You are here:

Using Moral Development Theory to Teach K-12 Cyber Ethics

, Purdue University, United States

Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, in Nashville, Tennessee, USA ISBN 978-1-880094-44-0 Publisher: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE), Waynesville, NC USA


Introduction Children today face a very different world than that of their parents. A recent television commercial exemplifies this point by illustrating a young teen who, after disobeying her parents, is grounded from the use of the telephone. The commercial depicts the girl joking with her friend, through the use of an Internet-based phone, about the "punishment" she has received. Much to the chagrin of the teen, her mother enters the room and overhears the conversation. Without hesitation, the mother extends the punishment to include banishment from the computer. Technology, it seems, has permeated into virtually all aspects of our life. Its incorporation has influenced the way in which we communicate, travel, work, learn, and raise our children. Consider the life span of young teenagers born in 1988. For these kids, it is common practice to chat with friends from around the world, watch news events as they happen, interact with experts via the Internet, capture photos digitally, and manipulate historical recordings of events. The environment in which these children will grow is quite different than that of their parents. All of these differences resonate the fact that the skill set that will be required of these children as they mature into adults is dramatically diverse than the skills that were needed by previous generations. New Societal Skill Set The role of information technology in our society is increasing at a dramatic rate. According to several governmental reports, there is currently a "critical" need for individuals skilled in the field of information technology. These reports also indicate that this need will grow substantially over the next five years (Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office, 2000). According to a recent National Science Foundation report, by the year 2010, the United States will need more than 700,000 additional scientists and engineers proficient in both content and technical skills (Kopp, 1996). The skills of the past will no longer provide an individual with a secure future. As the needs of our society change, so must our educational system. Effective and consistent technology use is a critical factor in increasing the information literacy levels of our future workforce. Currently, the amount of knowledge in our world doubles every two years (Withrow, 1993). Consequently, it would be impossible for a worker in the 21st century to memorize all relevant information. Due to this vast amount of knowledge, information literacy skills will need to become a key component of our schools' curriculum. The ability to find, locate, and apply the needed information will require information literacy skills as well as basic technical proficiencies (Withrow, 1993). According to John Brown (2000), the Internet has the potential to assist in the acquisition of the "new" skills. The use of technology in an educational setting can provide a dynamic framework to enhance and promote the acquisition of the types of skills that our students will need in order to be productive in the future. Technology, in a variety of forms, can help to teach students the process of information gathering, inquiry, collaboration, and simulation (Rice & Wilson, 1999). Educators, politicians, and parents agree with the idea that technology integration will help to spur the advancement of technological skills in children. This belief has been transformed into school budgets that embrace the integration of technology into the classrooms. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 66% of public school teachers use computers or the Internet for instruction during class time (2000). According to a 1999 survey, 16 million children (or 14% of U.S. citizens under the age of 18) regularly use the Internet. Of those users, 6 million are children under the age of 6 (Curriculum Review, 1999). Acquisition of Ethical Guidelines in the Workplace Familiarity with and utilization of new technical advances are critical components of an educated 21st Century workforce. However, the development of a new skill set goes far beyond simple technical know-how. The Information Technology (IT) workforce must also understand the ethical implications of the programs they write, the actions they take, and the criticality of protecting intellectual property in the online environment. Individuals who learn only the technical side of technology are missing an integral part of the new skill set. Unethical behavior can be a costly mistake for industries to counteract on several levels. Fines, public embarrassment, negative publicity, professional reputation damage, low employee morale, and difficulty in employee recruitment are all examples of common costs associated with unethical business practices (Nash, 1993). Lands' End, a prominent clothing manufacturer, offers a dramatic example of a commitment to include ethical training as part of the new skill set required of its employees. Members of the Lands' End Information Technology team are routinely placed under security audits which include technical attacks on its information security practices as well as individual ethical tests of the team members (Wilder & Soat, 2001). By utilizing this type of spontaneous performance check, Lands' End is actively working to develop and maintain a workforce that is both secure and ethical in its daily practice. Additionally, a recent Information Week survey indicated that 62% of the reporting corporations monitor their employees use of the WWW, and 54% monitor the email of their employees (Wilder & Soat, 2001). These monitoring practices are deemed both ethical and common by most IT professionals, yet it is not clear as to where the employees are to acquire these skills for discerning appropriate use of the technology. The nature of the IT world changes the use of ethical behavior for some. In the invisible online world where you can interact almost anonymously, some individuals experience difficulty in translating their real-world ethical guidelines into the online environment. When individuals interact in a direct face-to-face manner, they can see the impact their dialogue is creating. In the online environment, individuals can send dramatic, painful, and derogatory responses without having to witness the pain the receiver endures (DeMaio, 1991). Acquisition of Ethical Guidelines in Schools It is imperative that students understand the deep implications that their online behavior may have upon others. If they are unable to draw the connection between real-world ethics and the online environment, the students will need to be guided in this transition by role models, parents, and teachers. Ethical training can benefit students by "increasing their awareness and sensitivity to important issues surrounding ethical problem solving" (Windsor & Cappel, 1999). To this end, it is critical that cyber ethics be addressed as part of the regular curriculum of our K-12 schools. As we teach students the skills to use technology, we must also teach them the proper guidelines for appropriate use. Ethics and Cyber Ethics Defined According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "ethics" refers to the set of principles of right conduct (2001). It is "concern with what we consider to be 'right' or 'just' behavior (Gibney, 1999, p.19). Ethics refers to the guiding principles or ideals of good vs. evil. Ethics are not based in law, religion, or standardized beliefs; rather, ethics refer to a general conception of right and wrong which transcend both religion and law (Webster's Dictionary, 2001). "Cyber ethics" refers to the application of ethics into the online or virtual environment (Ethics Connection, 2000). Justification of Cyber Ethics at the K-12 Level Ethics intervention demands attention at a young age. The majority of children begin developing significant use of their ethical principles between the ages of 10 and 12 (Geide, et al 2000). To hesitate in teaching ethical principles until adulthood is not only ineffective but also risky. There are countless examples of the horror stories of students who once empowered with technical skills feel the need to practice them in inappropriate ways. Distribution of pornography, sexual harassment, credit card theft, destruction of governmental websites, modification of grades, counterfeiting rings, and software piracy are just a few of the technically-based illegal activities with which students in our schools have been involved (Marsh, 2000) In addition, common classroom distractions have even been impacted by technology, often with a more vicious twist. One prominent example involves the illegal use of others' email accounts to send inappropriate, threatening, or mean email to fellow classmates. This practice has become so commonplace in schools, that many middle school teachers trivialize it by making it analogous to passing hand written notes about the "un-cool kids" in class (Marsh, 2000). Not only are students not hearing about the need for appropriate use of technology, it seems that they are bombarded by a constant stream of media clips in which the image of the hacker is portrayed as a romanticized rebel. MTV recently aired a broadcast entitled, "Hackers" which provided the viewer with a day-in-the-life view of a computer hacker. Additionally, several major motion pictures such as "Hackers," "War Games," and "Real Genius" have depicted hackers as the new adventure seekers. The actual hackers do not dissuade these stereotypes; rather, they embrace the notoriety and acclaim the stereotype brings (Governor, 1997). As technology integration has progressed throughout society over the last several years, it is also interesting to note that the frequency of computer crimes and misuse has also dramatically risen. Specifically, the 2000 Computer Security Institute/FBI Computer Crime and Security Survey indicates that computer crime and other information security breaches are on the rise with 90 percent of the responding 585 participants reporting computer security violations within the previous 12-month period (Smith, 2000). Many experts agree that this trend in increasing rates of computer crime will escalate even further. The consensus from a recent Department of Justice conference on computer-related crime was that due to the increased integration of computers into the K-12 learning environment, the number of potential perpetrators of this type of crime will rise dramatically (Smith, 2000). According to this group, the basic adventurous nature of technology can lead undirected users to misuse the equipment (Sivin & Bialo, 1992). Other research echoes this sentiment on a more youthful level. In April of 2000, Scholastic, Inc. conducted a survey asking 47,235 elementary and middle school students if hacking should be considered a crime. Alarmingly, 48 percent of the surveyed students reported that it was not criminal (Geide, et al, 2000). Additionally, in a study of 729 high school students conducted by Vincent & Meche (2001), 19 percent of the students indicated that they felt that personal use of company e-mail (designated for company use only) was ethical and 49 percent said that they would use it. It appears that schools are providing students with the opportunity to develop and learn the skills to use technology; yet, this same curriculum is failing to teach the students the principles surrounding the acceptable use of technology. It is the lack of instruction on these soft skills in the curriculum that has many experts worried about the propagating culture of young Internet users (Geide, et al, 2000). Society is a dynamic system. It must, by nature, evolve in order to survive. As we develop the new definitions of appropriate behavior in the online environment it is imperative that many members of society be engaged in this ongoing dialogue. An informed community and active discussion of ethical issues will enable society to determine civil and just manners to deal with the nuances of technological advancement (Rezmierski, 1992). By opening this dialogue within the K-12 environment, teachers will be able to prepare students to understand the proper use of technology and explore the issues that will continue to unfold. Unfortunately, many educators are not equipped with the skills to effectively integrate ethics into their classrooms. In order to successfully blend ethical instruction into the K-12 curriculum, educators must develop an understanding of moral development principles, recognize age-appropriate moral dissonance, and learn to advocate for the moral growth of the students' perspectives (Clare, et al, 1996). The remaining portions of this paper provides a general overview of prominent moral development theories. Its purpose is to provide a general understanding of moral development theories as well as the justification for the selection of Kohlbergian theories as the foundational approach to the integration of cyber ethics into the K-12 curriculum.


Lewandowski, J. (2002). Using Moral Development Theory to Teach K-12 Cyber Ethics. In D. Willis, J. Price & N. Davis (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2002--Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 864-866). Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved December 8, 2023 from .