I will keep the story brief to avoid offending too many people. But I remember the situation vividly. As a trainee accountant, I was attending an internal training course and I questioned whether a certain course of action being discussed was really ethical. It wasn’t anything terrible, but genuinely I felt there was an issue to consider. The instructor (who happened to be a partner in the firm) simply stared at me. This had obviously never occurred to him. For the rest of the course this was a bit of a standing joke. Later on, the same partner was telling a story of some slightly aggressive commercial practice. He then looked at me and said, with heavy sarcasm, “Sorry, that wouldn’t be ethical, would it?”
I was shocked because, as a slightly naïve twenty-something, I had actually bought into the idea that the professional ethics talked about by chartered accountants actually meant something. It seemed I was in quite a small minority.
Of course, the conversation might have been different if it had taken place post-Enron. The corruption at Enron and Arthur Andersen, resulting in the abrupt collapse of both, is rightly seared on the collective memory of accountants. The events provided a brutal and very necessary demonstration to the profession of why ethics matter. Professionals, by definition, occupy a position of trust. Those who deal with them must believe that they are acting honestly and fairly. That is one of the reasons why professionals tend to command higher pay than non-professionals. But if there are no ethics, the trust will disappear. So will the professionalism, the pay, and sometimes the organisation. The temptation is always there to cut corners, make a fast buck, and we need something terrible to scare people away from this. Andersen’s fate was that terrible thing, but I am sure we will need another one before long.
I should add that my experience with that employer was not unusual. Bizarrely enough, the only place I have ever worked where anyone discussed ethics with a straight face was an investment bank. But that’s another (long) story and may belong to another post…
Nowadays I teach professional ethics, among other things, and as you may gather I get quite passionate about them. I am quite proud that my Institute sets out its professional principles very clearly – integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality, professional behaviour. These seem to cover the key points. Not all chartered accountants measure up to these standards, but the aspiration is clear, and there is a disciplinary process to deal with members who break the rules in a particularly obvious or flagrant way.
So I am a bit of an outsider when it comes to the stated ethics and values of Learning Technologists and higher education generally, and have been slightly surprised by, as I see it, the sheer lack of ambition I have found. CMALT, the closest thing to a professional qualification in learning technology, seems to carry very few ethical obligations beyond phrases such as “understanding and engaging with legislation, policies and standards” or “A commitment to communicate and disseminate effective practice.” Unless I have missed it, there is no disciplinary body or procedure to deal with lapses.
CMALT has an affiliation to the Higher Education Academy, who do spell out a clear statement of professional values, summarising these as:
V1 Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
V2 Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
V3 Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development
V4 Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice
These seem worthy enough, but a little vague and not particularly demanding. There is no explicit recognition of respect for colleagues, for example, or using knowledge for the benefit of others. And, being slightly mischievous about it, isn’t a commitment to “promote participation in higher education” just a little self-serving? Maybe higher education isn’t right for some people. Might there be an ethical obligation to discourage someone from entering higher education under certain circumstances, however unusual?
The principle that most appeals to me is the use of evidence-informed approaches. This represents the best values of academics, which all of us could learn from. We all need to be willing to engage with evidence, even when it contradicts previously-held beliefs, or our own interests. An example of this is the debate ongoing over whether learning technology is really a good thing anyway, or is it an expensive distraction, as was powerfully argued in an article from the ETD website I came across recently. For those, like me, who believe in the power of educational technology to be a force for good, such articles are challenging. They should not be ignored but considered and responded to, which I hope to do in a future blog post.
Enough analysis. Our OU assignment is to produce a statement of our “professional values”, which seems to be a way of sorting out what is really important to us in our working life. For me, the most important professional value is honesty, which sits behind all the others, and which leads to trust. Being honest with others – colleagues, clients, students – means telling them the truth, even when it is uncomfortable. Clearly, this needs to be tempered with tact and with obligations of confidentiality. But, as one of my favourite journalists Lucy Kellaway observed in her latest column, we tend to suffer from too little honesty rather than too much. And being really honest with yourself is tougher still – most of us, in truth, know right from wrong if we will make ourselves face up to it. Honesty of this sort is not a standard I would ever claim to have met. But I think it is a worthy aspiration