Published on 2013/07/10

Exploring the Ethics of Online Education

Exploring the Ethics of Online Education
Given the challenges online students have in gaining necessary skills to succeed in the labor market and the difficulty students face in communicating with their instructors in the online setting, online higher education faces significant moral barriers in its wider implementation.

Common knowledge tells us elements associated with career success include a strong work ethic, effective completion of career responsibilities and the ability to interact well with diverse groups of people. So is it possible for a student entering the workforce to genuinely discover these key elements associated with success through an online education? Unfortunately, online education can restrain students from gaining the personal and soft skills needed for a successful career.

There are now countless universities that offer complete online degrees. Students can earn almost anything online, from a criminal justice associate’s degree to a PhD in counseling. The problem with earning online degrees — especially the ones that “prepare” students to work in the public service sector — is these types of degrees make for a difficult transition when it comes time to apply and translate what they have learned in their online courses to the real-world demands of their careers.

The limitations students encounter from an online education create an unethical situation, where universities provide their students with unrealistic expectations and do not provide them with the skills to reach those goals. This is a situation that needs to be understood and assessed by educational leaders everywhere.

Online classes typically assign discussion questions to be delivered in written format. These written tasks limit the opportunities students have to verbally clarify or argue ideas in a natural, confident and professional manner. Universities that offer online degrees should consider how the e-classroom fails to encourage students to develop good public speaking skills. Due to the lack of requirements in this area, online courses place little emphasis on negative consequences students may encounter in their future profession as result of inadequate experience in online classrooms with public speaking. Universities should therefore evaluate how they implement online courses or degrees in order to achieve a curriculum that requires students to equally complete verbal and written assignments. Video recordings, instructional television classes and hybrid courses are just a few suggestions universities can use to create interactive and dynamic online classroom settings. This low demand for oral communication is a noticeable example of how online courses are unethical.

In the human services and counseling fields, professionals must understand how to “read” people’s body language and emotional wellbeing. Learning how to interpret face and body reactions can potentially lead these professionals to save many lives. Therefore, these professionals ultimately need to be capable of identifying in person whether or not clients understand or value the advice they are receiving. Students educated online cannot genuinely succeed in applying theories of counseling or public services when all they know how to do is respond to work demands through written, impersonal assignments.

Along with the argument it is unethical for universities to strictly limit certain classes and degrees to an online education, the question of morality is also raised. The online teaching environment can be used by professors with immoral standards or beliefs as a way to discreetly impose their own principles onto students. Though this can certainly occur in any classroom setting, the likelihood of professors introducing immoral principles increases in the online classroom. This situation is referred to as single-source reporting, in which virtual students typically “receive information from one source, the professor or the media content, and usually have limited opportunities to exchange ideas and information with other students”. [1] For example, an instructor may have a particular political, social or conceptual agenda which he or she applies to the online course readings, assignments and discussions. In such a course, there may be students who disagree with the professor or who would like clarification as to why the assignments in question were given. In a traditional classroom, these concerns would be dealt with immediately. Online, however, the student is forced to wait for the professor’s written response the next time he or she decides to log on which — from my personal experience — could be weeks at a time. These written responses can then also negatively affect the professor-student relationship, since written responses can be perceived uniquely by the individual reading them.

All in all, universities and professors should truly evaluate the benefits and consequences of online learning. Students do become limited in their ability to perform as well-balanced professionals since they are not adequately equipped to apply what their online classes have taught them. Students ultimately need personal learning interactions throughout their college experience and having these will ensure them a thriving future career.

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[1] Elearning Companion, “The Disadvantages of Online Learning,” 2011, available at

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Readers Comments

Linda McAdams 2013/07/10 at 10:22 am

I appreciate the point the author is trying to get at. Moving forward, institutions certainly have to assess what they’re gaining and losing when they adopt online education, and whether the cost is worth the gain.

However, this article overlooked the potential of online education, particularly to reach new audiences who previously did not have access to higher education. Once we address some fundamental questions and work out the issues, online education will be a very positive thing.

James Branden 2013/07/10 at 4:25 pm

I disagree that students taking online courses have limited opportunities to contest ideas taught by their instructors. When students are online anyway to access course content, they can easily open up a second browser to verify anything their instructor presents. The Internet has created the situation where more, not less, accountability is expected.

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