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Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer

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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Dr. Vernon C. Smith, Provost, American Public University System

Teaching ethics is an integral part of higher education, but thinking about ethics—and applying it in a meaningful way—is a life-long endeavor. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Dr. Vernon C. Smith, Provost of American Public University System, about how ethics affect all areas of society. Learn about the role of ethics when making career decisions, the need for ethics to guide technological advancement, and much more.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Vernon Smith, Provost of American Public University System, that includes American Military University and American Public University. And today our conversation is about ethics in higher education. Welcome Vernon.

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: Bjorn, it’s good to be with you. I’m pleased to join you.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. This is an important topic. I love talking about ethics. Ethics is one of those topics that we all live every day, organizations live, governments live ethics. It’s one of those things that unfortunately we see it goes amiss so often in life. And so having a good conversation about ethics and how people can really work through the complex ethical issues out there is important. So the first question is why is it important to teach ethics in higher education?

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: As a sector of society, higher education has become increasingly the go-to place for understanding ethics. If we look at, for example, American society, we see that there has been a departure from many traditional institutions that have been the traditional sources of ethics and morals and other type of teaching around that. Young people these days, especially in Pew research shows this, they are not affiliating with any type of organized religion, which is religion is often one of those institutions in society that conveys ethics or morals that go with that.

Start a Philosophy degree at American Public University.

We’ve become more and more of a litigious type of society. And problem is that, doing what’s legal is not always the thing that’s ethical. And that is one of the big gaps that we have. So why should higher education do that? Why should higher education be involved in this? Because we are, as a sector, one of those places that are still reliable, that still think about ethics, think about the impact that it has. What is good? What is good for society? What is good for the individual? What is the right thing to do?

And in more and more in terms of the science of the knowledge, the understanding, we have to understand and teach in higher education, the sustainability, because no system of ethics, if it is not sustainable, it is not valid. Something that is sustainable, that will last for times. There’s a proverb that will say, what is the impact of this on the seventh generation? Then you know, you’re making an ethical and wise decision.

And so if wisdom is one of the end goals of higher education, certainly ethics and the understanding of what the good life is and how to live the good life are all part of that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Really, really good information. And I like how you said, what is legal is not always ethical. And to think about the downstream effects of by the seventh generation is sustainable through generation to generation. Because so many things that we do, especially the government, there’s so many decisions that they make that are so incredibly short term. And they have a hard time looking downstream, looking say to one or two generations. And so because of that, a follow-up question I have for you is ethics is an ambiguous concept, and why does this make it difficult to teach in college?

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: That’s a great question, Bjorn. My belief in this is that ethics has to be applied for it to be meaningful. And so we can teach concepts, we can have classes, we can have ethics classes. Throughout corporate America, they all have their mandatory compliance, corporate ethics training about what’s there and usually follows along the lines of what’s legal. It requires deeper thinking, and then an applied context of: How do my actions impact these other people or persons? How does it affect the future? How does it connect with this?

I like what you said about the short-term thinking of many institutions. One of the most structured aspects in US and businesses across the world is the quarterly reporting. And how many times are things optimized for quarterly reports or to make profits when they’re not necessarily taking into account other things.

Now, even in accounting systems and financial reporting systems, we’re starting to see other types of measures that move beyond the short-term quarterly or closest election cycle, right? Of what something is to look at that. What is the impact on the environment? What has that impact on autonomy, on freedom? What could this have an impact on other people over time?

And so, again, bringing in a larger framework of sustainability, what is socially just, economically viable are other ways of avoiding the pitfall of sub-optimization or short-term ethical thinking. It’s not wise. You don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish. You don’t want to make short-term decisions that have long-term unintended or poor consequences.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It reminds me of the conversation I had with Dr. Ahmed Naumaan in one of my podcasts. And we were talking about the ethical training of STEM students, which I totally understand when you are an engineer or you’re a scientist, and you’re working on an intensely difficult question or coming up with something new. And it’s hard to look at the downstream effects and the real-world applications, when the reality of the breakthrough or something that you discovered is so incredible that you want to get it out there. However, with those can come some serious, serious negative impacts, not only for individuals, but for groups of people.

So why is the application of ethical teaching difficult? And so like in business or with the environment, or even in your personal decisions. Why are ethical issues sometimes so gray?

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: Well, there’s always a gray in life, right? We always have the gray in life. And part of that test in life, I believe, is to be able to see clearly, understand where your framework is, where your lines are, and where your structure is. And then being true to that. That’s what integrity is. And integrity and ethics are highly correlated.

When you have integrity, you live your values, you live your ethics. There’s a disconnect, certainly when someone moves from the world of education, into the world of work and there’s different incentives and not all companies bring this to the forefront of their consciousness. Now there’s more and more that you’ll see Chief Ethics Officers or that you’ll see others that look usually in sustainability.

Again, ethics has been defined has what’s legal and what will keep you out of the front page, out of the headlines in a negative way. There’s really a challenge there to bring it from the subconscious mind into the conscious forefront of what’s going on.

There have been movements, of course, in business and other places to say, what are the impacts? So for shareholders, what is your carbon footprint? What is your sustainability process? What is your policy around discrimination, around equity, diversity and inclusion as a business, as an organization, as an institution? And how do you support that and how do you sustain that?

I’d like to just go back to the notion of our technology people. Ethics, particularly now, with the advent of the internet and the explosion of digitization, but now even more with the expansion of artificial intelligence, with machine learning and with digital nature of our reality of our economies, technology that has outpaced the ethical constructs that we have as a society.

And so technology, those in STEM in particular, but I think it’s also as humanities have to inform this. We actually need greater informing from the humanities—and in disciplines like philosophy, like ethics, like the other parts of the humanities—that inform the technology side. Because the very design that an engineer is working on can have ethical implications.

Let me give an example, an algorithm that is searching for in an engine or looking at things we’re all inundated and this is every part of our lives, whether you’re on Netflix or Google or Facebook, it doesn’t matter. You know your data is being taken, it’s being mined, it’s being used, but that it’s also being shaped.

[Podcast: The Challenge to Build Unbiased Artificial Intelligence Algorithms]

And there are underlying assumptions, there are underlying biases that are built into these algorithms. And so being careful and cautious of those is something that is, I believe an ethical imperative of the engineers, the designers, the technologists, those scientists that are working with these things.

We need to step back and understand what we’re doing. We don’t want them to be Eichmann that I was just doing my part. I’m referring to a person that was a cog in the wheel, but that cog in the wheel also brought to pass the destruction of many, many lives. Unacceptable.

And we want to make sure that we’re not shaping, destroying, harming others, which is the basis of all ethics. The pace of technology is far ahead of our ethical constructs. And so we have a constant need to stop, slow down, reflect on what are the frameworks that are there? What are the values that we’re supporting and what are the implicit biases that are built into the very technologies that we use?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And thank you for that response. And I’m glad you focused on technology because technology is amazing. And so that leads to the next question is for some students, there’s a conflict between the ethics of the world and the organizations they work for and their own personal morals. How might individuals de-conflict the conflict between morals and ethics and how can they work together?

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: More and more we’re having an organizational imperative, right? What’s good for the organization is good for everyone else, right? And that becomes the guiding idea. It used to be like, what’s good for GM is good for America. We actually have to step back and look at that.

So what we hope that is during the higher education process, that education is not just about learning skills, a trade, or other things like that. It’s also about being able to understand how you fit into society, what you want out of society and what your values are.

And one of those things that we hope is a skillset and that students will take, but even if you’re not a student right now, you’re out in the workforce and you look at this, I really recommend a time to sit back and reflect on the values that are of the company. How do they back that up? Of course, I would say, follow the money. How is it invested, how has it supported?

But look at those values of that company or that government, or that local agency, or whoever you’re working with and say, “How do these fit with my personal values?” And if there’s a gap there, really stop and reflect on that. Is there a gap then maybe that is not the organization that you want to be working with, or maybe it is. And maybe it’s the organization that you would like to take and help raise its awareness and be able to work on this. It may have great potential.

Companies that have a strong ethical construct tend to be more productive. They tend to be more economically successful. Looking at those examples, maybe that’s something that can be brought to others.

I wanted to go back and talk a little bit about coming off of social media, because this is part of social media right here. And this is a very good thing. A podcast is a great thing. There are so many things that enrich and enliven all that we do.

I have also looked at studies and research around this. You talked about “The Social Dilemma.” There are aspects that are absolutely prime to addict individuals to their social media or other things. And two things that I think are really critical and an ethical question, and that is: Time is one of the things that you cannot get back, more than that, time and attention.

And so what’s taking up your time and what’s taking up your attention? And something that robs you of your time or robs you of your attention is something that’s robbing you of life. And if you’re going to be living the good life, can you actually stay up-to-date with everything these days? And I would argue that you cannot. So you have to choose between good, better, and best in your attention of what you’re going to attend to in your time.

While some people I’ve seen turn off social media, they do it. And then they come back, what I recommend, and I’ve seen, and I’ve tried with myself and with my teenagers and others is actually a social media fast. And this is a really interesting way of slowing down and reflecting upon what you’re doing. If this thing is taking part of your time, your attention, and then, thus your life, don’t you want to have control over your life? Don’t you want to have that agency? So take a week, and that would be my challenge for everyone. Just because the data and the studies show us, there’s a high correlation to how much social media use and your own happiness.

It compares things that even intentionally or unintentionally, it denigrates the joy and the goodness, or frankly, the pain that we have in life. Social media doesn’t necessarily show the full picture. It’s always the nice cleaned up and filtered version of things. With that and understanding that, taking a social media fast for about five, seven days, and literally don’t use it and then see how you feel.

So again, the ethical question here around this is life is limited. Time and attention are limited. How much time and attention are you spending? And is it the way you want to spend? So for me, one of the things that I learned was that I wanted to use my time and attention on things that were helping me learn new things or learn in specific areas. And so I’ll have my different podcasts. This is one of them that I will follow and listen. And instead of maybe just like browsing through something else. So again, it’s something that I recommend. There’s a lot of research that shows that that will help you feel better and be a happier person, frankly.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really love that you’re talking about the good life. Because one of the things that higher education doesn’t teach, nor could we of course debate on should it, is how do you live the good life? Because that’s really an individual, it’s something that we all figure out as we age and we grow.

But having a social media fast is I think extremely important because there’s more research coming out now about just how addictive social media is. And so people are just spending so much time and especially the younger generation that are teenagers now or twenties, and they’ve grown up in an age in which there’s always been social media. And so how has their worldview and their brains been shaped by that? And so by cutting it off is an important thing.

And really focusing on things that can help you again, like you said Vernon, live a good life. For example, instead of scrolling, I will pick up a guitar and I’ll practice. And so not only does that help your mind, but it helps your creativity.

And honestly, when you’re scrolling again, going back to the algorithms, the algorithms are not showing you a complete view of the world. And so you always need to be very careful in what you consume and what they’re giving you to consume. Because that is extremely important and where it’s not that these companies like Facebook and Instagram are unethical, but the things they create have no ethics.

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: Well, there’s an ethic, it’s buy. “Buy so I can find out what your profile is. And then I can have a near match or best match to you of people like you. And then I can get that in front of you.” In the end, what do they want? They want the data, they want the data and we provide that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And that’s one thing that people always need to always, always remember is when you use these social media sites for free or apps, they’re not free. You are the product. And so one of the things, of course, over the last year in 2020 was COVID-19. And COVID-19 has disrupted the world and a sizeable impact on higher education in the US. And so how has higher education failed ethically, in relation to COVID?

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: What a great question. Thirteen million students last year, were all of a sudden thrown into a new situation where they couldn’t be on campus to stem the movement of the pandemic. And they moved to emergency remote learning. And so with the faculty, they were not ready.

At American Public University System, my institution, we’re a 100% online. Our courses were designed initially for teaching at a distance, teaching online, the course themselves were designed for that. It wasn’t someone making it up. Faculty [at other institutions] were basically forced into teaching in ways that they were not accustomed to, that they did not have skill sets in, that they were not used to.

There were heroic instances where IT departments and others were able to get courses online, but what was online? Well, it was something that was essentially designed for an in-person experience and then somehow translated. And who bore the brunt of that? Well, it was the faculty, but more than anything, it was the students.

And so questions that students had during this process, is why am I paying the tuition I’m paying for this experience? And the other question that came up, I think, and people were starting to see the impact of this, there was already an issue of de-valuing higher education, which is a terrible thing, frankly, because it is the great equalizer, it is the one thing that will help move and keep free, basically an economically viable society.

Well, with this, the questioning becomes even more, so what am I actually paying for? If we go to a very consumer-type of mindset, right? Because it’s not just what you’re paying for, it’s not a consumable thing, it’s actually a transformation that you go through, however, should I be paying for the rock climbing walls and the water features?

Students tried to adapt, faculty tried to adapt, but in the end, how great was that experience? And was it really what was there? So I believe that many institutions made choices worrying about their institutional sustainability instead of keeping the student first. And in higher education, I think that’s an ethic that should be held, it’s not often held, but is that the students’ interests are the first interests to be considered, always. Do no harm to students. And I think as an institution in higher ed, we’ve done that.

But there’s many things that go along with this, right? There’s more monitoring, there’s more surveillance. Throwing these things up, students have not necessarily had the data privacy and the protections that they needed along the way, nor have faculty. So when I say students, faculty and students are thrown into the same way.

I think it’s been a tipping point in terms of understanding what are these technologies? Wow, there’s a lot of opportunity here. So on the one hand, the faculty see that wow, students really prefer this and they really like the convenience and the connectivity that’s there. On the other hand, it requires work. It requires monitoring and it requires rethinking of how the relationship and how the tool is used. Again, it can be used for good, it can be used for other purposes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: A great response. And like anything ethically, it’s so complicated. And over the last year, COVID has just disrupted pretty much every institution. And I really like how you focused on number one, the student. The student has to be the main priority, their learning has to be the main priority.

And then with the faculty and being an excellent in-person faculty is a completely different skillset than being an excellent online faculty. And my heart really goes out to those faculty who were really just thrown into the deep end. And so many did a great job, but to really have a course and a way of teaching that really impacts students online versus in-person, again, is very different. I think a lot of institutions will really show their worth moving forward by really offering a good balance for those institutions of in-person and online.

And one of the wonderful things about American Public University, American Military University is that we are 100% online. And so we had zero downtime when COVID came. And I think for us, it really helped focus on what I would describe as being compassionate.

As a Program Director, I was compassionate towards my faculty and what they were going through in their lives. And as faculty, we were compassionate for our students and for what they’re going through in their lives, because so many people have lost loved ones over the last year. And so from our perspective, our job is to teach them, to help them learn. But most importantly, allow them to focus on their family and their personal lives and their family lives are well set up then they are able to learn even better.

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: I couldn’t agree more Bjorn. The focus on the humanity, on the needs that are there are really important. Across higher ed, administrators and others have realized, and they saw the rise of mental health and mental wellness issues that are across the board. And that’s natural, right? We’re going through an extremely stressful time. In fact, that’s one of the things I think we do have to keep at the forefront of our consciousness is that there’s chronic stress that is out there.

So you may be working at home, you probably are working at home. And so you may have your children at home that are taking school. So doing virtual school, and you’re worried about the COVID epidemic. We’re worried about our family members that are suffering. I don’t know of anyone that hasn’t had someone with a very close connection that has been affected, either suffering the disease or death.

There’s this ongoing chronic stress and there’s ongoing wellness and other stress that students are feeling because they are students, especially adult and working students are that way, but it’s all students, no matter if you’re a traditional 18 to 25 year old, or you’re dealing with this piled on type of stress.

I saw it recently, there was a series of storms that went across the United States and it disrupted transportation and supply chains. Think of all the stresses that have gone over this time in just getting simple things. We can look from grocery shelves to many other aspects. Right now, one of those logistical things that we’re dealing with as a society is how are we going to distribute vaccines? How are we going to do that ethically? How are we going to do that, so that those that, maybe didn’t have the best care in the first place and are able to receive the vaccines? There’s just so many issues around this. And part of it is opening our eyes and asking the questions: Is this really how it should be happening? How can we take care of people first during that process?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I absolutely love that. How can we take care of people first? And it goes back to what you said at the beginning of the podcast is to live a good life. And so many conversations about ethics are kind of about what we should or shouldn’t do. But all of that is all about helping people live a good life and a happy life, and hopefully a fulfilled life, which of course is a different podcast.

But all of this, education should always be transformational. Now education for some is transactional. You go, you take some courses, you get a degree that helps you move forward in your life. And that’s fine. There are some people who view education as transactional.

But even for those who really only view it as transactional, it’s still transformational because one of the things people don’t quite realize, again, are the downstream effects of education. As you were being open to different ideas, you are being open to history and to business, different ideas of criminal justice and to science. And you just never know how that will come back into your life.

And so that leads me to the last question, as APU and AMU have been uniquely positioned to provide the best possible online education for students throughout COVID. How does this type of education help students succeed and has online education finally been accepted by most people because of the pandemic?

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: Again, a wonderful question, Bjorn, to look at this. I think that all of higher education has had to step back and question it’s questioning of the quality of online learning. I think there’s been frankly, an awareness building that there is an art and science, and really great learning is really great learning. And whether that’s occurring in the classroom, whether that’s occurring in a hybrid environment, or whether that’s occurring online, quality teaching and learning is quality teaching and learning.

And the outcomes are the proof in the pudding, right? For over 40 years, there is a body of evidence it’s called the “No Significant Difference” body of literature. And you can look it up WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. You can go to the WICHE site or the WCET site and look at that data. But it showed that if we compare and do real apples-to-apples comparisons, that the outcomes of the learning is not only the same, no significant difference or a little bit better.

It’s one thing to know that intellectually, it’s another thing to experience that. And so to answer your question: Has this been a turning point? I think so. I think no institution can easily dismiss the efficacy, not only the efficacy, but the importance and the democratization that online learning and the access that it brings to our communities. And I think that’s very important.

So at the beginning of this pandemic and now where we are right now: Which institution looks more like the other? I’ll ask this question. Does Harvard look more like American Public University System, or does American Public University System look more like Harvard after this, during this time? And I would submit that the de facto is just absolutely prima facie right there that Harvard looks more like, and is acting more like, American Public University System.

We shouldn’t be questioning the quality, what we should question are the biases that have been placed against online institutions.

There’s another bias, I think that’s also needs to be addressed, that’s in the thinking. And that is sometimes online, it’s been conflated with for-profit or proprietary institutions. And because, in some frameworks believe that that’s somehow inferior, I think that has to be questioned as well. That the tax-paying status of the institution, you can’t conflate that with online because traditional institutions are doing online or at least what they’re trying to do online, emergency remote learning, but they’re getting there.

I hope that in the future, that the acceptance and the reality that when it’s looked at fairly and in a fair light, that online learning is just a different modality of learning. Can be high-quality in-person learning, there’s low-quality in-person learning. There could be high-quality online learning and low-quality online learning. And so we have to be more nuanced and more thoughtful as we approach it. But we shouldn’t dismiss it and bias against it, depending on what type of institution it is, whether it’s public, not public, for profit, not-for-profit, we should step back and look at what are the outcomes and check our biases.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that because the number one thing we’re supposed to learn through education is to be aware and especially to be aware of our biases, we all have biases. It’s how we act or do not act on those biases. And in education, there’s always been a bias for the Ivy League. The Ivy League is not the rest of the world. It is a small percentage, I think it’s about 5% at the most, of all students go to those. And it also draws from very specific demographics.

And so online is the democratization of education. And so it really gives everybody a chance to really be exposed and to learn and to transform. And then also just from a cultural and societal point of view is to listen to all the diverse voices out there. Because if you only listen to the voices that come from the Ivy League, again, you’re drawing from kind of the same population over and over.

And we kind of see that in the media where all the experts are always this professor from Princeton, this professor from Dartmouth. That’s great, but why don’t they interview this professor from American Public University? And I think because of COVID things are slowly changing, but at the same time, humans are always the same where it won’t completely change. But I think one of the great things that we’re doing here at American Public University and American Military University is we are working hard to really change lives and for them to go out there and just work for the good life.

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: Absolutely, absolutely. I thought of another aspect that is going to be a result of this movement in higher education. That’s going to be, there’s going to be a backlash. There’ll be faculty who say, “I never want to do that again.” And there’ll be others to say, “Well, that was a terrible.”

Some students say, “I will never do online.” Because they will equate online learning with emergency remote learning, where their professors took their yellow notes and maybe slapped into the PowerPoint and put it up in a learning management system. And they will have a bias or they’ve had a poor experience. They’ve had an absolutely terrible experience in some ways, and there will be a backlash, I think for the future.

The one thing that I think will mitigate against that is that the convenience, the flexibility, and the accessibility of this will make a difference for students, what their expectation is. I think of some colleagues that I have that are in California, that were teaching from the Sierras, up in the mountains, and be able to teach their class. They really liked it, right? Colleagues that were teaching from the Appalachian mountains in West Virginia, being able to teach their classes. That’s nice. Students that didn’t have to travel an hour in terrible traffic both ways and get two hours back of their lives.

I think these are things that will help mitigate the backlash that will occur. And I think it also has opened up the possibilities, the possibilities of what is possible and that it doesn’t have to be one way or the other. There’s a lot of in-between ground where learning can occur and effective learning can occur.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Again, that’s one of the things that for us in online education, we’ve been saying for decades. More importantly, that the general population that maybe didn’t have experience with online learning is realizing. And the backlash will be interesting to watch. Just on a side note because of COVID, I’ve observed some kindergartners, who’ve had to go to school online and they’ve been miserable. And my heart goes out to any six year old who has to go to school online.

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: I’ve got a freshman and a junior in high school. This has been a miserable experience for them and all the kids that have been going through this. And no matter what your age is, the kids from kindergarten up through all of higher ed, it’s been a hard experience to do.

One of the things I hope that students do realize that they have choice. That they can look and say, “Am I going to spend this much tuition at this institution and I’m not going to have all these things? Or can I get the exact same thing for a much more economical package? And it transfers the same. It gives me the same credit. It moves me ahead. If I’m going to be online, that might be something that I’m going to consider going forward.” With ethics, we often talk about agency and that’s one of the things I hope students and parents know for the future that there is agency.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I completely agree about agency. There’s so many different ways in which we all need to work hard to have agency over our lives, so external forces aren’t controlling us. And that’s not to sound foreboding or whatnot, but there are many forces in this world that are always vying for attention. And so by focusing on what will lead us towards the good life with our friends and our family, and education, what we do, that’s all part of it. And so we’re at the end. Thank you for a really wonderful and great podcast. Any final words?

Dr. Vernon C. Smith: I think that there’s final words is you think about the ethics of your life. You think about the ethics of the organization that you work for. The most important thing to do is to think about it. To reflect and ask, “Are the ethics of this organization, are the ethics of what I’m doing, are they living up to my values? Are they in accordance with my values?”

Being able to look at that and reflect upon that will teach something, but also it will help you as an individual, and help organizations realize where they need to be and where they want to go. And that just gives choice. And so that’s, that’s a wonderful thing. But reflecting on where you are, where you want to be, how much time do you spend, how much attention do you spend, and is that the life that you want to be living for all of us to live the good life?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree and we’ll end on always working for the good life. And today we’re speaking with Dr. Vernon Smith about ethics in higher education. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and I thank you for listening.