Ethics in Technology: A Challenge for Jewish Day Schools

Jane Neubauer

A positive, ethical, virally broadcast news clip can generate thousands of “hits” to a website, and that is a priceless commodity.

The challenges for schools are enormous, for educational tools in the 21st century are truly fluid. As students in classrooms throughout the country, and the world, settle into their learning environments in 2011, they may be situated at desks or portable iPad carts. They may be navigating their laptops while a teacher using Google Docs on a SMART Board explains that upcoming notes for a classroom project will be shared and edited by classmates, not on paper or even on the school’s Intranet, but rather by way of “the Cloud”—where everyone’s comments will be visible to one another. Students may stay informed about upcoming school Booster Club or PTO activities via an officially sanctioned Facebook page, “tweet” or e-newsletter. They then may share their experiences with global classmates signed on to Skype.

Added to the challenges of understanding this often “foreign” world is the fact that Jewish day school educators are charged with infusing values, morals, and menschlichkeit.

Ethics Through Accountability

At Donna Klein Jewish Academy, we have instituted a Technology and Internet Use Policy to explain and regulate the institutional use of technology equipment, software, and systems (e-mail, Internet, networks, etc.), and other communication systems. Additionally, staff and faculty handbooks contain specific information on policies and procedures that are updated annually and must be adhered to on a daily basis.

Ethics guidelines are imperative for many reasons. Specifying what may appear to be understood or “common sense” often is an enigma in the digital generation. What happens if a well meaning teacher, intending to facilitate information sharing, becomes Facebook friends with her students so that posts to this personal blog of sorts can be shared in one quick click? Yes, the information is disseminated easily. But what if the teacher’s privacy settings are not “private enough,” and activities deemed inappropriate for students to know about are suddenly common knowledge within the school community? Once viral, the damage may be done. Was it unethical for the teacher to execute the post? Did he or she violate an ethics policy?

DKJA’s Technology and Internet Acceptable Use Policy must be electronically signed by both parents and students, since the school provides students with opportunities to use technology and to access the Internet for educational purposes. The conditions for agreeing to utilize technology responsibly are nonnegotiable. The document specifically outlines “Acceptable Use” relating to technology both at DKJA and out of school. This is where ethics in technology directly go hand-in-hand. Technology is not contained within the classroom. “Cloud computing,” sharing information collaboratively on Google Docs, and simply logging on to Facebook are ways of life today.

DKJA’s Parent/Student Acceptable Use Policy also specifically outlines that, “in some cases, use of personal electronic devices at home or away from campus are covered by this policy where such communications impact the school, are to/from employees and students, parents, or third parties, such as communications on the Internet or on social networking sites. Violations of the following guidelines may result in the revocation of access privileges and possible disciplinary action, including expulsion for serious offenses… This policy also applies to the use of any personal electronic devices (computers, cameras, phones, video cameras, PDAs, etc.) on school property or at a school-related event. Failure to abide by these rules will result in appropriate disciplinary action determined by the school administration. All technology should be used in a responsible, ethical, and legal manner.”

In their haste to quickly race through the registration or re-enrollment process, parents and students may tend to take this lightly and not reflect upon the relevance and importance of these ethical requirements. The ramifications, however, are quite serious.

The following situations presented unintentional violations—but violations nonetheless—of the Acceptable Use Policy at DKJA. During one incident involving students participating in a video project, the intended goal was to encourage creativity and competence by conducting interviews. Student reporters, wearing school uniforms, carried out the educational interviews with fellow classmates as well as teachers. The project was then “shared” on the popular and easily accessed site YouTube, where the entire world could easily view the project. This not only violated the Acceptable Use policy’s specific directive that “No one is permitted to post the DKJA name or the names of any person identified as a DKJA student or employee on any Internet site without the school’s prior consent (including Facebook, MySpace, etc.),” it also was not cleared through the Communication Department. One of the roles of the Communications Department is to ensure that the wishes of parents/guardians who request to opt out of all media/publicity materials involving their respective students are respected. Like the Acceptable Use Policy, this individual preference is made electronically during the enrollment process.

What if the teacher’s privacy settings are not “private enough,” and activities deemed inappropriate for students to know about are suddenly common knowledge within the school community?

In this particular incident, the administrator in charge of the video project was educated about the “unacceptable” scope of the video project, and the YouTube post was removed. No student reprimands were necessary. A teachable moment was provided when the explanation for the removal was presented, and the need to ensure respect for other students’ privacy was reinforced.

In a separate incident involving parents, concerning respect for others’ privacy and reputations, Facebook came into play. Although a personal Facebook page—not school-sanctioned—was the forum through which an inappropriate post about a school administrator appeared, it too necessitated removal. The negative post did not specifically name the administrator, but traits of the person were alluded to in such a way as to be offensive. The parent was contacted and instructed to remove the post because it violated the “acceptable use” outlined in DKJA’s policy.

These examples illustrate the dangers and possibilities that need to be considered, the consequences that must be addressed, and the education that is imperative in the multi-faceted scope of ethics and technology in the school setting, on and off campus.

In contrast to the negative aspects of multimedia information sharing, positive stories can also be the end-product and can shine brightly on behalf of the school community. Information sharing is marketing that can be invaluable, especially in today’s lightning-speed communications environment. Families researching educational institutions utilize the Internet as a “first step” in the information gathering process. A positive, ethical, virally broadcast news clip can generate thousands of “hits” to a website, and that is a priceless commodity. Sharing a positive story did just that in the following example, which garnered international media attention because it focused on an act of lovingkindness, gemilut chasadim.

During a recent nationally broadcast professional baseball game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Milwaukee Brewers, an agile young boy watching from the stands became the proud owner of a ball that was thrown toward a small child who missed the catch. The older child walked away, holding the ball. The younger child was visibly upset and heartbroken. The older child walked over to the younger boy and handed him the prized possession. The compassionate act went viral. Website upon website spread the story, including video. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ official Facebook page received hundreds of “likes” and comments, e.g.:

“He’s what the youth of today should be looking up to, not the athletes themselves. His folks obviously taught him respect and responsibility. Great job to his parents…”

This is an example of a positive role model whose deeds were seen as a learning tool for others—virally. Every action has potential to be seen by and impact others throughout the global, digital world today.

But just as this positive story went viral, so have many less stellar acts. Therefore, it is the role and responsibility of educators at each and every level of teaching students to know and adhere to ethics policies in the broad spectrum of modern technology. It is imperative for ALL technology users to realize that the ways in which they conduct themselves can easily become the subject of viral communications, and to therefore act responsibly and exercise ethical judgment.

Many technology seminars today emphasize the fact that there really is no true “delete” button—information that is disseminated and deleted really is “never deleted.” Information that is shared often cannot be “unshared.” Once it is out there, it easily can become viral. What are the consequences? Who is responsible? Who is charged with teaching students about such issues? What policies are in place to help facilitate these processes? Who is accountable? How often should policies be updated?

These are just a few of the questions that perhaps need to be posed annually when planning for the upcoming school year. Technology is no longer an option. Therefore, it must be added to every planning agenda in some shape or form.

In closing, the following text should be considered when formulating an Ethics in Technology policy. It comes from Pirkei Avot 3:19, but can easily be adapted to modern-day governance:

All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, but in accordance with the amount of man’s positive deeds.—Rabbi Akiva

Each of us has a purpose and goals to assist us in our endeavor to communicate effectively, broadly, and positively. The goal could be education or simply sharing information. Freedom of choice to utilize communications and technology tools unimaginable just a few years ago is literally at everyone’s fingertips today. In the school environment, it is hoped that students, parents, administrators, and educators have good intentions in their quest to share anecdotes and information with others. The tools through which this can be accomplished make it easy to repeatedly engage in positive communication. Respect for others must always come into play. Countless opportunities abound for all to spread good will in a responsible manner.

Ethics and technology require us to take a step back and consider damage that can be done whether intentionally or not. With technology at our fingertips, unless guidelines are adhered to and consequences recognized, great potential for indiscretion can flourish. It continues to pose a challenge for Jewish day school educators. When navigated effectively, technology can be a force for tremendous growth and learning.♦

Jane Neubauer is Director of Communications at Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. She can be reached at neubauerj@dkja.org.

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HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
Ethics
Fall 2011