Personal tools


CPSR Newsletter Vol 18, No 2
Volume 18, Number 2 The CPSR Newsletter Spring 2000

Emerging Ethical issues in Distance Education by Elizabeth Buchanan, Ph.D.

Distance education in the forms of web-based or online delivery have emerged as a core educational strategy in the late 1990s and promise to thrive throughout the early years of the twenty-first century. The use of the Internet or other networking technologies have seemingly opened numerous channels through which formal education can be attained. Institutions of higher education are quickly recognizing the potential of web-based delivery as a cost-effective, wide-reaching, and technologically feasible platform through which untapped student populations can be reached. The history of distance education reveals an emphasis on providing education to disenfranchised individuals. Peters (1994) states that persons participated in early distance education programs for several reasons, including:

  1. They were denied the opportunity to attend regular schools to acquire the desired qualifications;
  2. They were poor and socially disadvantaged;
  3. They were in ill health [due to the effects of industrialized labor];
  4. They were incarcerated;
  5. They lived in sparsely settled areas, too far from a university or other educational institution.

Today, however, students participate in distance education programs for a variety of reasons distinct from those named above. The aforementioned reasons for participating in distance education programs may not match contemporary circumstances. Such distance education qualities as convenience, flexibility, and autonomous learning conditions appeal to many individuals who are working full time and managing family, social, and professional commitments. We as professionals concerned with the ethical and social responsibilities surrounding technologies and education in particular should be asking what ethical issues are emerging surrounding web-based education in general, and is web-based education truly an equalizer in bringing quality education to all?

Educators in general are responsible for upholding particular ethical principles, including respect for persons, honesty, awareness and respect of cultural sensitivity, fulfilling the missions of the institutions, striving to enhance personal and intellectual development of persons, and avoiding abuses of power and seniority (Smith, 1996). Educators in the distance education environments may be challenged by new ethical dilemmas, in addition to the traditional ones.

While my colleagues Diana and Sonya present one aspect of the emerging ethical challenges facing institutions with intellectual property issues, I would like to focus briefly on the ethics of access and other areas of investigation on ethics and distance education. Prominent issues that have gained attention in the literature include copyright issues, ownership of the course and materials, data/media manipulation; reuse of materials by other instructors, and displacement of teachers. My goal in this discussion is to raise awareness of additional ethical issues in order to encourage further debate and consideration of these importance issues.

  1. With the emergence of high-end networking, video and audio streaming, multimedia, and so on, individuals must invest more heavily in equipment to participate in distance education endeavors. It becomes obvious that individuals of higher socio-economic status will have the best equipment and the best access, as opposed to individuals reliant on public libraries or other community centers for their computing needs.

  2. Ancillary to point one, as technologies continue to improve, educators are turning to the Internet to display their projects, showcase novel ideas, and demonstrate innovative techniques in technologies. Distance education classes are often more technologically savvy, with greater interactivity and types of activities. However, schools-whether primary, secondary or tertiary-often suffer from minimal renovations, peeling paint, and lack of essentials such as chalk! The question becomes: Will distance education replace traditional education as education for the elite-those that can afford the equipment and access will remain at home, connected to more sophisticated "classrooms" while the lower SES individuals will come to campuses with lackluster facilities? This potential changes the playing field of education tremendously.

  3. Wang, Lee, and Chen (1998) have examined minority adults' participation in distance education in terms of ethnicity, race, and gender. They found that existing adult education programs in the forms of distance education are deficient and "the situation is detrimental for the adult population." They call attention to the lack of research that looks to minorities and their needs and expectations in light of existing socio-economic-technical backgrounds. If distance education will continue to exist as a core educational strategy, all individuals and their needs must be considered. Moving beyond the questions of availability and access raised above, critical issues related to minorities and participation also include relevance and utility of the educational programming.

  4. The roles of students and instructors are inherently different in a web-based environment (Buchanan, 1999). Traditional roles of learner-learned face readjustment as students become more responsible for their own learning. Yet, Smith (1996) has suggested that educators must maintain his or her authority in the classroom, and this maintenance is in fact an ethical behavior, a safeguard of professional ethics. Smith suggests that total student empowerment is not ethical, as educators as the authority and should demonstrate that authority through course construction and content. Does this hold true in web-based education? Is the pedagogy of web-based education a relinquishment of instructor authority, and is this necessarily ethical or unethical?

  5. The provision of services to distance education students must be reconsidered and reevaluated so that all students have access to the same resources. These include advising, career placement, library and computing services offered on campus, and collegial gatherings. The technologies exist for all of these through networking, and it is imperative that schools recognize their responsibilities in providing equitable services to all students.

These five areas are some of the many emerging ethical issues in distance education. I encourage further deliberation on these issues on our CPSR Ethics Working Group listserve.


Buchanan, E. (1999). Articulating a web-based pedagogy: A Qualitative examination. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Peters, O. (1994). Otto Peters on distance education: The industrialization of teaching and learning. Edited by D. Keegan. London: Routledge.

Smith, R. (1996). Essential ethical considerations in education. Education, 117 (1), 17-22.

Wang, D., Lee, R., and Chen, C. (1998). The Role of distance education and major factors that influence minority adults' participation in educational programs. Presentation at the University of Wisconsin Distance Education Conference, Madison, WI. August 1998.

What's inside...

© Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
P.O. Box 717
Palo Alto, CA 94302-0717
Tel. (650) 322-3778
Fax (650) 322-3798

the end [ top ] Newsletter Index
Archived CPSR Information
Created before October 2004

Sign up for CPSR announcements emails


International Chapters -

> Canada
> Japan
> Peru
> Spain

USA Chapters -

> Chicago, IL
> Pittsburgh, PA
> San Francisco Bay Area
> Seattle, WA
Why did you join CPSR?

I've been seeking organizations on the Internet that discuss topics of interest to me as well as give me the opportunity to come in contact and network with people near me of the same interests/field.