Ethics in the Classroom

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In this Internet age when kids and adults alike share anything from music to software very easily if not legally, I believe that one function of good instructors is to model ethical behavior for their students. I also believe that it is very important that instructors be overt in pointing out what is legal and what is not. Consider the following two scenarios:



  • Jeff is teaching a Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional and Server class for a local community college. He freely checks out full-version, non-expiring copies of Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional and Microsoft Windows 2000 Server to his students to take home with them to set up their own personal networks so that they can have more hands-on lab time.
  • Samantha is teaching the same class for a commercial training organization. She is doing the same things with respect to checking out software so the students can set up their home networks.


What do you say about Jeff and Samantha’s actions? Initially it might seem that both are wrong to be sharing software, since once the student gets it, it could be considered to be pirated. But the difference is that the licensing that Jeff’s department has with the MSDNAA (Microsoft Developer Network Academic Alliance) program actually allows him to share software with his students legally. Samantha does not have such a license, so what she is doing clearly violates copyright laws. If she is caught, she and her students could face steep fines. If she does not get caught, at minimum she is modeling to her students that it is acceptable to pirate software.

So since Jeff is legal in providing software to his students, should he just share it and say nothing? No, he needs to make sure each time the software is checked out that the student understands that he or she is getting the software as a result of a special license agreement with Microsoft. Otherwise, Jeff could be modeling the same illegal behavior Samantha displayed.

What about courseware? Many authorized textbooks come bound in such a way that photocopying is not that difficult. But is it legal? Usually it is not. I have known several commercial training organizations that were closed (and fined) once it became known that they were copying authorized materials and handing them out to their students without paying the vendor. I think it is a good idea for instructors to point out to their students how they can tell that their courseware is legal so that students will not unknowingly register for a cheaper class with purloined materials.

On another level, Tom is teaching a high-level, advanced authorized class for other trainers on a popular networking product. He has 10 women and two men in his class. Throughout the day, he readily answers questions from the women, and he keeps telling the men “I’ll be there in a minute.” Both men patiently wait throughout the day only to get to the end of the day with very few of their questions answered. Those questions that were answered were answered in a condescending manner, with Tom implying that the men did not really belong in the class. This is not a scene from the 1960s, nor is it a fabricated story—other than the fact that the 10 women were really 10 men, and the two men were really two women. I, with heavy networking training experience, was one of the two women treated in this manner. I had not experienced such discrimination since the 1970s, so it was a real eye-opener.

Was this illegal? Certainly not. Was it ethical? Definitely not! We as instructors owe our students professional and courteous treatment regardless of their background or other characteristics.

The end of this story is that I wrote a letter to the instructor who displayed preferential treatment to the men in the class. He said that he was not consciously aware of having treated any student different from any of the other students. He did thank me for the note and promised to improve his teaching style. I have followed up with his students, and he actually has improved.

More and more colleges and universities are adding an Ethics course to their curriculum. This is an especially important addition since these same colleges and universities are often providing courses in security that teach students how to hack so that they can prevent hacking. It is also very important since the lines of right and wrong are seriously blurred in our “ready access, I-want-it-now-for-nothing” Internet society. Commercial training organizations likely cannot sell such Ethics training, so they have a moral and ethical responsibility to include ethical behavior in the courses they teach.

Ann Beheler is executive director/dean of Collin County Community College’s Engineering Technology Division, which houses one of the nine Cisco CCNP academic instructor training centers in the world. E-mail Ann at


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