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Teaching Ethics in the Age of Technology

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Ethical decision-making should be included as a 21st century skill (overused term but don’t know of an alternative).  Some would profess that ethical decision-making has always been a needed skill.  But we are living in the most complex era of human history.  Information access and abundance, and emerging technologies are advancing, and being developed and disseminated at rates that the human mind often cannot comprehend.  Now more than ever ethics should be integrated into young people’s educations.

Society is a dynamic system. It must, by nature, evolve in order to survive. As we develop the new definitions of appropriate behavior in the online environment it is imperative that many members of society be engaged in this ongoing dialogue. An informed community and active discussion of ethical issues will enable society to determine civil and just manners to deal with the nuances of technological advancement (Rezmierski, 1992). By opening this dialogue within the K-12 environment, teachers will be able to prepare students to understand the proper use of technology and explore the issues that will continue to unfold (Using Moral Development Theory to Teach K-12 Cyber Ethics).

Every day, news of cyber-crime, theft of intellectual property, or the next cyber-bully suicide is part of today’s reality. School districts all across America must ensure that cyber ethics is part of curriculum. Today’s student is tomorrow’s business leader. Each student should have the ability to receive proper education. In order for students to receive that education, each teacher needs to go through adequate training in order to provide a solid foundation to each student. Current statistics should be a national wakeup call to act and provide teachers the proper tools necessary. The future of this nation’s infrastructure will depend on it (Should it be mandatory for schools to teach cyber ethics?)

Each year, the John J. Reilly Center puts out List of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology.  These can be used as a source for ethical dilemma discussions in middle school and high schools classes:


  • The Right to Privacy versus the Right to Know:  The dizzying advances and the ubiquitous nature of communications and computers, and the astounding increases in the amount of data produced and collected in the world, have fundamentally changed the meaning of what constitutes an expectation of privacy.  Computer data mining systems and advanced statistical techniques, operating on prodigious amounts of structured data, pictures, and numerous electronic signals, are allowing unprecedented knowledge of individual preferences and behavior.  In addition, individuals freely share surprising amounts of private information – which becomes searchable and discoverable – on social media systems and commercial sites. Unfortunately, the policies, regulations, laws and ethical codes of behavior in regard to privacy and data have lagged far behind technology development, reflecting instead twentieth-century precedent and case law. (Data Collection and Privacy)
  • Internet Access as a Human Right: Mobile wireless connectivity is having a profound effect on society in both developed and developing countries. The penetration of smart phones and tablets has led to consistent doubling of mobile data usage on an annual basis, which is putting tremendous pressure on telecommunication networks and the government bodies that regulate the radio frequency (RF) spectrum. These technologies are completely transforming how we communicate, conduct business, learn, form relationships, navigate, and entertain ourselves.  This confluence of wireless technology developments and societal needs present numerous challenges and opportunities for making the most effective use of the radio spectrum. How can we make the most effective use of the precious radio spectrum, and to close the digital access divide for underserved (rural, low-income, developing areas) populations? (List of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology 2013)
  • Data Chip Implants in Humans: From locating lost children to keeping your financial data and medical records handy, we’re about to see a surge in datachip implants. Able to transmit and store data, chips will soon enable us to verify our identities, see if our children have traversed the boundaries (or “hopped the geofences”) we set for them, give paramedics and doctors immediate access to our medical records, allow us to go wallet-free as we pay for our groceries via a handswipe, or even store our educational and employment data for a job interview.  Can these implants become a mandatory form of ID? How do we protect our privacy from hackers? Can this data be sold to law enforcement or other companies? Does the good outweigh the bad? (List of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology 2014)
  • Neuro-enhancements:  Brain stimulation devices are most commonly used in treatment for various neurological and behavioral conditions, but the same technology can be used to enhance the human brain beyond its natural abilities. But should it? And at what point do we cross the line? Do we have a responsibility to be the best humans we can be? (List of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology 2014)
  • Human-Machine Interfaces: Thus far, the main purpose for developing brain-computer interfaces has been to allow amputees and those who suffer from paralysis to mentally control a mobile robot or robotic prosthesis. They have already made possible some remarkable feats, such as partial restoration of hearing in the deaf, direct brain control of a prosthesis, implanting false memories in a rat, and downloading a rat’s memory of how to press a lever to get food and then uploading the memory after the original memory has been chemically destroyed.. And if we can implant wiring, then, in principle, we can turn the body or any part of it into a computer. But while most of us have no problem with prosthetic limbs, even those directly actuated by the brain, nor with pace makers, or cochlear implants, we may feel uncomfortable becoming part machine. At what point does the interface between body and machine dissolve? When we can make our bodies part machine, is it necessary to redefine personhood? Will we all be assimilated? (List of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology 2014)
  • Predictive Policing: The National Institute of Justice defines predictive policing as “taking data from disparate sources, analyzing them and then using the results to anticipate, prevent and respond more effectively to future crime.” Some of these disparate sources include crime maps, traffic camera data, other surveillance footage, and social media network analysis. But at what point does the possibility of a crime require intervention? Should someone be punished for a crime they are likely to commit, based on these sources? Are we required to inform potential victims?  (List of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology 2014)

Learners can also examine and analyze recent court cases related to online behavior:

  • In the 2010 Roger Corey Bonsant case, Bonsant, then a 17-year-old high school student, was arrested and charged with criminal defamation after he was accused of creating a fake Facebook page using a teacher’s name and image. While the case is still being decided, this is an example of criminal ramifications that students may face for participating in dubious online acts.
  • Several cases exist in which students who created false Facebook or MySpace pages featuring the names and likenesses of teachers and administrators. On these pages, students published items painting the educators as drug and sex addicts. In some cases school punishments were reversed by courts, due to the fact that the student activity took place off school grounds and presumably was not sufficiently “disruptive” of the school environment to override the students’ right to free speech. The victims depicted in these false Facebook pages could very well have filed charges, however.
  • In 2011, a 12-year-old Seattle girl was arrested and charged with cyberstalking and first-degree computer trespassing. Authorities alleged that she stole a former friend’s Facebook password, logged into the account and posted explicit content. She was found guilty and sentenced to probation. (The girls’ school does not seem to have been involved in this case.)
  • Six Nevada middle-schoolers were arrested in January, 2011 for using Facebook to invite other students to take part in “Attack a Teacher Day.” They were all arrested and charged with communicating threats, as several specific teachers were called out in posts to the Web site.
  • In the Phoebe Prince case, Prince was bullied (both in person and online) by a group of teens at her Massachusetts high school after it was discovered she had a brief relationship with a boy. The boy’s girlfriend and a group of her friends systematically tormented Prince in retaliation. The bullying was considered a factor in Prince’s January 2010 suicide. All the teens involved were arrested on manslaughter charges. They eventually pled guilty to lesser crimes and were sentenced to probation and community service.  See more at:

Some of the results or benefits of intentionally teaching ethics at school:

  • Helps develop critical thinking skills
  • Focuses on higher levels of Blooms’ taxonomy of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation
  • Assists learners in becoming critical consumers of technology
  • Facilitates the exploration of real world, authentic problems
  • Develops knowledge, skills, and judgement that can be used in both personal life and later in the workforce

Additional Resources:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 20, 2014 at 1:05 am

9 Responses

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  1. Neil Postman’s “Technopoly” is an excellent non-fiction text that explores the themes of technology, ethics, and humanity. One of my recommended reads on this topic.


    March 21, 2014 at 7:23 pm

  2. I completely agree with ‘ethics should be integrated into young people’s educations’. In today’s world technology has developed a lot but ethics are missing in humans.we are living in a society where relations became very commercial,so we need to teach ethics for all younger generations.

    Sofia Rhodes

    March 26, 2014 at 1:53 pm

  3. Each new technology brings new situations and, as you mention, ethical questions and dilemmas. I agree that it is important to begin to consider these questions as early as possible, but it is also a life-long process to continue to discuss these questions. A very interesting post!


    March 29, 2014 at 1:04 am

    • Yes – great point, exploring ethics is an ongoing, life-long process

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      March 29, 2014 at 1:06 am

  4. Ethics is here being couched in rather narrow terms, is it not? The focus on tech-related ethical issues is very narrow. In a society that is perpetuating the unsustainable, one of our great challenges in education (inside and outside schools) must be to cultivate a mentality that will speak out against and resist this form of institutionalised social folly.

    Another form of narrowness is seen in the idea that ethics is about decision-making. This risks framing the ethical in rather questionable monadological terms – terms that fit the ethical very nicely into the prevailing anti-ethical social order. The focus on decision construes the agent as being sovereign, alone with his Reason, which we do not question, and simply hope that he makes the right ethical decision. But there are other ways of construing the ethical. A more democratic view of the ethical would view the ethical agent as being accountable. Instead of viewing ourselves as deciding alone, we see ourselves as having to justify our actions to others. In the prevailing social order, people are free to make their decisions, but no one is held accountable. And on this view, ethics needs not just the right kind of reflective personality but also the right kind of institutional matrix in which people can be held to account.

    Torn Halves

    April 2, 2014 at 6:45 am

  5. This is such a great article!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and great pieces with the world.


    June 29, 2014 at 10:09 pm

  6. I totally agree with “ethics should be integrated into the teaching of the young.” In the world of technology today has evolved, but ethics is cast in missing humans.we live in a society where relationships have become very commercial, so we must teach ethics to all the younger generations.

  7. This is some Class-A Minority Report stuff right here. I had absolutely no idea that machine-to-brain interfaces had developed so greatly.


    November 9, 2014 at 10:02 pm

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