live in a time of crucial change. Education is no longer the
sole responsibility of educators. Professionals from many different
disciplines and fields of activity contribute to how people learn
and how their learning is being facilitated. Together they bear
great responsibility for what the learning landscape of tomorrow
will look like. Will education remain what many critics have
claimed it is: the field most resistant to change humanity has
ever created; or will it, thanks to the revolutionary spirit
that drove the pioneers in distance education and open learning,
become critical of itself and willing to learn not only from
its successes, but also from what it did not achieve?
Aiming at spawning
ongoing debate on these matters, the panelists shed their light
on the theme of discussion from their diverse perspectives. Half
of the time available for the session was used for a dialogue
engaging the audience as much as the panelists. Jan Visser,
President of the Learning Development Institute and former UNESCO
Director for Learning Without Frontiers, animated and moderated
Following is the text
of the concept paper for this Special Presidential Session.
Ethics is an important
aspect of decision-making. So important is this aspect that various
professions are guided by explicitly stated moral principles.
Ethical discussion has been largely lacking in the history of
the development of the field of distance education and open learning.
A panel discussion - with active involvement of the audience
- on "Ethics in Distance Education and Open Learning"
aims at correcting this situation.
according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is "the discipline
concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong."
Notwithstanding its grounding in the traditions of philosophical
inquiry (ethics is also called 'moral philosophy,' a term that
may suggest theoretical rather than practical concerns), ethical
considerations are of great practical import. They relate essentially
to the process of decision-making. In various professions, such
as the legal and medical ones, the process of decision-making
is guided by explicitly formulated ethical principles. An example
is the caveat given to medical practitioners, "At least
do no harm." While in other disciplines the codes of moral
conduct may be less explicitly stated, the debate about them
need not be less serious or profound. In the middle of the twentieth
century, for instance, ethical debate was prominent among physicists,
particularly those involved in or concerned with the exploration
of the atom and the horrendous amounts of energy that could be
released through the fission of nuclei. Nowadays, similarly important
ethical questions come up in relation to developments in biology.
Generally, ethical issues become particularly acute - but should
not be seen as restricted to such cases - when questions of life
and death of individuals are involved, human freedom is at stake,
severe consequences for the sustained existence of life on earth
are feared, or the quality of life - at least from the perspective
of the human species - appears at risk to be seriously threatened.
It can be argued that
ethical considerations, as referred to above, are relevant in
connection with human learning. To see the point, it must first
be clarified what learning actually is. While the term is part
of every day language, few people take the trouble to define
it. For the purpose of the present proposal, reference is made
to the following two levels of definition of the concept 'learning.'
Learning can be defined narrowly, such as when reference is made
to particular desired changes in human performance capability.
It can also be defined broadly, such as when one looks at learning
as the unending dialogue of human beings with themselves, with
their fellow human beings, and with their environment at large,
allowing them to participate constructively in processes of ongoing
change. In the latter sense, one does not overstate the value
of human learning by asserting that it is of life and death importance
for dealing with the fundamental issues of our time.
Moral questions can
thus be asked at both levels of definition referred to in the
previous paragraph. At the former level, ethical issues come
up, for instance, in regard of the choice of what is - and what
is not - to be learned; who is - and who is not - given access
to specific learning opportunities and at what cost (financial
and in terms of lost opportunity); the efficiency and effectiveness
of the learning process, i.e. the issue of quality; and the possible
positive and negative side effects of becoming part of specific
learning experiences. At the latter level, the moral issue intersects
with questions that relate to the learning environment at large
and the conditions that society puts in place to promote and
facilitate learning and to ensure the organic integration of
different portions of the learning environment. In addition,
there is an important moral dimension to the question of how
learning in its broader sense relates to such important issues
as the development of democratic and peaceful societies; sustainable
development of human use of the earth's resources; harmonious
scientific and technological development; and the self-management
of sustainable demographic growth.
and open learning have everything to do with the above questions.
To understand what kind of ethical questions can be raised, it
will be helpful to make a distinction between two levels at which
the practice of distance education and open learning can play
a role. The first level of practice is exemplified by the work
undertaken by the growing variety of institutions that provide
opportunities to learn through the distance education mode, thereby
helping their audiences to attain specified learning goals. The
second level at which that same practice plays a role is less
well visible, unless one broadens one's perspective to the learning
environment at large, which is made up of different segments,
such as the formal school system, the family, distance education
institutions, libraries, the broadcast media, and the Internet.
Often, what one learns in one segment cannot be easily brought
to bear on what one can learn in another segment. The learning
environment at large lacks integrity. The flexibility inherent
in distance education and open learning is therefore a most welcome
feature that can help bridge the gaps between the different segments
and can forge them into an organic whole.
come into play at each of the two levels referred to in the previous
paragraph. At the latter level, that of the learning environment
at large, such questions relate to the important role distance
education and open learning can play to change the learning landscape
forever. For that role to be played, the field must seriously
fight the temptation to become self-satisfied with its early
successes, replicating them over and over again, rather than
following its original revolutionary spirit to constantly challenge
existing wisdom and search for alternatives. This poses questions
to the profession as such, about how it sees itself, and to the
role research is to play in either sustaining existing discourse
and action or in helping it to break through its own barriers.
At the former level, at which distance education and open learning
serves specific learning goals, moral questions range from the
institutional ethics of facilitating institutions down to the
ethical principles that guide different actors within the institutional
context, such as the developers of the instruction, administrators,
evaluators and researchers, and individual human facilitators
as well as the learners themselves.
A search of the literature,
including documentation available on the World Wide Web, reveals
little explicit concern with ethical questions among the community
of professionals active in the area of distance education and
open learning. The proposed session aims at correcting this situation
by providing a start for a debate around these questions. Considering
the role played by ICDE in shaping distance education and open
learning as a field, it is believed that the 20th World Conference
on Open Learning and Distance Education is an excellent opportunity
for doing so, particularly in view of the overall theme set for
the conference, The Future of Learning - Learning for the Future:
Shaping the Transition. We live in a time of crucial change.
The current generation of educators, as well as professionals
from multiple disciplines whose interests and actions intersect
with how people learn and how their learning is being facilitated,
bears great responsibility for what the learning landscape of
the future is going to look like. Will education remain what
many critics have claimed it is: the field most resistant to
change humanity has ever created; or will it, thanks to the revolutionary
spirit that drove the pioneers in distance education and open
learning, finally become critical of itself and willing to learn
not only from its own successes, but also from its failures?
SELECTION OF PANELISTS:
Panelists (approximately six) will be identified on the basis
of their record of having been asking themselves ethical questions,
relevant to the issue of how human learning can be promoted and
facilitated, while making personal and professional decisions
for themselves or for the human environment they were responsible
for. A balance will be sought between those who have been dealing
with these questions at the supra-institutional, institutional,
and process levels. Panelists will not necessarily be distance
education/open learning professionals in the strict sense of
the word. However, they will all have a profound interest in
the development of the field.
SESSION FORMAT AND
PROCEDURES: The session will start with a short introduction
by the chair, explaining the underlying rationale and highlighting
key issues and questions. A paper based on the current proposal
will support the introduction.
Panelists will have
been asked, well ahead of the World Conference, to each formulate
five brief substantive statements or questions that are conducive
to generating discussion. In addition, they may have chosen to
support their short theses by a more lengthy paper. Both the
short theses and, if provided, supporting papers, will be made
available on the World Wide Web. Following the above-mentioned
introduction, each of the panelists will be given the opportunity
to speak for five to seven minutes. During these interventions,
panelists will highlight their key concerns and persistent questions
with a view to stimulating the debate.
Following the statements
by the panelists, the chair will moderate a discussion on a selection
of the key questions raised by the panelists. The session will
be conducted interactively, assuming the energetic participation
of the audience. Rather than promoting the idea that the panelists
are authorities in this particular field, leaving it to the audience
to ask questions to be responded to by the panelists, every attempt
will be made to, right from the start, generate a dialogue that
involves the audience as much as the panelists.
The session will be
promoted, and pre-conference inputs to the debate will be solicited,
through the website of the Learning Development Institute (www.learndev.org).
The proposed session does not stand on its own. It is intended
to serve as a trigger for ongoing debate in this area. The Learning
Development Institute will seek to develop its collaboration
with the International Council for Open and Distance Education
beyond the proposed session with a view to furthering the debate
through face-to-face contact, electronic means of professional
exchange, and scholarly publications.
The following statements/questions
were submitted by panelists and served as a basis for discussion
during the interactive session. They are presented here in the
order in which they came in:
Lya Visser (submitted March 18, 2001)
It is possible to
be a thoughtful and sympathetic instructor without an understanding
of, for instance, personnel management, but it is not possible
to be so without an understanding of ethics.
by a distance education provider can have an influence that surpasses
the individual and can induce others to be unethical, too. Hence,
an unethical act, on the part of an institution, program, or
individual faculty member, easily invites another person to act
A discouraging realization
about unethical institutions or people is that complexity plays
a major role in efforts to change them (Rebore, 2001).
The increasing power
of (instructional) technology may encourage/foster/increase unethical
It is more difficult
for distance education students to detect and combat unethical
behavior than it is for conventional students.
Federico Mayor (submitted March 29, 2001)
Learning is a fundamental
human right. To avoid exclusion of any kind is an essential duty
of a truly democratic society. Universal access to education
for all, throughout life, is an ethical priority. Distance learning
is a progressively efficient way to ensure education for all.
Education for citizenship
(tolerance, solidarity, otherness) is crucial to favour participation
both at national and international level, to consolidate democracy.
The United Nations are the only world framework of ethical and
legal nature ("codes of conduct"). They must be reinforced.
Otherwise, the present impunity at supranational level and the
contradiction between democracy at national scale and oligocracy
at the global one will continue threatening humanity.
Awareness of globality
for global decision making: problems are of planetary scope (social,
natural, cultural and ethical) and solutions must be the result
of a global vision and generalized capacity building.
The voice of the voiceless
for adequate and timely decision making: the role of educators
and scientists providing their experience and rigorous elements
to the parlamentarians, members of the municipality councils,
the media, the goverments.
Ethics imply memory
and to compare: behaviours must be guided by one-self reflections.
Education is the process that allows each person to awake creativity
and to elaborate his/her own answers.
Knowledge is always
positive. Its applications can be negative and even perverse.
The Human Genome Declaration, adopted unanimously by UNESCO's
General Conference in 1997 and by the UN General Assembly in
1998, is a good example of the ethical limits in the interphase
of what is feasible and admissible for the dignity of humankind.
Formation is much
more than information. Education is much more than learning.
Tools like the Internet must be available as soon as possible
to all the people. But it is the faculty to think, to create,
to foresee and to anticipate what makes the human beings unique,
Freedom of expression
is the main pillar of democracy, nurtured by the principles of
justice, equality and solidarity. "Intellectual and moral
solidarity", as stated in the UNESCO Constitution. For centuries
we have been living in a culture of imposition and force, and
people have paid the price of war and violence. Let's now evolve
towards a culture of peace, tolerance, dialogue and understanding.
A culture of peace.
Fredric M. Litto (submitted April 3, 2001)
What is the degree
of liability, and who is to blame, when students complain about
the poor quality of a distance learning course prepared by a
university in country A, but brokered by another university in
Should there be developed
something like a "Dublin Core" to be used to describe
technically a distance learning course (pedagogical strategy,
ideological perspective, expected learning outcomes...) and thereby
reduce misunderstandings between students and course promotors?
Should the certification
and monitoring of a set of minimum standards of ethical behavior
in distance learning in each country be the result not
of government initiative, but of a self-regulating, non-governmental,
body representing course providers, or of a national association
for distance learning?
Is distance learning
more the furnishing of a product than of a service? Does the
student see it as a product or a service? In what role does the
course provider see itself? What are the implications for liability
and negligence questions?