Ethics, Respect & The Connected Classroom

 As we move (willingly or otherwise) towards learning environments that embrace the use of digital devices such as handhelds, ipods and mobiles, a certain initial uneasiness is not out of order.  Thinking carefully about the merit of anything that we, as educators, or our students introduce into the classroom is always a good thing.  These devices are capable of facilitating the acquisition and organization of informatio and they also enable networking and collaboration – high yield practices when used mindfully.  However, they can also be perceived as threatening and risky.

Cautionary Tales

There are countless cautionary tales chronicling the public posting (on youtube, facebook and a host of other public cyberspaces) of events and exchanges that occurred within the brick and mortar walls of the school.  Digital fragments (photos, video, IMs) – easily manipulated and shared – do cause harm.   Cyberbullying is, sadly, a familiar issue that no one in the community – administrators, teachers, parents or students – can ignore.   To say that these events occurred outside the classroom underestimates the expanse of the new learning environment while overestimating the stability of the boundary between classroom and real world.  Socially networked students reveal that border to be both nebulous and porous – in a sense out of control.

The Ethical Imperative

I don’t think that policies requiring students to keep their devices out of sight and out of mind are the answer.  Instead, we need to find ways of inculcating within ourselves and our students the mindset that we need to assume responsibility for when and how we use them.  Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future may provide helpful insight in terms of addressing the misappropriation of digitally connective devices.  Gardner proposes that the 5 cognitive capacities required to thrive in the web 2.0 world include the following:

·         The Disciplined Mind

·         The Synthesizing Mind

·         The Creating Mind

·         The Respectful Mind

·         The Ethical Mind

Although Gardner’s discussion of the first 3 is worth the read and some discussion, it is the final two that speak directly to the dilemma posed by the mobile and other ubiquitous devices in education.  His discussion of the Respectful Mind calls our attention to the interpersonal relationship and its’ accompanying responsibilities.  How do our actions impact those with whom we are connected?  Describing the Ethical Mind, Gardner highlights the responsibility we have to our role within the community.  Both teachers and students have roles and responsibilities that warrant candid scrutiny.   How do our actions resonate or clash with our responsibilities as Teacher or Student or Collaborator?

By including both the respectful and the ethical minds as essential capacities, Gardner reinforces the notion that we need to encourage within our students the binding of creative and synthesizing abilities to a responsible and ethical imperative.  While learning that meaningfully incorporates the goals of character development provides opportunities for students to engage in critical analysis of their inter- and intra- personal aptitudes within the web 2.0 world, I believe that an equally high-yield strategy to foster respectful and ethical behaviours is collaboration.  Through the lens of the emerging web 2.0 influenced learning environments, collaboration changes from novel to pivotal in terms of instructional strategy and professional practice.

Collaborative vs. Competitive

The competitive nature of conventional learning environments (think norms-referenced grading stronghold) serves as a petri dish for exploitation and manipulation – bullying  – in cyberspace, in the classroom and on the playground.  As classrooms evolve into genuinely collaborative spaces, they confront and disrupt the competitive atmosphere that permeates current classrooms.

Embracing the social nature of learning as outlined by Vygotsky, collaborative learning environments maximize the potential of socially constructed knowledge.  Within this type of environment, digital tools that facilitate networking would be seen as complimentary.  As educators, we need to model the ethical and responsible use of technology for our students.  We need to make explicit the conversational spirit of learning by demonstrating our own learning process and encouraging students to see themselves and their peers as both producers and consumers of knowledge and information.  Connected kid who are well-equipped with an understanding of interpersonal and ethical responsibility, have, in my opinion, a greater chance of disrupting the competitive and isolating aspect of learning while reaping the benefits of learning from and with a broad network of peers.