on the question “Should we use these tools?”

Personally, I see little value in these tools. I could go on a long discussion of grading philosophies, my own interest in authentic learning, the cognitive load of using such devices, the invasion of privacy, and lots of other reason. That would be little use in convincing anyone of anything. I am more interested in the decision faced by technology professionals (specifically educational technology professions) when facing the dilemma of supporting technology they conclude is unethical. I faced that decision a few years ago, and I share that story in hopes it helps others navigate those decisions and the fall out.

The situation in brief: I was the part-time technology teacher and part-time technology coordinator at a small school (about 300 students). As part of my technology coordinator duties, I managed the LAN, which at the time hosted a reading program used in certain grades. It will remain nameless, but students self-selected books and took quizzes on them. They were expected to earn a certain number of “program points” per marking quarter for 25% of their language arts grade.

My decision: I announced in March one year that I would stop supporting the program. It would remain on the server, I would show others how to manage it, but that I would no longer use my professional time to update the databases or program.

My rationale: My decision was made after reading the peer-reviewed research on similar products and the opinions of experts who had reviewed them. I also had conversations with the librarian who supported my decision as she saw a distinct change in students reading habits once the program was implemented. I also had conversations with students about it. My final decision was made after having a conversation with a trusted colleague who was a professor of English and education at a conference.

The “complaints” and my responses: As might be predicted, the teachers who relied on this program were not happy. I had told the principal that I could no longer support the program before announcing it the faculty, so he had done some of his own research and had contacted experts in his network who concurred with my conclusion. While I was happy he agreed with my assessment, it would not have affected my decision had he decided otherwise.

One of the reasons teachers gave that I should continue to support the program was “it represents 25% of our curriculum.” The unsoundness of these argument was striking. In essence, these teachers were “off-loading” a large part fo their duties to this automated program. They were displaying unusual credulity in accepting these certificates with question. They we also displaying. lack of professional responsibility as they were shirking their duties. They really were happy to off load responsibility for 25% of their students work to others.

When I responded “wow, 25% of your course, this must be really important. I’ll show you how to manage it,” they responded, “we don’t have time to do that.” If there are any teachers who are reading this, let me advise you to not claim you don’t have time to manage what it 25% of your course grades. If it is that important then you will take an active role in ensuring it is successful. If you do otherwise, you loose all credibility.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the reaction against my decision to stop supporting a dubious piece of technology was the belief that “he is only the technology person, and we had a group of teachers decide to adopt this.” This was before “stay in your lane” became a popular way to warn people from unpopular opinions. At the time, I held a masters degree in education and was nearing doctoral candidacy. I was able to produce peer-reviewed evidence supporting my decision. Others could not and were even dismissive of my use of this evidence which was deemed, by them, to be less worthy than their intuition.

This story is getting long and rambling… what did I learn about technology, educational technology, the nature of the products marketed to educators, and how we should act when we seem to be doing something with technology that we should not? Here are my conclusions:

  1. Educational technology professionals are uniquely positioned to make judgements about the ethics of technology solutions. Question those things that don’t seem right and find lots of support for (and against) your feelings. Do not rely on your assessment of the evidence, find people smarter than you to discuss your perceptions. Understand their assessments and make sure you can support your judgement.
  2. Make the decision to stop supporting those technologies we should not use. Inform your supervisor ahead of time. If you sense they are not supportive, rethink your actions (and become more convert–delaying can be very effective).
  3. Articulate your rationale clearly and have your evidence ready to go once you announce your position.
  4. Avoid active disruption. Ethics are wicked. My decision to leave the reading program installed and just not support it (thus allow it to degrade to the point where it would fail) may seem contrary to ethical action (it if really was unethical, would iI not have been more ethical my uninstalling it?) For a number of reasons, I decided I would be in a better position if I offered to participate in a “hand-off” to another who was to become responsible than if I made the system unavailable.