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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ethics and Mobile Learning: Should We Worry?

Podcast / downloadable audio.

As a student, instructor, or e-learning institution administrator, are there ethical issues in mobile learning? If so, are they the same as ones one might expect in e-learning? This post discusses several of the more worrisome ethical issues that could accompany mobile learning and suggests approaches to raise awareness. The goal is to avoid ethically problematic design or behaviors. Some of the other issues are not as easily addressed.

video by dave feiden

1. Privacy issues. Mobile devices can invade privacy. Guidelines need to be set. They need to be clear and they should be enforced.

2. Uniformity of access. Ethical constructs that deal with justice and the administration of justice suggest that all individuals who participate in an activity should be able to do so with equal chances of success; which is to say they should be on a level playing field.

3. Non-biased, culturally equitable delivery and expectations. Signs and symbols can be subtle, and people may not be aware that a particular sign, symbol, or content item could be offensive to some groups. It is important to have focus groups and beta test the courses as well as the mobile learning devices. It is also important to expand the rules of proper mobile learning behaviors and to makes sure that students are not photographing or recording invasive or offensive items and then posting or sending them to fellow students.

4. Language barriers. Multiple delivery modes / redundancies. Are colleges ethically obligated to provide training, mentoring and support to learners who may not have the background or language skills to succeed in mobile learning? I would argue "yes." They are also legally obligated.

5. Learning preferences. Some students who sign up for mobile learning may not realize that they do not actually learn or retain content as well through audio as via other modalities. For example, they may be a spatial learner who needs to organize text. Will they be penalized for having learning preference differences? This is an ethical consideration.

6. Equity of instruction. Are some instructors trained more effectively than others? Does a difference in training and teaching philosophy result in uneven, inconsistent instruction within the same college or university? These are concerns, particularly when technology is an issue, as is the case of mobile learning.

7. Posting and other concerns. "Neti-quette" notwithstanding, impulse control is often lessened in an environment where one feels safe and fairly anonymous. One way to combat rudeness in the discussion board is to attach a real identity and impose social control.

8. Recognizing consequences of actions in an impersonal and sometimes invisible world. It is not always easy to be aware the consequences of one's actions when the action takes place "off the screen" and in the real world (rather than the virtual world). In the future, m-learning will help bring the "real world" more readily into the virtual world by means of video, images, and sound captured on location.

9. Cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking. According to utilitarian ethics, what matters most is the amount of discomfort one causes another. This puts the burden on the course creator or provider to assure an environment where individual learners are not caused discomfort or anguish through the actions of others. Harrassing instant messaging, posts, comment-spam, etc. are definitely off-limits.

10. Types of serious games, simulations. This topic could be a book in and of itself. While some games and simulations are clearly for the public good, others can be more questionable. Simulating crimes and violence, even if it is for historical re-enactment, can be ethical thin ice. Examples include JFK Reloaded and Grand Theft Auto Vice City.

11. Gender issues - relationships vs. justice. According to Carol Gilligan (1982), women have been conditioned to privilege care-giving, care-taking, and relationships over the execution of laws and justice. How this plays out in an e-learning or m-learning environment could be quite interesting, particularly when it might come to grades and performance. Females may express themselves differently in the m-learning environment, and may take on the roles of facilitation and relationships. Their responses may be more "gray area" whereas men may tend to have a more cut and dried approach, and may become impatient with the discursive strategies employed by women to facilitate relationships.


Broudy, O. (2006). The Practical Ethicist.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Singer, P. (1993). Practical Ethics. Cambridge UP.

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