AI, Corporate Learning and Ethics: So Where Are We Now?

Jerry Zandstra (JZ), Senior Director of Learning

Miriam Taylor (MT), Customer Success Manager

Nathan Driscol (ND), Vice President of Operations (Attorney)

Miriam Taylor (MT): We have an interesting topic to discuss, ethics and learning in global companies and organizations. This is not a topic that gets discussed at length. Of all the conferences I’ve attended throughout my career, I don’t remember a session focused on the ethics of learning. 

Jerry Zandstra (JZ): I don’t either. In preparation for this conversation, I asked a few colleagues who had certifications or degrees in instructional design whether they recall any focus on ethics. One was a recent graduate of a well-known program. She said the most they covered was about access to learning as an ethical issue. It did not go deeper than that. 

Nathan Driscoll (ND): I believe we are in the midst of seeing a lot more attention paid to ethics in learning because of artificial intelligence and intellectual property rights. I would guess that very soon, instructional design programs will be thinking hard about ethics and creativity. 

MT: I’m not surprised that you brought up AI and artificial intelligence given your legal background, Nathan. I promise we will come to that in our conversation because it is a key issue for our entire industry at the moment. But I want to begin at a broader, more basic level. What are some of the challenges in applying ethics to training a global workforce? 

JZ: The first is something you already mentioned. Ethics is not a topic that comes up very often. For many of us, we get paid to create learning experiences using content and material from other people. Most of the time, the people on the learning team are not subject matter experts. Many times, they are not involved in decisions about which content gets priority or even what that content is. It might come from our clients, or bosses, or stakeholders who are tasked with those decisions. 

ND: That’s true, but there are still ethics underlying everything we do. Miriam, you asked about challenges. One of the biggest is simply saying definitively what we mean by ethics. Global organizations, by definition, are made up of people from a variety of diverse cultures. Ethical structures are not the same across all cultures.

MT: So, a global set of ethics for L&D professionals is not possible?

JZ: I don’t think that is what Nathan is saying. I find it helpful to think about specific ethical concepts and wonder, ‘who would argue against that?’ Let me give a few examples.  Who would argue against being trustworthy, inclusive, respectful, fair, responsible, or caring toward others? Who would build an ethical system based on lying, exclusivity, deception, laziness, cowardness, or callousness? 

ND: Perhaps there are places in the world where such things are held in higher regard than they should be, but it is hard to imagine a scenario where people aspire to them. 

MT: OK. I’ll grant that but let’s move past the theoretical and straight to the practical. How do ethics inform and shape what we do as learning professionals?

JZ: Let’s choose one area that we mentioned above that is especially important in companies with a global workforce: inclusivity. Is the learning experience that you are creating truly designed for everyone in your organization? Will they all feel included? Has the proper amount of time and effort been put into ensuring that everyone has access to the learning solution? 

ND: Inclusivity can mean many things. It may be that the learning has not been properly translated or localized to make sense in another culture. Oftentimes that happens because those creating it were not thinking about the totality of their learners and their environments. They have not considered their global audience. Poor translation communicates that those who speak other languages are likely not highly valued in the organization. In some cases, learners are excluded because they do not have access to the technology required by the learning. In others, learners with disabilities are not considered when learning experiences are being designed and developed which means they are excluded. 

MT: And a lack of inclusivity connects to the concept of fairness. When learning is not inclusive for any one of several reasons, there is a lack of equal opportunity for all learners.  

JZ: We can tie a lack of inclusivity to other ethical considerations as well. Human dignity is near the top of my list. It is difficult to precisely define, but we know when we are being treated with dignity and when we are not. Not including all learners communicates a low regard for the dignity of those who are left out. I’ve seen this several times when US-based companies do a poor job of translation or don’t give much thought to localization, only to find that the performance of their non-US location is falling behind that of their US locations. The lower performing employees are usually then blamed for lower productivity, which is not at all their fault. 

ND: Part of my own ethics is the deeply held belief in human thriving. Some people call it flourishing. I think most learning professionals are driven by a desire to help others grow. We want to see learners attain new knowledge or skills that will help their careers while also helping their organizations achieve their objectives. The challenge for learning leaders in global companies is to keep their eyes on the horizon and to remember all the learners who will be giving their attention to the learning that is being created. People who want to do good work and find opportunities to advance in their careers. 

MT: You’ve both talked a lot about the importance of the learners. What about the importance of learning professionals in their own vocation? Do ethics play a role in their day-to-day work lives?

ND: Jerry mentioned responsibility as a foundation of ethics. I take that to mean that people know what they are responsible for, and they take their obligations seriously. For me, this means that we need to think deeply about what we are creating. Is what we are creating going to actually solve a problem for either the learners or the organization? Learning must be more than topics or skills we check off a list. If ethics help shape what motivates us, then we should be focused on finding solutions rather than simply on completing a list of tasks.

JZ: That’s true. Of course, it would be a lot easier if we had the autonomy to decide what we build and what we don’t. But often, that is not up to us. 

ND: Then I will add a qualifier. As far as it is up to us, we should focus on creating learning solutions, not modules. It’s a more holistic view and I think this is where Needs Analysis plays a huge role.  Before we decide on modalities or colors, design, or development, we should connect our learning to a problem faced by learners or the organization and then be specific about how this learning experience will solve that problem. 

MT: Before we dive into the ethics of artificial intelligence, do you want to highlight other ethical considerations? 

JZ: I know we want to get to AI, but I think striving for excellence is a virtue. Creating things of beauty filled with creativity and expressiveness is part of what makes us human. For learning professionals, this means that we are always trying to learn and grow in our skills. It means that we take the time to express things in beautiful ways as far as it is up to us.

ND: That’s a great goal, of course, but it usually runs into the buzzsaw of time and budgetary pressures. Most learning teams are consistently behind. When we ask our clients when they need something, the answer almost always is “yesterday.”  

JZ: That’s a fair critique. So let me reframe. Within the constraints of time and budgets, be as creative as you can. Churning out the same old learning experiences might help you move through a list, but it won’t be appreciated by the learners, it certainly won’t motivate them, and it won’t help the organization move forward. 

MT: Let’s talk about artificial intelligence. Nathan, you predicted earlier that a lot of attention is being paid to ethics and artificial intelligence. Why?

ND: It is typical that technological advancements outpace ethical conversations. It is kind of like someone invents something and then asks, ‘what should we do or not do with this?’ The film Oppenheimer is a prime example of focusing on technology and not thinking about its moral implications. There is a third component that lags even further behind: the law. There is a lot of wisdom in moving slowly when creating new laws. They must apply everywhere and always. New technology sometimes moves so fast that not all applications are even known for a period of time. Making laws quickly usually means too many unintended consequences.  

JZ: I know Miriam usually gets to ask the questions, but I have a question for Nathan. No one doubts that AI is moving at lightning speed. Several weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about a specific application of AI that looked possible but was not yet available in the market. He told me it would be at least a year in development. Less than a week later, he sent me a link to a new tool that did exactly what we were discussing. How can ethics and law keep up?

ND: The truth is that they can’t. With the speed of development, new iterations and capabilities are being released weekly. And no one can accurately predict where this ends or even what it means, which is where we come back to ethics. We work with a lot of Fortune 500 companies and what I’m seeing is a lot of caution. Some of our clients demand that artificial intelligence not be used at all in the creation of their content. I’m sure that their reasons are things like protecting their own intellectual property and avoiding claims by others. Most large companies are risk-averse and do not want to put themselves in legal or IP jeopardy. 

MT:  If AI is grabbing from material that has been created by others–whether language or music or imagery–how are the people who originally created those actually credited or compensated for their work? Let me put it this way. If thousands of people each contribute a single pixel to an image and AI is the tool that builds an image from those pixels, what are individuals who created the single pixels owed?

ND: I think that is exactly what the larger companies see as high risk. This is far from being resolved by global legal systems. A reminder, though. Even though the law has not yet caught up to artificial intelligence, it does not mean that ethics have nothing to say. Earlier we mentioned fairness. One way to say that is that everyone gets what they deserve. This will be at the center of the ethical and legal conversations.  

MT:  Coming back to practical solutions for L&D leaders, are you saying that instructional designers and graphic artists should avoid using these tools?

 ND: No, I’m not saying that. I think L&D leaders need to establish some guidelines quickly for not only how they use AI to create content and art, but also what they will enter into AI software that might be exposing their intellectual property to their competitors. 

JZ: So, in other words, because there are few legal requirements or protections as of now, the best way forward is with caution. I have a friend who suggests that AI is a great way to get to 60% of what is needed, whether scripts, images, or content. It is a tool that moves things quickly, but it cannot, yet, replace the creativity of the human mind and it will not, for now, recognize its own errors.  It does not know when it violates copyright, nor does it realize when it is placing a company’s proprietary intellectual property at risk. His words are, “By all means proceed, but do so with a healthy dose of caution.”

MT: That seems like sound advice. I knew we were not going to solve the ethics and AI debate today, but this has been a sound beginning. Thanks to both of you for engaging these topics with me. I appreciate your thoughts.

ND: I’m honored to be part of it. As you said, we are only at the beginning of the AI conversation but there are many other areas for L&D leaders to consider when it comes to ethics. 

JZ: Thanks Miriam. I know we ended with a focus on AI, but as Nathan says, we have many other ethical considerations at play in learning and development at the global scale. If I get the last word, I want to emphasize again how important it is that we pay careful attention to including everyone in learning, especially in global organizations.