The ethics of digital technologies

free your mind

“We need to ask, ‘who benefits?’ in any of the visions of the future we are offered or that we are working towards” (Facer, p. 9)

Sometimes I find myself being A Little Bit Concerned.

And the more time I spend in the e-learning / digital tech space, the more these niggling worries draw me towards ethical issues related to the use of technologies for learning.

This post is not an either/or debate about whether or not we should use technologies for learning – that horse has bolted and the advantages almost definitely outweigh the disadvantages. But I find myself musing more often on how we choose, discuss, advocate and share ideas related to the ethical use of digital technologies.

Recently, I have been reading and watching a whole bunch of aligned ideas which are influencing my thoughts…

These pieces, in some ways, are quite different, but all are highlighting the way we engage as people, citizens, educators with technology in the context for both our personal use, learning and formalised education.  There’s the allure of the apps, the next gen device, the possibly misplaced desire to be a ‘Google Gl***hole’. What is queried here is the cost in terms of data ownership, the increasing corporatisation of edu-tech, the veneer of security and safety and ‘free’ that the proliferation of devices appears to promise.

It is common for schools to plunge wholesale into single device selection (“We are a Chromebook school”). The use of dashboards for the management of students’ work (and, by implication, the management of students?) is gaining in popularity and yet the debate around open data, open source, power sharing with students/families and democracy is only heard in pockets amongst a few schools and educators.

Learning is a hectic business, on the whole. Time-poor schools, often looking to keep up, catch up, get connected, get networked, are sometimes making decisions based as much on expediency as on implications for involvement in global corporations, networks, device loyalty for young learners and so on…

I’m not wanting to get busy with my Makerspace soldering kit crafting a wee tinfoil hat just yet. But I do think, despite all the hustle and bustle of education technological provision, we need to ‘look up’ to consider what the ethical implications might be for ourselves, our learners. We need to make time to reflect on our vision for education in the future, to  “[see]  our developing socio-technical knowledge as the product of choices and intentions rather than as a disembodied inevitable and unstoppable force” (Facer, p 71)

They Walked This Way

 In her book exploring learning futures, Keri Facer focuses on the way in which modern education could be preparing young people to not only engage with technology but question it and evaluate it because:

“We are being encouraged not to pay attention to the way we are interacting with computers and to get on with our lives instead, while the systems we are using to connect us to each other gather data and filter our information landscape on our behalf.” (Facer, p. 66)

Are we those boiling frogs? Sheep? Lemmings? Does it matter? At the end of the day, we may still choose to buy into the global corporations, driven by affluent middle class males in Silicon Valley, but we should do so as knowingly as we can.

And there are other ways. Consider open source schooling. Consider open systems. Consider designing learning that fosters inquiry into the nature of the tools we use. Debate. Question. We have choices. Don’t we?

Some questions to ponder:

  • How well do we understand the long-term discourse around the use of technologies in education? (Think Cuban, Oppenheimer, Turkle, Carr…)
  • To what extent do our schools’ line up their vision for learning with their choice of technological solutions?
  • What are the ‘terms and conditions’ in relation to the access and use of student data, by corporations but also by teachers themselves?
  • How can we scaffold deep discussion in our school communities around the opportunities and constraints of our use of digital technologies?


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7 thoughts on “The ethics of digital technologies

  1. Hi Karen
    You pose here some profound questions, they are questions that every teacher / educator and learner must reflect on. The evolution of knowledge and the development of technologies that will disseminate this knowledge across generations of learners and educators will shape the ways in which we see ourselves both individually and collectively.
    Questions on accessibility (justice and equity), openness to knowledge and understanding the barriers to knowledge, these can be economic or social. Then the question becomes one, of how do we address these issues.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Paul. You allude helpfully to the political nature of the way technology is being used. Yes, I think it is a question of beliefs and values, about what we think is truly important about how learning is designed here. Keri Facer [see blog post] talks at length about how schools are spaces in which young people learn democracy. This can send powerful signals, through the use of technology, about power and control in relation (and sometimes in contrast to) the espoused vision for openness and inclusion. Interesting times….


  2. Thanks Karen. I’d like to hear more about where this thinking takes you.
    Other questions to ponder:
    1- When is it that application of digital technology betrays the best learning experiences for students?
    2- What techno-centric approaches to reflection and review lull is into believing we are confronting our assumptions, but in fact protect them from true critique? (these questions are wolves dressed as lamb… the insidious, pervasive tech-as-default approaches)
    Examples can be: “What app REALLY motivates my group of maths learners?”
    But, if you really want a full out pseudo-pedagogy, look no further than the Bloom’s Taxonomy for iPad apps. All of the bizarre in just one image.
    These things are not neutral. They take us backwards, and it’s ground we’ll have to earn back one challenging conversation at a time. Expect to be outnumbered. Pack a lunch.


    1. Thanks for your comments here, Pete. Couldn’t agree more. The ‘here’s an app at this level of Bloom’s’ is exactly the kind of easy-grab pseudo-solution that can, as you say, betray learning for students (and undermine professional learning efforts as well). Folk can believe they are being innovative when in fact new ‘practices’ have been assimilated into old wine bottles [Check out the BES series for deeper discussion on the “…the natural human propensity for assimilation… Deep understanding very often means much more than confirming what is already known as tacit knowledge… It means changing what people think and know.” [Source]
      Grant Lichtman, in his US travels across schools, on the hunt for innovative practices that sustain learning, always asked the question along the lines of: “If I walk down your corridors, and ask teachers what they are doing that is truly innovative, how many will talk about the technology?” In my view, any time we allow decision-making about learning to be driven by the technology is when we are wandering off the path. It’s so important to keep eyes open, as you do in your comment, to the pervasive influence of corporates, conglomerates, media push and pull, and stay focused on what we know to be solid in educational research around what motivates and extends all our learners. Lunch packed. And dinner too.


Thank you for your comment. Much appreciated:-)

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