Lesson 2: Consider Ethics in Teacher Relationships

"We are on all this together."
That is the phrase used by Palloff and Pratt[11] to emphasize the importance of collaboration in the virtual classroom. Collaboration spans dimensions of interaction and interactivity that form the foundation of constructivist theory. Piaget and Vygotsky endorse that learning is primarily a social event, leaning more on interaction than individual exploration.

An online environment uses computer and internet technology to ligate all facets of collaboration, leading to a sense of community important for exchanging ideas and concepts. In any communicate, the essence of co-existence is communication. The online teacher / instructor / facilitator plays a crucial role in enabling progress through the potentially turbulent waters of online collaboration. Just a few examples of instructor responsibilities include modeling and scaffolding expectations, mediating debates and arguments, providing feedback on every kind of assessment, and guiding procedures and protocol of the virtual classroom[11].

It is on that latter set of responsibilities that we focus for this part of our module guiding procedures and protocol of the virtual classroom. This arena encompasses much of the ethical applications that may come into play between the teacher and several aspects of the learning environment. Consider the viewpoint by Dabbagh and Bannan-Ritland[5] that "learning communities are groups of people that support one another" regarding a host of collaborative means. Also consider their description of knowledge-building communities as "transformative (resulting in a new experience or learning)". The collaborative view of the online classroom depends heavily on forums, groups, human affiliation, and shared resources what responsibility lies with the perceived facilitator, the Instructor, of such a project? What tremendous ethical expectations can be drafted from the e-teacher's relationships with the cast and crew of a distance learning endeavor? We consider these below.

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Teacher-Administrator Relationship Ethics
First of all, in any hierarchical establishment (colleges, universities, corporations, etc.), there can be no online course without approval of those in charge of administration. These players include deans, principals, department chairs, division supervisors, heads of schools, what-have-you. Here we meet our first glimpse of instructor interaction with those behind the scenes of the initial proposal for online instruction. What ethical considerations need to be considered?

In studies designed to examine motivating or inhibiting factors of faculty participation in e-teaching, the following were found to have some impact in overall instructor disposition: comfort level with technology involved, desire for intellectual challenge, monetary support, teaching load, and credit toward tenure, more for some than others[5].

We can make a reasonable point from these above-mentioned items: The formal consideration of an instructor's readiness, willingness, and suitability to facilitate are an ethical issue because the morale of the teacher can ultimately affect the success of a course. It seems an unwise misdirection and misuse of human resource if an instructor in forced to teach a cyber-class for which she is unprepared didactically, psychologically, and technologically. A poor level of confidence, drive, and/or morale could translate into transference of misery to the other parties involved in the launch of an online course (students, designers, other teachers), resulting in goals that are unmet or otherwise invalid.

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Teacher-Developer Relationship Ethics
Consider the new literacy of information navigation, where "learners [comfortably] navigate through confusing complex information spaces"[5]. Certainly much of the cyber platform used for this is founded on sound authoring tools and creative, user-friendly texts and media that interface between students, teachers, and the uploaded information. Naturally then, the developer/designer of the Course Management software plays a vital role in the online learning business. His relationship with the e-Teacher, therefore, is prime territory for ethical exploration. After all:

  • Who must be fluent in the applications of cognitive flexibility theory, which purports that hypertext characteristics can help students more deeply process complex information? Who must understand and integrate principles of links and nodes placements that will best assist students in assimilating the academics riding on their program? Who must consider site and information layout that can adapt to learning styles and learning motivators, self paced or collaborative, field-dependent or fieldindependent?
  • Who is best qualified to translate programming language into website course materials?
  • Who must be available for structured support when technical issues, questions, or difficulties arise, or when tutorials, answers, support, and technical advice are needed? All of these questions apply to the informed and prepared web developer, and must be considered by the conscientious (ethically prepared instructor.

The Instructor must work with the developer to provide such vital information as goals, students' prior knowledge and expectations. Similarly, the instructor may expect a complementary level of support and availability from the developer not only during the design process, but continually throughout and after a course, hand-in-hand with perpetual feedback. Interestingly, the same studies that sited motivators for instructors found that "the primary factor that also inhibits faculty use of distance learning methods is a lack of institutional technical support lack of support was the top reason why faculty choose not to use distance learning methods"[5]. Teachers / instructors / facilitators need reasonable access to resources that will technologically support their curricula.

Here, we have learned that the design process and development process are symbiotically linked, both involving interaction with others and each other. In the social context, it therefore becomes a borderline ethical issue for instructors to not only exude deference, courtesy, and professional synergy with online developers. It is also an ethical issue for instructors to properly evaluate students abilities, differences, and needs in order to provide the most appropriate design for a developer to work with. It will also be an important consideration for the e-teacher to earnestly seek as much formal exposure to the developer's role, gaining experience that can help them function (relatively) independently as the course director and designer. The ethics of providing the support (on the part of the developer) will be considered in that section (ETHICS FOR THE e-DEVELOPER).

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Teacher-Teacher Relationship Ethics
One of the motivational issues in the DBR study was increased faculty workload with an online class. With a general trend of instructor support vectoring toward a facilitator role (from modeler/scaffolder at the onset), teacher-teacher interaction may seem less pivotal issue[5]. But consider the novice online instructor having navigated (or getting through) the previous ethical hurdles of Administrator and Developer relationships who must venture forth into the realm of cyber-education on her own now. Certainly, input from other teachers play a significant role in the instructor's experience. One needs colleagues and mentors to provide information, comfort, advice that can help at least vicariously or concurrently. A teacher should capitalize as much as possible on input that will help the transition to online adventure be smoother and/or somewhat more predictable.

The ethical issue, therefore, is for teachers to consider the greater good of collaboration, networking, and experiential exchange for dispersal of increased success for all involved. Through this sort of collegial effort arise principles like benchmarking, where product evaluation and the results of best practices "can be compared with the executed design and development of an existing project"[5]. Conversations, interviews, portfolios, perspectives all of these must be considered ethically fair commodities that, shared, will promote a more globally positive environment in which online learning can blossom and grow.

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Teacher-Student Relationship Ethics
As you can imagine, this section on the ethics of Teacher-Student relationships will be the most applicable, since the teacher-student interface is the most readily visible and measurable part of any classroom. Teacher-student interaction forms the front line of any learning/training endeavor. Think of it! Everything you read, learn, and see here is forming the basis of your evaluation for the entire course experience, which you will then plug into our evaluation survey and possibly alter future applications and dynamics of the whole module with your important feedback. In the same way, students' feedback whether they learned or not, successfully or not, effectively or not is of vital importance to shaping designer approach, so the ethics here must be carefully dissected.

Examine all the following considerations an online instructor must ponder when designing a course then contemplate all the avenues of pedagogy that are not even mentioned. It would be a logistical impossibility and a somewhat defeatist futility to present in this module all the applications of ethics in the education industry (such are the pearls of entire majors and theses of innumerable boundaries), so we focus on the most imperative in the online domain:

  • Fostering ethical team dynamics in collaborative activities:This requires no small effort for the instructor to help teams develop missions, strategies, evaluatives, and fostering an atmosphere of openness and professionalism. This includes a keen ethical eye looking out for cross-cultural management issues, trust building, networking, and modeling rubrics and expectations in just fairness. Palloff and Pratt[11] note the importance of assisting with problem-solving, conflict management, information processing, on-going communication, and the development of norms.
  • Backing up the technical aspects with conscientious effort and scaffolding:In welcoming students to a virtual world that may be their first, the facilitator's ethical responsibility must include those aspects of authoring essentials learned from the developer (see Teacher- Developer Ethics). For student projects, these ethical considerations include setting the stage for and about the CMS sourceware, creating the environment by modeling attitudes, uses, and expectations, and guiding and evaluating the process of the course. The e-teacher must therefore be a ready and ever-present entity. This requires conscience, confidence, and a firm ethical foundation under a willingness to help and support whenever needed.
  • Preparing to intercede and circumvent attrition and/or signs of negative experience:Here, Palloff and Pratt[11] recommend the ethics of keen observation in the areas of available resources, actual communication, course design issues, and signs of mistrust, student dissatisfaction, reduced participation, cultural misunderstandings, and lagging time commitment. In these regards, a teacher can be proactive with strategies like solid leadership, broad representation in groups, solicitation of feedback, consistent self-assessment, and prompt response to demands and concerns.
  • Ensuring that evaluative techniques are fair, diverse, and valid:Palloff and Pratt[11] note that effective collaborative classroom assessments will be "learner centered, teacher directed, mutually beneficial, formative, context specific, on-going, and firmly rooted in good practice." As a public school teacher, I have learned that assessments of any group should be diverse and tailored to tap several intelligences and learning styles. Since our focus is mainly collaborative for the e-classroom, we can focus on the principle that "collaborative activities are best assessed collaboratively. Viewing the ethics of assessments as rooted in practices that promote the most positive results in learning (the greater good being a broadly successful learning experience) A few points for the instructor to focus on include fair and precise rubrics, constructive and quick feedback, unambiguous learning objectives, and exploratory dialog that makes the evaluative experience meaningful to the student.
  • Allowing students maximum exposure to collaborative methods in class activities:Again considering the greater good, the ethical teacher will contemplate all opportunities to optimize student learning through real life exposure in actual scenarios of the evolving technical world. Collaboratively speaking, some of these online dimensions will include chances for students to work in role playing scenarios, simulations, case studies, dyads, small group projects, jigsaw activities, blogs, virtual teams, online debates, fishbowls, learning cycles, WebQuests virtually any and all modes of e-education that will broaden the students' cyber-exposure and enrich the learning experience.
  • Taking into account the student variety of learning styles and backgrounds:This concept dips into the evaluative realm above by optimizing upon student strengths, assessed at the onset of the online course. The ethical teacher who wishes her students maximum benefit and a positive learning experience will consider individual personae, psyche, prior knowledge, previous experience, loci of control, academic strengths, levels of independence, social comfort zones, dialogic and discursive skills, interpersonal abilities, participatory inclination, metacognitive awareness, and socioemotional disposition. These attributes are high-value points in the human condition, and therefore play a vital part of the ethical scenario.
  • Maintaining a firm stance on legal aspects of online education standards:Perhaps the most readily conceived aspect of online legality, especially at the graduate level of research and thesis presentation, is the issue of copyright and plagiarism. Though legal and institutional ethics might be thought of as lower down the hierarchical ladder of moral dilemmas (when one considers the more hypernatural presence of virtues and enlightenment ethics, see our Home Page), consider that legal constraints play a role in keeping conflict under control, maintaining fairness of use in an age of information, encouraging new research and ideas, and securing individual property. In the bigger scheme, copyright laws promote civility and progress, thus adding to the moral atmosphere of any institution, be it online or physical. Fortunately, there exists the legal precedence of Fair Use[R8], which offers a list of criteria that can exonerate an educator who pulls material from other websites to use for teaching. Together with the TEACH Act[R13], which "stipulates that reasonable precautions should be taken to prevent students from downloading and saving copyrighted materials", these guidelines help to soften the legal pressures while helping to further healthy educational exposure in the online environment. The ethical e-Instructor will keep these gray areas of legal applications in mind when designing and presenting her online course.

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Teacher-Observer Relationship Ethics
The presence of the observer is most readily visualized when you consider the online concept of distributed learning. While the broad topic of Distance Learning is defined as "the deliberate organization and coordination of distributed forms of interaction and learning activities to achieve a shared goal", the more streamlined subtopic of Distributed Learning is described as "education delivered anytime, anywhere to multiple locations, by using one or more technologies, or none"[11]. For any endeavor, there is an issue of stakeholders having access to the product that is promised (or at the corporate level, paid for). In the arena of public education (my domain for the last 5 years), stakeholders are community citizens who receive the promise of sound education for themselves (if enrolled in the school system) or their eligible children. Though sadly there is distinction in the caliber of performance, process, and product depending on socioeconomic condition or location, stakeholders have no less right to expect the most fortified efforts by their public officials to provide quality education for students.

How then, do we verify and evaluate the product of education? Several methods of accountability are in place, not the least obvious being state testing that fulfills the No Child Left Behind[R11] mandates of the national government. On a smaller level, however (and this is quite relevant in Fairfax County, where technology standards are pointedly visible) administrators and parents have the right to request access to electronic material and media being presented to students. This means that observer access must be granted to stakeholders and supervisors, who all play a role in the evaluative process of the education being presented.

Course management systems (like Blackboard[R1] or WebCT[R16]) used for presenting online instruction materials and resources, all have a visible domain for the student, and an invisible (back door) domain for teachers, developers, and administrators. Depending on the involvement or clearance of the observer, he or she or they will be able to see and/or interact with the CMS for the purpose of assessing and/or improving the final product.

Observer ethics can actually be an entire training module on its own, focusing on fairness and techniques in evaluation (see also Teacher-Student Relationship Ethics), but the more applicable ethical considerations of the e-instructor in this case relates to full disclosure and honesty in presentation of course materials. The ethical implication is that, for the greater good of sound education through uninhibited feedback and evaluation, the e-instructor must avail herself for unrestricted website access, resource perusal, content scrutiny, and academic validity. Only through complete transparency of all aspects of the visible product can there be true reliability in the feedback that will ultimately help to improve the process and product of the distance course.

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