Engineering Ethics for an Integrated Online Teaching: What is Missing?

Montse Serra, Josep M. Basart and Eugènia Santamaria


Engineering graduates are —and will be— facing increasingly complex ethical and social issues in their work. Certainly, laws, professional regulations and codes of ethics can help when addressing this strong challenge, but the utility of these policies and resources depends on whether these future professionals understand where and how to take them into account. Accordingly, a well-founded education in professional ethics is required for future engineers. Nevertheless, in spite of the expectations and demands of an ever-changing society, the incorporation of courses on ethics into engineering curricula is often a concession instead of a common academic requirement.

Thus, from any concerned educational approach is necessary a claim for ethics to show how to develop engineers’ work in an ethically and socially responsible way, because it is apparent that ethical issues are inherent to their profession (Huff and Frey, 2005).

Designing an effective ethics introduction into the academic curriculum is more difficult than teachers are able to imagine and admit, particularly where undergraduate students are considered. From our point of view, several constraints and resistances are present that deserve a special attention:

  • As our society becomes more and more dependent on technology, the role of the engineer’s figure is accentuated and his/her responsibilities (Pritchard, 1998) amplified. So engineering instructors find it difficult to know how to weave applied ethics into a curriculum already full of technical subjects which are (all) considered intrinsic to a course.
  • Spreading ethics across the curriculum asks for the contribution of both experts versed in different relevant areas of the technical or engineering sciences and experts from the humanities and social fields, in order to achieve the expected goals. This collaboration is not always welcomed by either of them and is never straightforward.
  • The existence of some doubts and objections inside the teaching staff about whether ethics can be taught at all. Even less to grown-up people who are supposed to know the difference between right and wrong.
  • Under the influence of both, their social environment and the one they find in technical schools themselves, engineering students often think that ethical contents are not really relevant to their own field of study (Fleischmann, 2006).
  • Finally, the frequent clash between students’ scepticism towards learning ethics and teachers’ conviction of its advisability, asks for a constant weighing up and adaptation of, which contents to teach, which methodology to apply, which educational and technological resources to use, and which teaching staff.

To carry out a discipline such as engineering ethics within an online environment drags other constraints that are endemic to this context, and these special characteristics must be considered when developing any learning process. Teaching within an online environment (Rodríguez, Serra, Cabot and Guitart, 2006) is a social process which requires a specific setting, involving technological platforms and methodological tools, in order to facilitate online interaction such as the discussing of ideas and practising behaviours, the developing of attitudes and skills for, finally, promoting an experiential and active learning (Sieber, 2005). In the case of engineering ethics these goals provide a challenge to educators to focus on real-world problems and practical solutions, when these requirements are not easy to meet within an online learning context (Demiray and Sharma, 2009).

Within this framework what is needed, therefore, is an examination of the teaching methodology and its performance in practice when ethical subjects are considered. Our proposal here is to show how learning tools as dialogue (Serra and Basart, 2010), moral reasoning and judgemental language work and how they are reshaped in this new environment. It involves analysing the essentials requirements of these communication tools (i.e., genuine listening, attention in a virtual context, non-conditioned thinking, and open mind). Additionally, solving moral conflicts requires appropriates strategies, so, a heuristic analysis will be under consideration taking into account the above mentioned learning tools. Finally, as an integrator element, we show how the interaction is developed along the learning process, inside a social net, by means of the previous tools.

It is important to emphasize that, thanks to these communication tools, the network communities created within an online context, learn within a group, constructing the knowledge collectively, and contributing the tacit knowledge (Bohm, 1996) of the community where their members participate.


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