The Challenge of Ethics Discussions

The 1958 Code of Ethics for U.S. Government Service

Code of Ethics for Government Service by GovdocsGwen on Flickr, used under public domain. Click on the image to see transcript.

For the third week of Technical Writing, our template focuses on ethical considerations, asking students to respond to two online discussions. One of the discussions asks students to find the code of ethics for their field and then discuss what they find with one other person in the online course. The other presents an ethical dilemma, a case study taken from Technical Communication Today, Fifth Edition, by Richard Johnson-Sheehan. Like the first, students are to respond to the dilemma and then another person in the class.

I wanted the online discussions to have a bit more purpose and to connect more directly to what’s going on in the course. The structure of the two discussions challenges my beliefs about teaching the most. It’s the problem I always see with the “you + 1 (or 2)” requirement for course discussions. Students are to post their ideas about the discussion topic and then are asked to respond to one or two other students. The trouble springs from the fact that they don’t have any reason to reply. It’s no wonder we get those “This is a great idea. I really agree with you” responses.

To address this challenge, I rewrote the two discussion prompts to build in more reason for the replies. For the first, students still locate and respond to the code of ethics for their fields. I have arranged students in the small groups that they will use for the entire term, working on collaborative writing for their project management unit. The group discussion gives them a chance to get used to working together before they begin writing the major projects together. For their responses to one another, I asked them to create an interdisciplinary code of ethics that their groups would follow as they worked on the collaborative projects. The task still requires them to discuss with one another but adds the purpose of negotiating ethical principles and creating a statement they will repurpose later in their teamwork agreements. The task is published as Try-It #5: Your Discipline’s Code of Ethics.

The second ethics discussion required more work. The original post asked students to respond to a fictional scenario related to radioactive waste a a potential building site. The scenario had nothing to do with the other assignments in the course. My theme focuses on analyzing usability and design of online sites in order to improve them; thus, students are applying all the writing strategies related to audience, usability, and design with every project. I kept the basic strategies of presenting an ethical dilemma that students were to respond to, but changed the scenario to focus on a workplace situation that arises as a group writes a collaborative document. The shift asks students to consider typical project management issues: a missing team member, strict project deadlines, and the impact of the writing project (and its accuracy) upon the intended audience. In this discussion, students interact by indicating how they would proceed if they were faced with the scenario and then propose how the fictional team could avoid similar challenges in the future. To give the activity relevance to the course, the instructions explain that the group will address similar issues when they create their teamwork agreement later in the term.
This second task is published as Try-It #6: The Ethical Dilemma of the Absent Team Member.