One should always beware of columnists who reminisce about the “good old days,” because in most cases, the nostalgia ignores the “bad old facts” in favor of rose-colored memories. When confronting the challenges of technology in the 21st-century workplace, it is easy to lose sight of some of the unpleasant things that have been replaced by computers in schools.
When push comes to shove (and it usually does), I would not trade all of the headaches brought about by the internet, cell phones, pagers, or computers in schools for the delights of typing up a master stencil and filling the reservoir on the duplicating machine with noxious fluid. Vivid memories of turning the crank and watching the copies drop one at a time into the tray through eyes blurred by the blinding headache caused by the fumes are sufficient to overcome any Luddite tendencies that might arise after the occasional Windows crash.
This feeling of relief at not having to suffer the mechanical outrages of manual typewriters, handwritten reports, and adding machines (does anyone really remember the slide rule?) is tempered by some factors, however, most notably the loss of privacy and control over information. With the computer and internet age, the fragile boundaries of life seem to be eroding. For example, the creation of in-home offices, laptop computers, and telecommuting has blurred the borders between work and home. Where are the edges of our work and personal lives?
From my two years as a high school teacher, I know that home and classroom overlap a lot. Most evenings included some time in my “home office” grading papers and reviewing the next day’s assignments. If I were teaching today, I might very well be answering eMail from parents and students or working on a PowerPoint presentation on diagramming sentences. But the same technology that allows me to accomplish more today also means that much my life is no longer private or personal.
As the new century begins in 2001, this column will explore some of the legal and ethical issues that arise from new technology, especially those that affect our personal privacy and sense of personal space. Never before has what people do in the workplace been so susceptible to scrutiny and analysis. Sensitivity to privacy issues has spawned dozens of proposed laws and questions about the electronic boundaries of the Fourth Amendment. The cyber workplace has even spawned the ultimate Big Brother phrase: “No reasonable expectation of privacy.”
The statistics do not auger well for employees. A majority of private businesses already perform some form of monitoring, and those activities have revealed that between 30 and 40 percent of internet use “on the job” is not work-related. More than 70 percent of traffic on pornographic web sites occurs during “office” hours (not at night, when workers are at home). Employees are being suspended and fired for violating policies on eMail and internet use (see the Page One story about the Indiana superintendent who resigned 11 weeks into his job). Big Brother is cracking down.
But where are the practical boundaries? Do “zero tolerance” policies that allow no personal use of school-based technology really make sense, just because they might be easier to enforce? Does it make sense to refuse to allow teachers to make a doctor’s appointment from their school eMail account or answer a cell phone call in the classroom from their day care provider? Is this really a legal problem, or more a matter of ethics? Can we learn to share responsibility as well as informationor are we doomed to high-tech watchdog solutions?
What ethical and policy changes are you facing in your school district? Send me an eMail with your dilemmas, hot topics, and policy quandaries. We may not be able to solve all the problems that are arising out of the Information Age, or even fathom the impact of the next generation of computing machines. Nevertheless, we must begin to discuss how these rapid-fire changes affect us as human beings, because the ethical rules and policy boundaries we define now will be with us for a long time to come.