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As manager of the Web site for Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, I receive a lot of feedback from students, SCU and otherwise.
These may be high school or college students doing research on capital punishment, file sharing, deontology, organ transplants for felons, or any of the other topics in ethics that teachers around the world happen to assign or young people happen to confront in their everyday lives.
Emerging from this great stew of communications is one noteworthy theme. It is best summarized by this brief message, which came under the subject line, "I have a question":
"I am doing a paper for a philosophy class, and there is one question I am having trouble with. It asks to explain an ethical or moral issue that is commonly misunderstood by people. If you could think of one off the top of your head and e-mail me back, I would appreciate it. Thanks for your time."
It strikes me that there are several moral issues inherent in the e-mail itself that are worth the attention of anyone who cares about what young people learn and how that has been affected by the Web.
Too much help on the Internet?
One Web-related moral issue is, of course, technology-assisted plagiarism. As of last September, researchers at Coastal Carolina University found more than 250 sites where students could download entire term papers. Software has been developed to track down such cheating. SCU’s Ethics Center site is visited periodically by one of the more popular, Turnitin, which checks student papers against our articles for suspicious borrowings, a process that seems particularly ironic for a site with a prominent focus on academic integrity.
But my correspondent with a question was not trying to plagiarize. Nor was the one who queried, "I am a student studying the question, ‘Explain how an ethical approach could be developed and implemented.’ Can you help me?" Nor the one who wrote, "My question is, ‘How can shared values and new security strategies reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and the use of weapons of mass destruction?’ I would be grateful for any information you might be willing to share regarding this matter." I probably average one such message a week.
These requests—essentially homework assignments pasted into an e-mail—raise two sets of issues: 1) What are the students’ assumptions about the responsibilities of the people who respond to e-mail queries? and 2) What are the students’ notions about their own responsibilities as learners?
As the first responder for the Ethics Center, I started out being annoyed by these communications and the presumption I saw behind them. Were the students imagining that some kindly, omniscient ethicist was sitting out there in cyberspace waiting to help them with their assignments? Didn’t they realize that our site receives some 5,000-page views daily? Did they think we could provide individual research assistance to all of our visitors?
To me, the cozy view of the world implied in these queries is entirely appropriate to real communities. (Who among us has not at some point imposed on a friend to help our child with an assignment?) But real communities involve relationships and reciprocity. A student in a class has a legitimate claim on the professor’s time. A student in another class at the same university or an alumnus may also reasonably ask for assistance. But the farther away from the community, the more tenuous the claim seemed to me.
Net results highlight modern-day generational differences
Fortunately, before I got too firmly planted on my moral high horse, I talked with Lisa Millora, assistant dean of student life at SCU, who has been deeply engaged with the "Net Generation" on issues of academic integrity. She believes that this new crop of young people have a different view of community, one that is heavily influenced by their experience with technology.
First, it’s important to register just how pervasive technology is in students’ lives. Beloit College puts together what the authors call a "Mindset List" for each incoming class, which is intended to help fogies such as myself understand that the students’ frame of reference is not the same as the staff’s and faculty’s. Co-editor Tom McBride describes the class of 2007 like this: "It is a generation which believes in technological innovations and solutions and where digital devices, PIN numbers, and calling cards are an integral part of their lives." Or, as one of the 50 items on the Mindset List points out, "Computers have always fit in their backpacks."
Using their technological savvy, today’s students may be simultaneously communicating via Instant Messenger with an old classmate whose family has returned to India and with someone they’ve never met face to face but who has become a friend through an Internet questing game. They may introduce two friends to each other by sending their photos via cell phone.
As a result, Millora says, young people "truly believe that everyone in the world is part of their community." Computers, the Web—"That’s their mechanism for building community."
It’s also their mechanism for getting things done—and pronto. Penny Rue, dean of students at the University of Virginia, notes in The Millennial Generation Comes to College:
"Along with reliance on technology comes an expectation of cyber-service and instant response. Students know they can order from J Crew at 2 a.m..... When a professor does not respond to an e-mail within a couple of hours, students have been known to repeat the message, prefaced by ‘perhaps you did not receive the earlier message I sent.’"
A Web of study partners
No wonder, then, that my cyber-correspondents do not see anything odd about firing off an e-mail to someone they don’t know and expecting timely homework help.
Indeed, the American Institutes for Research, which did a study for the Pew Foundation on the way middle and high school students use the Net, discovered that many think of it as "a virtual study group." As one young person said:
"...it’s not just the paradigm where the Internet is the library. It’s not the library, it’s a chat room.... You talk with people from somewhere else, compare notes, or whatever."
Yet, even if I accept that the Ethics Center staff have become members of a global virtual study group (or whatever), I am still left with the question, "How do the students view their own role in that study group, and what impact has the Internet had on that view?"
There’s something distressingly passive about the attitude implicit in some of the e-mails I receive. We published a long article on ethics and gene patenting, and then received the following feedback under the subject line "Patenting Human Life": "If anyone is interested in this subject or has any information or informed opinion on the matter, I would very much appreciate an e-mail." When you manage a site with 830 pages of completely searchable information, it’s hard to know what to make of a feedback requesting you to send the interrogator "everything you have on business ethics."
And it’s not merely a matter of students asking us to do the searching. The medium of the Web is having an impact on how students incorporate their research into their own ideas. It used to be that a researcher had to go to the library; wander among the shelves; read through large volumes of text, some relevant and some not; and laboriously copy out quotations onto 3-by-5 cards for possible inclusion in a finished paper.
With the Internet, students can sit at home, search millions of articles instantly, and be taken to the exact paragraph in a text that deals with their subject.
They can copy that text with a flick of the wrist and paste it into their papers.
That’s not necessarily a bad development, but there’s a danger in it. The risk is that the bits and bytes of information flow completely undigested from the Web right onto the page without ever having been engaged by the writer. The students appear to view themselves purely as conduits for information that is traveling from one place to another.
Grazing for information
According to Jamie McKenzie, editor of From Now On-The Educational Technology Journal, "Students can be swept along browsing, grazing, and collecting other people’s ideas without taking the time to challenge those ideas or build their own."
This is not the same as plagiarism if the information is correctly cited. But it’s not learning either. It’s not integrating information into the students’ own understanding of the world. It’s not grappling with how ideas fit together. It’s not contributing to the long chain of discourse that is at the heart of the academic enterprise.
Stephen Carroll, whose current incarnation as a lecturer in English at SCU was preceded by a career as a computer operations manager, argues that many students "don’t really have any interest in this type of learning."
In his view, when students go trolling the Internet for information, they often are not working to develop a "personal stance informed by the opinions of others"; instead, they are "trying to find somebody who has already done the work."
Carroll’s hypothesis is borne out in e-mails like the one I received recently from a student who described her assignment as "discussing the problem with our health care system and what options I see in improving it," (emphasis mine). Then, without irony, she went on to request "any information you have access to concerning our protections and lack thereof in health care."
Perhaps this young woman will learn something— albeit not what she expected—from receiving our frosty automatically generated response: "Please note that due to the volume of feedback, we cannot generally respond to student requests for research assistance. But all materials generated by the Ethics Center are available online, and can be found using our search feature."
Where to draw the line for research help?
On the other hand, there are times we want to participate in the democratic give and take of Internet communication. Recently, a group of students at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles were intrigued enough with an article on our site about who owns the California coast that they all made a trip up to Sea Ranch to meet the author, Center Senior Fellow Rob Elder, and discuss the issue with him. An aspiring bioethicist from Florida Gulf Coast University with a query that was not answerable by simply reading our Web site (or others), received some specific advice from Director of Biotechnology and Health Care Ethics Margaret R. McLean about how to set up an experiment on college students’ attitudes towards end-of-life decision making.
The trick is to figure out how far our community should reasonably be expected to extend and when our participation is a form of true education as opposed to the cyber-equivalent of the "homework help line." Or, as Assistant Dean Millora asked me, "Where does an educational institution land on meeting students?" What is halfway? Do we have an obligation to engage all comers in the great fellowship of cyberspace? Are we doing our job if we refuse to engage them at all? If I may be forgiven for answering the original student question with many questions, I would argue these represent "a moral or ethical issue that is commonly misunderstood.
Miriam Schulman is the communications director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.