Tech Leadership

An Ethical Paradigm for Weighing Emerging Technologies


The rapid development of new technologies and their potential for influencing student learning can create a sense of urgency for education leaders to adopt them.


Rapid adoption of these new tools can result in situations where school leaders are open to criticism for being premature adopters of something unproven. Confusion, criticism and conflict result when relatively untested emerging technologies are viewed as unsafe by some.

McDonaldAlexander (Sandy) McDonald

Because technology for the schoolhouse is developing at a breakneck pace, the dilemma of whether to invest in emerging software and hardware or sit on the sideline is likely to arise again and again.

Supporting Consistency
Districts have faced criticism over the adoption of Wi-Fi networks and the related use of mobile devices in classrooms that take advantage of wireless Internet. These tools can make a significant difference in developing students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. At the same time, though, health concerns arise periodically about the exposure of children to wireless radiation in their schools.

How can school district leaders confidently make decisions regarding school use of emerging technologies without becoming frozen in place by the desire to wait and see?

When concerns about student safety are raised, says attorney Edwin Darden, writing in the October 2008 issue of American School Board Journal, it is important for school districts to be consistent in how they assess liability as they make decisions about the use of new technology.

One way to support consistency is to apply an ethical decision-making framework when considering the adoption of new or innovative tools. Addressing contentious issues through an ethical lens serves as a systematic way of identifying multiple perspectives and thoroughly assessing the relevant aspects of an issue.

Applying Ethics
The Multiple Ethical Paradigm model, described in Ethical Educational Leadership in Turbulent Times: (Re)Solving Moral Dilemmas by Joan Poliner Shapiro and Steven Jay Gross, offers a process for assessing the impact of adopting new and innovative technologies in schools. Considering the ethics of justice, critique, care and profession before making a decision can address potential liability. The model can be applied in various situations, leading to consistency in decision making.

Reflecting on the ethics of justice requires decision makers to assess the likely effects of a potential technology with respect to human rights, laws and policies. When considering the adoption of Wi-Fi networks, school districts have researched the legal limits for exposure to electromagnetic fields and tested their own systems to confirm compliance. Exploring the legal foundation of an issue also will support the development of practical district policies, such as those relating to the use of wireless Internet networks.

Applying the ethics of critique when making decisions about technology requires education leaders to look at the impact of the proposed technology on different stakeholder groups.

Addressing the ethics of care helps ensure the district maintains solid relationships within the district. Assessing a technology decision from the perspective of whether it will affect the level of trust in the district can help district leaders understand the impact on all stakeholder groups. Practically speaking, applying the ethics of care and identifying the messages needed to maintain relationships when making decisions will support effective district communication practices, as well.

Evidence of Care
Finally, considering the ethics of the profession will help school district leaders focus on the impact of a decision on the students themselves. Acting in the best interests of students is at the heart of all education decision making. Differing opinions can exist, of course, among stakeholders regarding what is best for students.

Considering the ethics of the profession requires the application of existing community standards and standards promoted by relevant educational organizations to identify the best interests of the students and address differences in core beliefs.

Emerging technologies can be overwhelming with potential, but if adoption is not considered carefully, districts leave the door open for criticism, complaints and ineffective adoption of the technology. Using the ethics of justice, critique, care and the profession will help leaders consider all relevant perspectives and provide a structure for making decisions.

In the Grande Prairie Public School District in Alberta, Canada, five guiding principles inform every decision. All decisions must be good for students, build trust, lead to improvement, be responsible and be open, honest and ethical. When considering the issue of Wi-Fi safety recently, the Multiple Ethical Paradigm model was applied. It aligned well with the district’s guiding principles and built confidence in the ultimate decision to support the use of wireless networks.

Sandy McDonald is director of educational technology in the Grande Prairie Public School District in Grande Prairie, Alberta. E-mail: He blogs at