The boundary between the personal and the professional was a thread that wound its way through this morning's debate on ethics.
Steve Wheeler traversed the territory of the ethics of Web 2.0 engagingly. He started by taking a photo of us all and threatening to post it to Facebook. How would we feel? What are the issues? What if the photo were of us reeling out of the conference bar at 11.00 pm? Steve argued that the new issue introduced by social media is their persistence. Existing paradigms no longer obtain: we need new bottles for new wine.
In one sense this is true. Our behaviour is governed and limited by codes, laws, guidelines and professional expectations that are derived, ultimately, from ethical considerations. These codes no longer fit comfortably to regulate our online behaviour for many of the reasons Wheeler observed. John Traxler had earlier made the distinction between ethics as regulatory practice, and a "lighter, informal ethics" that is about our individual non-professional behaviour. But how easy is it now to separate the two?
However, are the underlying ethical issues all that different? Privacy, respect, obscenity, tolerance, freedom - all the value-laden ethical signifiers are as relevant as ever. Or are they?
Frances Bell examined one aspect of this question in detail. She explored the fuzzification of the "public/private" binary opposition that occurs in the digital world, and called on educators to exercise a responsibility to model and make explicit ethical behaviors for our students. But for me, this begs the question as to what constitutes ethical behaviour in a world of public/private confusion.
Andy Black seemed to relish the confusion. He cited the tangled timelines of his Twitter feed, wi running, canoeing, general observation and educational reflection interweaving. This is my personal enthusiasm, I will admit. In Andy's Twitter feed, we cannot escape the human being, separate it off from the professional identity. Sure, Web 2.0 makes it necessary to do this more explicitly and overtly. If we want to! Surely this is a key ethical point; that we can now actively destroy the boundary not so much between public and private, but between personal and impersonal? Our learning and teaching (among other online behaviors) can be now more personal and intimate. This almost certainly allows it to be more powerful: and this ups the ante, increase the risk of success or disaster.
This is the point that engages me. Are these technologies in fact redefining the underlying concepts which determine our ethics (concepts like "privacy" and "freedom")?
Karl Royle's slightly oblique presentation on ethics and gaming was neatly complemented by Mark Childs, who immediately raised the issue of "seriousness" in how various online experiences ( for example, Second Life) are treated by students and observers. Students sometimes reject participation, and their reasons and reasoning are illuminating. This notion of seriousness was one of the points he has observed (students not taking online social media learning opportunities as serious); others were new ways of attachment to online environments, the potential for deception, the potential for disturbing or unfamiliar social (or anti-social) behaviors. His most telling example was to do with offense. Some students refused to or worried about participation because of the potential for them to be offended.
Do students have the the right not to be offended? Can education take place in a "walled garden" in which individuals can be protected from challenge? Not intellectual challenge, obviously - but Mark was essentially asking us the question "do we have a responsibility to protect students from ethical or moral challenge, or indeed do we have a responsibility to challenge students ethically?"
It probably is clear already that I would favor the second approach. Much of the experience that social media provides can be deeply confronting. But confrontation, I would argue, is a central part of education. I think we have a tendency to cocoon students in tailored learning environments, when we think about "meeting student needs". But what a student needs is not always what makes them comfortable. Sometimes, students need to be challenged and confronted, and sometimes even offended.
(As do conference plenary audiences! The ethics of this are not always simple, as we found yesterday morning.)
Finally, James Clay asked the question that had been the elephant in the room. "Who determines the framework of right and wrong behavior in our (online) lives?". The clearest answer from the panel was "the Ethics committee". Which just missed the point, of course.