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Ethics and Technology: Response to Pfohl—Part II

By Susan Jacob & Leigh Armistead

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) 2010 revision of its Principles for Professional Ethics (NASP–PPE) became effective in January 2011. As members of the ethics code revision team, we were pleased to see Dr. Pfohl’s (2010, Vol. 39, Numbers 3 & 4) two–part commentary on "Ethics and Technology" in Communiqué#233;. In Part I of our response to his commentary, we agreed with his observation that NASP’s new ethics code does not provide detailed standards with respect to electronic communication and record keeping or the use of computer–assisted assessment, intervention, or research. We also provided some background to help readers understand why that is the case and invited NASP’s Computer and Technological Applications Interest Group to draft a position statement or guidelines for the use of technology in school psychology. In this article, several contemporary ethical–legal issues associated with the use of technology in assessment, intervention, and research are identified.

When conducting assessments, a school psychologist is ethically obligated to ensure that the psychoeducational evaluation of a student with a suspected disability is multifaceted, comprehensive, valid, fair, and useful (NASP–PPE, Principle II). Practitioners have a responsibility to ensure that all assessment procedures, including those that are computer–assisted or involve assistive devices, yield reliable and valid results prior to using them to inform decision making. Concerns about computer–assisted assessment techniques are not new. As early as the 1980s, psychologists began to explore the ways in which technological innovations can improve assessment practices and discussed the potential problems associated with the use of technology in assessment (e.g., American Psychological Association, 1986). Further technological advances (Naglieri et al., 2004) and societal changes have posed new questions regarding how to interpret ethical principles as they relate to the use of technology in assessment. For example, if an adolescent student is referred to the school psychologist because of suspected emotional difficulties, is it ethically appropriate for the psychologist to access the student’s MySpace or Facebook webpage to gather information about the referred student without, or even with, permission to do so (Dailor & Jacob, 2010; Lehavot, Barnett, & Powers, 2010)? Additional guidelines regarding the use of technology in school psychology might address this and other emerging technology–related assessment issues.

When developing and recommending interventions, school psychologists are ethically obligated to select intervention techniques "that the profession considers to be responsible, research–based practice" (NASP–PPE II.3.9). Access to information about potentially effective interventions for students who are struggling academically or behaviorally has grown dramatically with the Internet. In addition, many computer–assisted intervention programs are now available. An example is the popular Headsprout reading program (www.headsprout.com), which adapts instruction as student progress or difficulties become apparent. Practitioners are obligated to give preference to interventions reported to be effective based on findings from scientifically sound studies. Furthermore, practitioners must strive for fidelity to the treatment program as it is described in the research literature while at the same time adapting the intervention to the unique characteristics of the school, classroom, and student. They also are obligated to monitor intervention effectiveness and revise the intervention plan "when data indicate the desired outcomes are not being obtained" (NASP–PPE Standard II.2.2.). We encourage NASP’s Computer and Technological Applications Interest Group to draft guidelines to assist practitioners in using technology to locate, implement, and monitor professionally sound interventions for students, classrooms, and school systems.

When consulting at the school and district level, practitioners have an ethical responsibility to promote school practices that enhance the well–being of students (NASP–PPE Introduction). They work to foster a safe and welcoming school environment (NASP–PPE IV). School–system practices to reduce cyberbullying in schools (Dooley, Pyz?alski, & Cross, 2009; Willard, 2007) and sexting by youth (Walters, 2010) are receiving increased attention and many unanswered questions have been raised. For example, what privacy rights should students have with regard to text messages and images stored on cell phones that they bring to school? Are school policies that punish teenagers for sexting by reporting them to the criminal justice system (where they may be labeled as child pornographers and sex offenders) in the best interests of teenagers? NASP’s Computer and Technological Applications Interest Group might draft guidelines identifying best practices for system–level interventions to address cyberbullying and sexting in our nation’s schools.

Regarding research, technological advances may also foster new partnerships between school–based practitioners and university faculty. With advances in technology, public schools now have a greater capacity to store data on student achievement and behavioral conduct in digital formats. However, school districts may not have personnel with expertise in statistics to analyze and interpret this data to provide information about the effectiveness of various district practices. The regulations implementing the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 were revised in 2008 (Federal Register, Vol. 73, No. 237, pp. 74851–74855) to clarify, among other issues, the conditions under which parent consent is not required to disclose information to be used for research studies for, or on behalf of, the school to outside parties. The change allows more flexibility to permit nonschool researchers to initiate studies using information from student education records as long as the school and the researcher enter into a written agreement about the use of the personally identifiable information disclosed by the school for research purposes (Jacob, Decker, & Hartshorne, 2011). We hope NASP’s Computer and Technological Applications Interest Group will craft guidelines that support research partnerships involving electronic data sharing between schools and university faculty and that also provide recommendations to safeguard the privacy of personally identifiable student data that is used for research purposes.

Finally, codes of ethics are written to protect clients, other consumers of school psychological services, and the public’s trust in school psychology. Therefore, ethics codes usually relate to professional rather than the private conduct of psychologists. However, NASP’s Computer and Technological Applications Interest Group might provide guidelines that encourage school psychology practitioners to be mindful of the thin boundary between their professional roles and private lives when they post personal information on social networking sites (Taylor, McMinn, Bufford, & Chang, 2010) or send e–mails using an account or server provided by a public school system or agency. The public availability of online information about school psychologists’ personal lives can threaten their professional credibility and/or job standing. E–mail communications sent via an account provided by a public school district (rather than a personal e–mail account) and/or through a district’s server likely belong to (and can be accessed by) the school district. While practitioners generally are not held accountable for the content of e–mail messages received, they should have little expectation of privacy regarding e–mails they send to others using their school district’s server and/ or when using an e–mail account provided by their district. Our Part I article provided references related to the use of technology in communication and record keeping. The references below may be of assistance in drafting professional practice guidelines for the use of technology in assessment, intervention, and research. We look forward to collaborating with other NASP workgroups in this effort.

References

American Psychological Association. (1986). Guidelines for computer–based tests and interpretations. Washington, DC: Author.

Dailor, A. N., & Jacob, S. (2010). Ethical and legal challenges: Negotiating change. In J. Kaufman & T. L. Hughes (Eds.), The Handbook of education, training and supervision of school psychologists in school and community, Vol. II (pp. 153–168). New York: Taylor Francis/Routledge.

Dooley, J. J., Pyz?alski, J., & Cross, D. (2009). Cyberbullying versus face–to–face bullying: A theoretical and conceptual review. Journal of Psychology, 217, 182–188.

Jacob, S., Decker, D. M., & Hartshorne, T. S. (2011). Ethics and law for school psychologists (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Lehavot, K., Barnett, J. E., & Powers, D. (2010). Psychotherapy, professional relationships, and ethical considerations in the MySpace generation. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41, 160–166.

Naglieri, J. A., Drasgow, F., Schmit, M., Handler, I., Prifitera, A., Margolis, A., et al. (2004). Psychological testing on the Internet. American Psychologist, 59, 150–162.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2010). Principles for professional ethics. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org.

Taylor, L., McMinn, M. R., Bufford, R. K., & Chang, K. B. T. (2010). Psychologists’ attitudes and ethical concerns regarding the use of social networking web sites. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41, 153–159.

Walters, L. G. (2010). Sexually explicit speech: How to fix the sexting problem: An analysis of policy considerations for sexting legislation. North Carolina Law Review Association First Amendment Law Review, 8, 98–148.


Susan Jacob is a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University and she is cochair of the NASP Ethical and Professional Practices Committee. Leigh Armistead is an associate professor in the Winthrop University school psychology program and chairs the NASP Ethical and Professional Practices Committee.