I read an article for my Computers and Composition class this week entitled, “The Ethics of Digital Writing Research: A Rhetorical Approach” by Heidi McKee and James E. Porter. The article opens with three possible ethically debatable situations. I am including two below to give you an idea of what was discussed:
“A teacher-researcher conducts a case study of several students’ remediation of genres in
the multimedia compositions they created for class. When presenting his research at a
conference, he shows, with his students’ permission, the complete video files for
students’ digital autobiographies. In these digital autobiographies, students incorporated
photographs, videos, and sound clips of friends and family members — and, in some
cases, the family members are providing sensitive personal information about their lives.
While the researcher has the permission of the students who created the multimedia
compositions, does the researcher have any ethical responsibilities to the “third parties,”
the family members represented aurally and visually in these digital works?
A researcher studying young adults’ Web blogs notices that several blog writers have
expressed suicidal feelings. Because she does not know the names or emails for many of
the authors, she decides not to try to direct people toward resources for help as she would
had students written such disclosures in, say, a live, face-to-face forum such as her
classroom. When encountering distressing information like suicidal tendencies in texts on
the Internet, what ethical actions, if any, should a researcher pursue?” (McKee and Porter 1).
As soon as I read these situations on the opening page, I was hooked. As I read these, I thought, “I see both sides of these issues.” It awakened me to the idea that like most things in life–using technology for research and educational purposes–is not so black and white. Often, there are no easy answers as to what is acceptable. Throughout the article, they referenced these two situations again in more detail. In the latter one, the researcher did not attempt to gain the name of suicidal blogger until much later in her study, but it was too late. The researcher received an email back that informed her the blogger had committed suicide (McKee and Porter 8). When I read that, my heart sank. I am sure it devastated the researcher. This was not someone she knew personally, but still, she saw the signs and reacted too late. That is a complex situation that occurs regularly on the internet, perhaps even in every day life. What if we see troublesome posts, but we do not really know the people? Are we obligated to get involved and try to help?
The first situation mentioned above was addressed later in the article. They discussed how this researcher was working with multimedia projects that students created. These projects contained pictures and videos not only of the students themselves but also of their family and friends. The researcher had obtained the necessary signed consent of the students, but she did not have the signed consent of these third party people. Unfortunately, when she realized this in the almost-publishing stage, it was two years later (McKee and Porter 22). What should she do? That is situation I am sure that happens a lot, especially in multimedia. She decided to blur the images of the images of the third party people. Sounds like an easy decision, but how many people would have even thought about that or considered it?
These are only two situations; however, they make me aware that anytime technology is involved–whether with students in a class or “subjects” for research–much thought is needed about your personal responsibility with interactions between people and technology. It is not cut-and-dry or black-and-white. Failure to consider the many sides of potentially complex situations can leave one with regret. On the other hand, to just say, “Well, I just won’t use technology then.” is not really an option either in this digital age. That is just a stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach.
So before you begin your next research study or technology project with your class, pause for a little bit and ask yourself, “What are my ethical obligations to these people? What permission should I obtain? What should I inform them about ahead of time?” To some extent, as is true in most of life, I think the Golden Rule can help guide you–Treat others how you would wish to be treated yourself.