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The Ethics of Tracking

By Lisa Neal / November 2005

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A friend who was required by his company to take an online course on ethics asked if I wanted to watch him take the one-hour course. (Who, besides me, gets offers like this from his or her friends?) Gary, who works for a high-tech company, brought over his laptop and opened up the course. We used a think-aloud protocol, where Gary narrated and I occasionally asked questions. From the start, it was clear that Gary was acutely aware of the possibility that his actions relating to the course might be tracked by his employer. How, I wondered, would this affect his learning experience?

The email that invited Gary to take the mandatory course by a specified date also informed him that he needed to enter his employee identification number to access the course. Gary thought that this might mean nothing more than his company's corporate legal department needing to verify his participation. On the other hand, he thought this might allow the software to record his answers to any questions, how long he spent on each screen compared to the company's expectations, and which optional links he followed. Furthermore, he was concerned about how any gathered information could be used.

As Gary progressed through the course, his actions were primarily motivated by his suspicions. For instance, Gary turned off the audio—the voice, which he initially liked, started to annoy him—and mostly skimmed the text. When he finished a screen, he waited before going on to the next just in case his actions were time-stamped.

The course included a number of multiple choice questions which Gary answered correctly. Curious as to what type of feedback he would get if he answered incorrectly, towards the end of the course I asked him to do just that. Gary refused to do so, concerned that the company might record that he only got the right answer on the second try.

Upon completing the course I asked Gary was if he had learned anything new. Although he acknowledged the importance of the material, his answer was "no." How a course is presented to students has a dramatic impact on learning and—clearly, in this case—affects how much a student learns. The carefully worded email "inviting" students to take a mandatory course should inform them why they need to take the course, what they need to do to take it, and what happens in the process of meeting their obligation. Moreover, it is ethical to inform students if any data is being saved.

Also, what constitutes course completion should be explicit. I know of another course for which completion requires only that the student opens at least 80 percent of the screens and nothing else, but nowhere is this explained. If students are treated responsibly and ethically—and the irony here is that this was a course on ethics—then they can better focus on learning.

About the Author
Lisa Neal is Editor-in-Chief of eLearn Magazine and an e-learning consultant.


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