Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Matter of Ethics

This week we are looking at performance standards and ethics within instructional technology and human performance technology. Honestly, this subject deserves an entire course just by itself. It's a matter of great importance within any professional association. I am a member of AECT, and there is a section in every Tech Trends issue devoted to ethics. A section of the website is devoted to the ethical principles agreed upon by the membership. This is true of other associations, as well.

One of those issues of Tech Trends was assigned reading on this subject. This particular article provides a provocative scenario. A student appeals to her professor regarding another student who was looking at pornography during class. The principle covered addressed the responsible use of media as being a commitment to society. While the article provided no closure to the fictional scenario, it offered possible explanations and solutions that could have been used to correct the problem before it became a problem. Like many ethical principles, this one contains a lot of grey area. I can think of all kinds of reasons naked people might pop up on someone's computer screen. I remember doing research on vermicomposting (composting with worms) and finding all the wrong websites for the topic. Indiana University has the famed Kinsey Institute. Insert a minor in sex education, and it would be perfectly reasonable for a student to be utilizing pornography for valid educational use. I've worked in community health for many years. My branch of health studies originated in Europe, and I can tell you that most of my textbooks feature a lot of naked people. Even if the student had been viewing those sites unjustifiably, the article points out that there is a big continuum between freedom of speech and expression and unlawful acts.

Banaji, Bazerman, and Chugh (2003) take a look at ethical management and the fact that we view our own ethics above where they actually are. This brings up a question. If we do not know we are being unethical, how can we correct it? The first issue covered in this article is that of implicit bias, when we have biases we are not even aware of. I don't have to take the Implicit Association Test to know I have implicit bias. Leaving home and going away to college taught me that I soaked up a lot of bias along the way, despite years of rebelling against the prejudices around me. The next issue covered is in-group favoritism. Apparently, nepotism is alive and well in our culture. The problem is that our groups tend to be made up of people like us. Another problem is that people tend to think too highly of themselves. While confidence is identified as virtue in today's world, this article explains how this dilemma can lead to diminished group performance. Conflict of interest is another problem. I just started working for a research project of the Center for Research on Learning and Technology. Part of the new hire process is taking compliance training. Identifying conflicts of interest and recognizing which ones need to be disclosed is an important part of that training. The training program is quick to point out that we all have biases, whether or not we know it, that contribute to conflicts of interest. This is a good reason why data collection and analysis should always be triangulated. So, back to the question of how to correct unintentional questionable ethics. This article suggests collecting data, shaping your environment, and broadening your decision-making. That sounds much easier said than done.

Finally, Guerra (2006) takes an extended look at ethics with regard to HPT.  I found the comparison between the definitions of ethics, morals, values, and business ethics in this chapter interesting. The author explains that the chapter deals with normative ethics. This branch of ethics looks at acceptable behaviors. The consequentialist theory bases the morality of an action on its consequences. My undergraduate degree is in religious studies, and in that field this approach was identified as a developmentally childlike approach to morality. Some people never grow out of this stage. This author encourages reflection on where on the continuum of ethical egoism, utilitarianism, and ethical altruism one's organization stands when making ethical decisions. The next step up to consequence-based ethics is conforming to the rules. This is called intentionality in this chapter. Then, what follows is virtue ethics, which is based in developing good moral character. The author next addresses the question of whether or not ethics are relative or absolute, without actually answering the question. Let's face it. These questions have been debated for millennia, chances are good we are not coming up with the answers anytime soon. According to the four-stage process for making ethical decisions, one must recognize there is a moral question in order to make an ethical decision. This reminds me of the saying, "Hindsight is 20/20." It's much easier to recognize a morally questionable situation after the fact. The good news from all of this is that professional codes of ethics actually do make a difference. Therefore, AECT, ISPI, and all the other professional organizations that put so much effort in them are not wasting their time.  I could fill another blog post with the discussion and suggestions this author provides regarding ethical values in both instructional design and human performance. So, I'll just say that there are guidelines out there, and they are gaining more and more attention.

Guerra (2006) paints the picture of organizations that are growing in their focus on ethical standards, and I hope that is true. The chapter was written eight years ago, and I must say that one of my explicit biases is that ethics seems to have no place in modern business practices. I really hope that is an unfounded bias, and corporate America is far more ethically sound than I imagine it. I'm glad ethics is being covered in my foundations course. As I said before, I would love to see it offered as a required course so that we could explore some of the professional codes more thoroughly.


Banaji, M. R., Bazerman, M. H., & Chugh, D. (2003). How (Un) ethical are you? Harvard Business Review81(12), 56-64.

Guerra, J. A. (2006). Standards and ethics in human performance technology. In J. A. Pershing (Ed.) (2006), Handbook of human performance technology (3rd ed.) (pp. 1024-1046). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Napper, V., Hadley, K., & Yeaman, A. R. J. (2010). Is Janet viewing porn in class!?!! TechTrends54(2), 22-23.

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