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Ethics of Online Education Essay

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Updated: Aug 26th, 2020


Online education is associated with a set of ethical issues that are particular to the context of both distance and online teaching. Nowadays, it becomes increasingly easy to enroll in one of the numerous online programs and pursue a master’s or a bachelor’s degree at any time and anyplace.

However, this new frontier of education introduced new demands for students and educators related to the application of ethical principles within online environments (Anderson and Simpson 129). In order to better understand practical issues connected to the ethical underpinning of teaching and learning in a unique educational context, it is necessary to develop a broad view of challenges that students and educators face during online instruction (Wankel and Wankel 3). This paper will explore ethics and moral concerns related to online education.


In order to start unraveling the complex net of ethical issues and challenges faced by students and educators in the educational context of the online environment, one should provide a framework for discussion of ethics. It is necessary to realize that ethical questions are concerned with the view of morality, value, and justice that is shared and recognized by a community (Toprak et al. 79).

The important implication of the utilization of fair principles is that they could help to solve the conflicts emerging from the collision of different interests. Lengel argued that it is a duty of an institution to set higher-level principles for conflict resolution (qtd. in Toprak et al. 79). However, in order to be able to accept some principles as binding, it is necessary to have a system for the systematization of the concepts of “right” and “wrong” in a specific context of online education (Toprak et al. 80).

Kohleberg provides the following levels of social norms that could be applied to e-learning: punishment and obedience, self-interest, the conformity that stems from a desire for social approval, social order, and the social contract (qtd. in Toprak et al. 80). It is important to keep in mind that ethical relativism could not be applied to the complex environment of an online classroom. Taking into consideration the fact that cooperation is a prerequisite for virtually any learning environment, it is safe to assume that it is only possible in the presence of an underlying social contract that outlines particular norms and expectations.

Moreover, it can be argued that cooperative principles are intrinsically rational because of their role as a social glue that helps to preserve harmony; therefore, they can be considered higher than self-interest on the scale priorities outlined by Kohleberg (Toprak et al. 80). According to David Hume, ethics stem from the feeling of sympathy shared by human beings (Toprak et al. 80).

It means that the desire to obligate oneself to overcome inequalities is a key to establishing certain criteria that could help to create an environment of tolerance and civility. Therefore, it can be argued that online learning requires the collaboration of all involved parties in order to increase sensitivity to multiple issues such as multicultural understanding and diversity that will help to raise the level of acceptance of particulars behavioral regulations.

Online Ethics

The subject of online ethics is often surrounded with numerous controversies because of its highly disputed and complicated nature. Taking into consideration that it is a relatively new area of public discourse it is not surprising that the consensus on the general approach to this issue is still missing (Palloff, Pratt and Palloff 62). However, it is still important to develop a framework for analyzing the issues related to online learning in order to set models for students to follow.

Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) developed a comprehensive code of ethics that provides a structure for considering numerous “ethical implications of technology” (Toprak et al. 80). It outlines the following set of moral imperatives for online environments: making a contribution to a community, preventing harm to others, being honest, avoiding discrimination, respecting property rights, giving proper attribution to owners of intellectual property, honoring the privacy and confidentiality of others (Toprak et al. 80). This code of ethics could serve as a framework for developing individual guidelines for students of different institutions offering online degrees that are closely associated with change and therefore might require a unique approach to their culture.

Online Education vs. Traditional Education

The discussion of the manner in which educational culture within the online environment is different from traditional settings of educational institutions and why it is not ready to offer a viable substitute for “analog solutions” requires moving from the simplistic analysis of differences to empirical-based approach to the issue (Land and Bayne 7). According to Macleod and Ross, online learning is associated with liminal nature of its environment and can be characterized by the ambiguity of social engagement (qtd. in Land and Bayne 8).

As a result, online space might hinder an educator from playing a role of a regulator, thus bringing a component of chaos in the educational process. Taking into consideration the importance of underlying regulating structure for productive learning environment, it can be argued that ideas of “secure not knowing” and “enjoyment of ambiguity” proposed by Macleod and Ross cannot serve as viable substitutes for having a strict hierarchy of authority that is not undermined by liminality of digital space (Land and Bayne 8).

The ethical question of surveillance that students inevitably face while pursuing an online degree is another dimension that has to do with “the dignity of the person and the value of trust and its implications for community” (Anderson and Simpson 134). Online education is associated with massive amounts of data that is being collected automatically. As a result, the question of consent is not always being considered thereby violating the right of individuals to be in charge of the use of their personal information (Anderson and Simpson 135).

Another ethical dimension of online education is the issue of confidentiality. Textual permanence of all interactions between students enhances a possibility for misuse of information created in the process of free exchange of ideas during class debates. Moreover, the anonymity that is being provided by online-based learning systems makes it easy to engage in confrontations that amount to harassment; therefore, the traditional educational setting that could be fully controlled by an instructor could be considered a superior arena for public discourse.

Furthermore, face-to-face interaction allows recognizing the results of “unethical behaviors” immediately thereby making it considerably harder for students to act inappropriately within the traditional educational environment. Therefore, it can be argued that online education is not ready to replace conventional approaches to education until the society finds an answer to ethical dilemmas associated with the ambiguous nature of the digital environment.


Online education is associated with numerous practical issues connected to the ethical underpinning of teaching and learning in a unique educational context. Taking into consideration the set of ethical challenges such as confidentiality, anonymity, and consent among others, it could be argued that traditional approach to learning and teaching cannot be replaced by online education.

Works Cited

Anderson, Bill, and Mary Simpson. “Ethical Issues in Online Education.” Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 22.2 (2007): 129-138. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Land, Ray, and Siân Bayne. Digital Difference. Rotterdam: SensePublishers, 2011. Print.

Palloff, Rena, Keith Pratt, and Rena Palloff. Building Online Learning Communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007. Print.

Toprak, Elif, Berrin Ozkanal, Secil Kaya, and Sinan Aydin. “Ethics in E-Learning.” The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology 9.2 (2010): 78-86. Print.

Wankel, Laura, and Charles Wankel. Misbehavior Online in Higher Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.

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