Computers, Ethics, and Schools

By Howard Rheingold

The introduction of computers and Internet communications to classrooms has brought with it a host of ethical dilemmas. Ana Weston Solomon, an educational technology consultant, is one of the growing vanguard of educators who are addressing these concerns. Solomon's class for parents, teachers, and school administrators, "Ethics, Access, and Technology," is offered by the University of California Extension in Berkeley.

Solomon cites a small sample of wide range of ethical dilemmas facing students, teachers, administrators, and parents: You are a teacher, your small budget has been cut. You have one piece of software and it needs to go to the five computers you have for thirty kids. It is against the law to copy it. Do you deprive the kids or break the law?

A young man posts the real name and address of a female classmate to a worldwide newsgroup, together with indecent and defamatory claims about her behavior.

Very few of the girls in a classroom end up interested or involved in computer technology because all the computers in the classroom are monopolized by a group of boys.

A student uses a search engine and the World Wide Web to cut-and-paste together a pastiche of other people's words to create a research paper she submits under her own name.

A schoolteacher starts a computer bulletin board system. A student posts a credit card number, thinking of his actions as a prank. The legal system regards the school as a publisher and holds it liable.

Issues of ethical actions, online etiquette, proper scholarly techniques are complicated by computers and online communications. Solomon's class deals with topics including implementation of fair use policies, copyright law, intellectual property rights, profanity, pornography, online etiquette, access to technology as it affects gender, disabilities, and economics.

"Access is a key issue in the ethics of computer technology," says Solomon. "Which students will have the most access to computer equipment has become a big question in many school systems. Sometimes, teachers offer access to computers as a reward, which isn't fair, beause some kids are deprived of learning their share of a very important skill. It seems that boys in a certain age group -- primarily adolescents -- push girls out of the way to get to the computer."

Solomon's class covers a lot of theory, but it has one very concrete aim: Those who complete the course develop fair use policies to take back to their schools. Now mandated by the State of California Department of Education (and by other states), a fair use policy is a contract between the school, the students, and their parents. A fair use policy lays out the expected standards of behavior, and students and parents are required to read and sign the document before the school will grant Internet access to the student. "Fair use policies," Solomon says, "absolutely have to be a joint effort between the school and the community." It's not just a legal shield; it's a social contract that delineates the boundaries of expected and ethical behavior.

Solomon emphasizes that "effective teaching of these ethical issues must bring the issues into the context of student's lives. How would they feel if someone stole their essay and turned it in under their name? How would they feel if another student broke into their locker and read private information?" In the case of teachers, she points out that pirating software is a case of modeling antisocial behavior, "even though making the software accessible to more students might serve a worthy educational or social goal."

For information about Solomon's course, call UC Berkeley extension at (510) 642 4111 or visit Contact Ana Weston Solomon at For further reading about ethical issues surrounding technology and education, Solomon recommends "Ethical Use of Information Technologies in Information: Important Issues for America's Schools"By Jay P. Sivin and Ellen R. Bialo and "Computers and Academic Freedom: Frequently Asked Questions" .

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