The Potential Ethical Challenges of the iPad

A guest post by Rebecca Vidra, Lecturer, Nicholas School of the Environment.  In Spring 2011, Vidra worked in collaboration with Denise Comer, Thompson Writing Program, and Kenneth Rogerson, Lecturer in Public Policy and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Sanford School of Public Policy on the eReading Pilot Project.  You can also read a post from Denise Comer and another by Kenneth Rogerson on the project.

During the Spring 2011 semester, the students in my Ethical Challenges in Environmental Conservation (ENVIRON 105S) course participated in a research project led by Dr. Denise Comer in the Thompson Writing Program. CIT loaned iPads to my students and me so that we could explore ways of using this new technology in our work within and outside of the classroom.

Initially, I was enthusiastic about this new, snazzy technology. For this upper-level writing  course, I had visions of students composing essays while sitting under an oak in Duke Forest, blogging about the latest environmental news from the Marketplace, and finding new cool apps that help us to live green!

But I quickly realized that the iPad presented us with a whole new set of ethical challenges.

Is it necessary?

One of the key themes of this class is that we bear a moral obligation to act in the interest of our planet. While our responsibilities may range from pressing for a carbon tax to taking public transportation, we quickly learn that our current lifestyle is unsustainable on a larger or longer scale.

Given our increasing reliance on electronic devices, it became clear that while the iPad was useful and fun, it is not strictly necessary.  The iPad did make some of our work more convenient. We were able to easily record and transcribe interviews using apps like Evernote, Soundnote, and Dragon. I asked students to reflect on our readings and discussions through in-class journaling and they were able to immediately send me their entries via email.

But, all of these activities could have been done on the students’ existing laptops with no extra apps to purchase or software to learn. For this particular course, the iPad likely didn’t add measurable value to the learning environment. It did provide a teachable moment: we all buy items that we don’t need in an effort to improve our life or impress our friends. If are mindful about the necessity of such items, we may be able to slow, if not alter, our own consumer behavior.

What is the environmental cost?

Apple has put out a very nice fact sheet on the environmental cost of the iPad, showcasing the recyclability of some components and lack of potent toxic materials like mercury. In 2010, the NY Times produced a summary of a life-cycle analysis of e-readers and more recently, Grist Magazine investigated the carbon emissions from the production of the iPhone. While neither of these analyses are iPad-specific, the iPad clearly does not come with no environmental cost. Producing this kind of sleek device uses resources that need to be mined and significant amounts of energy to produce, ship and run.  Not to mention that there are significant hazards and environmental justice issues associated with the eventual disposal of this “e-waste”.

As the course instructor, guilt crept in as I realized that the 14 shiny devices in front of me came with a mostly measurable and far-reaching environmental impact.  If I’m going to be mindful of my own carbon footprint, then I also need to consider how my actions influence the footprints of my students.  A good lesson to learn from an environmental ethics class, for sure.

Is this Nature?

Throughout this course, we ask ourselves what counts as nature. Is the small woodlot behind Duke Chapel “wilderness”? Should we restore nature even if our methods are imperfect and may actually cause more damage? As the instructor, I ask and even beg my students to GO OUTSIDE and notice the awakening Spring.

Initially, I thought the iPad would be a great way for them to record their thoughts while being “in nature”. At the start of the semester, a student wrote a journal entry about noticing bird songs through the walls of her tent at K-Ville.

But another student wrote: “In any case, being in the woods should mean being free of technology and distractions, in touch with the moment.  Typing away on a glowing screen really takes away from that—it’s exactly the sort of thing that embodies the disconnect between the average modern human and nature.”

How many of us have been on a greenway trail or a beach, only to overhear someone’s conversation on their cell phone? How many of us have surreptitiously checked our smartphones during a hike in the woods or a canoe trip on a local lake?

This student has a really good point: technology may enable us to disconnect from nature and the iPad makes that even more convenient.

On the other hand, I found the Starwalk app to do just the opposite. Presenting views of the night sky, with stars, constellations, planets, and satellites identified, this app taught me some basics of astronomy in my own backyard. I found it stunning and used it often with my own children to identify the stars from their bedroom windows.  I invited my students to my house to enjoy the relatively dark sky, using Starwalk to show them some of the most common constellations.

So, while packing your iPad for a 3 day trek into the mountains may not be a great idea, there are certainly some useful tools for learning more about our surroundings. I strongly believe in the power of “naming” – that if we know the names of plants, animals, shells and stars, we will begin to understand the complexities of nature, which no technology can reproduce.

Lessons Learned

Personally, I am still wowed by what the iPad can do, even though I realize that it’s not a necessary device for me to own. For every app that offers an interesting tool, there seem to be several that are utterly ridiculous. Take, for instance, the dandelion app. It presents an image of a dandelion, with its fluffy, white seeds almost sparkling on the screen. You blow on the screen and – poof – the seeds disperse out into the electronic atmosphere. If my students are wasting time making wishes on electronic dandelions, then clearly we have a problem. Our challenge is to become more connected to nature, to better understand our role as stewards and our impacts as citizens. I’m grateful that the iPad project allowed us to explore this challenge in a tangible (and snazzy) way.



2 thoughts on “The Potential Ethical Challenges of the iPad

  1. Charlie

    I’m sure you’ve seen the Story of Stuff on Electronics? See

    Apple seems to “design for the dump” as a rule.

    Regardless, thank you for this and the other two posts on iPads in the classroom. Seems to be a pretty mixed, lukewarm reaction thus far.

    -iPhone owner

  2. Karen Thompson

    Thank you for some great thoughts on the iPad in the classroom.

    Like many other tools in our lives, technology can be a distraction or a connection. I noticed you’ve been discussing both the ying and the yang. I’ll add a story where the iPad can provide a connection rather than a disconnection to the environment.

    Using an iPhone a student quickly captured the audio sounds from the frog hidden deep in the brush. The iPhone provided a quick opportunity to compare the database of online resources sharing frog voices with that recording. Someday, I’m guessing, we’ll hold up our iPhone and like Shazam for the music world grab “RibbitShazam” and quickly identify that frog. Naming it provides another way to communicate and share our experience.

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