The final assignment for the course, “Metaliteracy: Empowering yourself in a connected world”, is to create a digital artifact of some kind — a story, video, podcast, etc. — tied to the theme of metaliteracy, metacognition, and the topics of the previous 3 weeks. The goal is to help teach some aspect of it to someone else. For me, one of the most interesting areas of metaliteracy falls into the area of ethics. And I think I have something unique to say.
Metaliteracy and Ethics
It’s quite interesting that so many people talk about the “ethical use of information” on the internet and in journals, on talk shows and in lecture halls. Yet none of them seem to stop to ask themselves what they mean by ethics? In most cases, the explanation is quite simply “do no harm” or “don’t do bad things with the info”. It is akin to Google’s slogan, “Don’t be evil”. Except that isn’t really about ethics so much as simple right and wrong. Following the law, or just not doing something wrong, is not really an ethical dilemma.
Ethics is much better understood where two principles that are both positive come into conflict. For example, as a physician during Covid-19, you want to protect the health of other patients and citizens but you also want to protect the privacy of an individual. While it might be efficient to just publish the names of someone who was sick, and let anyone else know, the point is not “who” they were exposed to but that they were exposed by being in contact with someone. As such, much of the tracing behaviour for people doesn’t reveal who was sick, just that “someone” they came into contact with was sick. The ethical “solution” is to protect the privacy of the individual who was sick while still ensuring that the people they came into contact with are still notified. It’s the only ethical solution that satisfies both principles — privacy and protection.
Yet when it comes to the area of metaliteracy and our roles within the field, it is where those roles are in conflict that ethics is needed to help resolve them. If we look at the materials provided in the course, we can see nine defined roles for a metaliterate learner (in the outer ring):
Many people assume, and the course reinforces this assumption, that most of those roles are played at the same time and that they are, for the most part, complementary. But are they completely complementary and if so, also at all times?
I’ll give an example from my undergraduate work at Trent University back in 1988-89. As part of a course on organizational theory, we were divided into some fairly large groups, and ours had about 20-25 people in it. Our project was to look at control structures, both informal and formal, in 2-3 companies and to use them as case studies to present to the rest of the class as “contrast and compare” examples. This put us all in a collaborative role, also all doing research, participating as well, and ultimately as author/publisher. It seems straight-forward, but we quickly found ourselves with an ethical dilemma in those roles and how we used information.
It may be a bit of a cliché to note that many of these group projects in business studies that work on topics such as control structures frequently become somewhat “meta-projects” themselves. The dynamics in our own group of 20+ business students, many with desires to “lead” or with Type-A personalities, as we tried to come to some form of working consensus on the way forward, how to assign work, who would nominally “lead” when we were all capable of doing so ourselves, turned into an interesting microcosm of the subject matter we were studying.
Five of us had a brainstorm. Wouldn’t it be cool if we created a shadow-report talking about our own experiences within the group? A sort of case-study of the case-study process, or a pseudo-Lord of the (Business) Flies analysis of how we instituted our own control mechanisms. Several of the students were heavily in favour of doing the study. For them, they felt we could resolve any potential ethical issues by removing names from the final report. For two of us, we felt an ethical tug-of-war that we couldn’t name or resolve, and we eventually killed the idea.
Now that I’ve taken the course, the definitions are clearer. It was clear that we were going to be both participant and author in our own research while working on two projects simultaneously — the larger actual project and the smaller meta-project. Yet to be a collaborator in the larger project required us to be collaborators, with key outcomes depending on our ability to form bonds together and to trust each other with what we learned. To share information openly, candidly, honestly with each other as we worked towards a larger project. Yet at the same time, we would be taking notes and hoarding information about the behaviour of our other collaborators in the team, evaluating them, breaking every aspect of that project trust.
At the time, we just felt that it was somehow underhanded and that we could be destroying any trust with our classmates for the coming 2 years of the business program. But if you use the metaliteracy wheel above, focusing on the types of information and the roles being played, the conflict is clearer. And so is an ethical solution that should have presented itself at the time, but didn’t.
The ethical “solution” that would have allowed both projects to continue at the same time and honoured the multiple roles while eliminating the conflicts should have been simple. We could have simply told them up front that we were doing it. We could take our notes, prepare something for the whole group to see and comment upon, and collectively decided whether or not it would be shared with the larger class. An ethical solution to do the same thing we wanted to do in the first place, made possible by simply identifying the clear roles being played, sometimes in overlap. That solution would have been the ethical use of our information, not simply “do no harm”.
There are, however, numerous other potential conflicts in the above model that could be analysed further. The collaborator who wants to share but also wants to publish individually (shared data, multiple artifacts); a translator who must respect the intent of an original creator’s work but who also plays a role as a teacher who transforms that work into more teachable, digestible forms; an author who has a desire to communicate their creations to others, and who has an existing publishing platform (perhaps a blog) that is easy for them to use, yet the ideal scenario for some of the creations may be more of a public domain wiki for multiple people to collaborate in openly.
And that’s it for the four-week course. There appears to be a sequel course, so I may look into that one too. I like auditing these MOOCs.