digital ethics with Aaron Mckain

What About Digital Ethics?

We live in a digital world.

It is no secret that as technology has developed, we’ve come to rely on our smart devices as primary forms of communication, work-related tasks, and the main source of entertainment. At any given time we could look around a room and see countless people using their phones for social media, internet surfing, or answering e-mails. It feels like an expectation to stay online, and we can see that mobile devices have quickly become necessary tools to success with ¾ of adult Americans owning laptops, and 81% owning smartphones (1), despite the fact that the first iPhone was only created a little over 10 years ago.

Shockingly, with more conscientious, health-focused, educated consumers than ever before, an average user often remains in the dark about the all-too-common lack of digital ethics during this surge of massive technology consumption. The lack of knowledge surrounding our own digital rights is what has led to what Professor Aaron McKain calls the “digital ethics crisis of today” which is now coming to light in the form of real-world, major issues such as:

  • privacy and surveillance
  • data sales
  • cyberbullying
  • online discrimination

Another reason McKain believes that digital ethics are something we need to be focusing on is because traditional higher education wasn’t established during a time when this crisis existed. Now, with the weight of personal responsibility as a professor, McKain is using his position to educate students, and to assemble digital outreach programs within the Minneapolis community.

North Central students take action:

McKain states the backbone of his classes reinforce that “you need to have a holistic approach to digital media, you need to know about our culture, you need to know about politics, you need to know about the law, and you need to be able to communicate about this stuff to average, every day, people”.  Inspired by this core principal, North Central University students creatively conspired to address the issue of digital ethics. Ultimately, they should be able to share their knowledge with their neighbors.


Some students proposed a podcast called “Neighbors Not Numbers” that will discuss algorithm & statistical discrimination. McKain explains that whether we like it or not we are always represented by our “statistical identity”, but if we are to understand and help people well, we need to see them as individuals with their own stories, not just a number in a larger category.

Data Sales:

Other students began reaching out to city and state representatives to learn about the laws and policies surrounding the community’s rights to digital privacy in order to figure out how they could accelerate what local leaders were already doing in this sector. Through this they learned about a bill that is forming to specifically protect the privacy rights of children. This will prevent the collection and sale of a child’s information using education-mandated technology. The students have been able to boost the success of this bill by making locals aware of the bill and encouraging them to vote on the topic.

Digital Bullying:         

Not stopping there, still other students proposed putting together lesson plans to educate elementary-age children on cyberbullying. Realizing that with the increase of social media there is an increased opportunity to insult, harass, and bully others in an anonymous way, North Central students set out to create a prevention curriculum encouraging students to respect one another, and use appropriate online etiquette.

Integration Learning & Little Earth:

McKain’s mobilization of students in the community went so well, they ended up receiving a grant through the Department of Health to provide education on privacy, internet security, and cyberbullying in partnership with a downtown, Minneapolis Native American community called Little Earth. McKain encouraged students to go into their community and have genuine conversations with people whose voices have historically gone unheard. “Diversity is only great if we are doing something about it,” McKain says. It’s not enough to just have a diverse community. Everyone deserves representation in the community. “Go help the people who can’t talk have an opinion, help enable people who don’t feel like they have a voice.”

McKain reflects on the experience saying, “they are a fantastic community to work with” and thinks it went well because “it wasn’t a condescending conversation, or lecture, it was here’s what we’re looking at, here are the issues, what do you actually think about privacy?”

Experimental Learning Model

Education majors created activities and craft lessons to teach kids about their permanent digital record in a way that they could understand it without being scared of it. They also taught on cyber bullying and how to be kind to their peers online. Teens were taught about data selling and how they can protect their personal information in a digital age where their personal data is being monetized by large corporations and government. Adults were taught about the filter bubble and how the information they are being served is much different than the information that is being served other people in different age, race, and ethnic groups. There is a major gap even in the information that is available online to different groups of people and it is important that everyone is aware of the filter bubble that exists.

Ultimately Aaron McKain and his class wanted to create a learning model that helped people in these underprivileged communities “figure out what this new technological world has in store for them, and how they can be better citizens, and employers, and neighbors, in these environments.”


  1. Educate-Don’t assume anything, and teach people about the issues that will allow them to have their own opinions & voice.
  2. Move now- We don’t have time to be apathetic; these issues are pressing and something needs to be done now!
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