One of the reasons we provide communication tools in learning environments is to encourage our students to play around with ideas and re-conceptualise the knowledge artefacts they encounter.
In a learner-centred environment we expect students to accept a great deal more ownership of their learning activities and to feel safe within the learning group. Indeed, in more contemporary e-learning environments like simulations, or WebQuests, we ask the students to assume a role and to argue a case from that role’s perspective.
As we move away from the idea of a teacher-centred model we shift the power and control towards the learner. Learners, encouraged by this power shift, begin to test their ideas and assert their view of the world in what they then perceive to be a safe environment—one where they can take risks without being exposed to all of the consequences. Online role-play simulation is one of the best examples of this kind of e-learning environment.
But what if that trust is compromised by those outside the learning space? How sacred are the students’ ideas and thoughts, and what of the learning facilitator?
Unfortunately, there is a growing trend across the world to view the virtual world as one that, because of ease of access, requires a lower level of ethical capital. Where most of us would feel violated if our personal mail was routinely opened and read by postal officers or colleagues at work, a different set of ethical values seem to apply to email. It is common practice now for supervisors and IT managers to have access to your email account—perhaps because it is easier and less detectable than physically opening one of your letters!
But what about the private learning spaces within online courses? You know, that sacred area where you students have come to trust you and their peers. Should that communication be open to the scrutiny by others? Would you as a teacher, be happy with full-time scrutiny of your face-to-face classes? Would you allow video cameras and microphones in your classroom to document yours and your student’s actions? I think not.
So what of others monitoring and perhaps assessing your course online interactions? What if this is covert? How would you be able to build the level of trust required for effective interaction if students and teachers suspected that their interactions would be logged and examined by a third party?
As is often the case, new communication technology raises critical ethical questions that take time and a willingness to address.