Prof, student combine efforts to study impact of VR on ethical decision-making

It was a match made in research heaven.

Anh Mai To (MEd ’20), a master’s student in Brock’s Faulty of Education, was fascinated by technology. She was keen to learn the ins and outs of academic research, had a passion for teaching and was interested in how people make ethical decisions in the workplace.

Associate Professor Robert Steinbauer in the Goodman School of Business was starting a project in which he would develop real-life ethical scenarios through virtual reality. He would then use his VR program to teach — and test — how business students’ make on-the-job ethical decisions.

Goodman School of Business Associate Professor Robert Steinbauer

He put out the call for a student research assistant, selected To and applied to the Office of Research Service’s Match of Minds student research employment grant, which all led to a research partnership that resulted in a white paper for CPA Ontario’s Thought Leaders series.

CPA Ontario is a professional development organization that regulates and educates its members in the areas of public accounting, business, finance, government, not-for-profits and academia.

Anh Mai To (MEd ’20)

Working out of Goodman’s CPA Ontario Center for Public Policy and Innovation in Accounting, Steinbauer’s and To’s work was recently published by CPA Ontario, titled “Virtual Morality: How business educators can use VR to prepare students for real-life ethical dilemmas.”

To’s research internship took place for six months in 2020, beginning with an extensive literature review and culminating in the paper.

Conventional methods to teach ethical decision-making skills to accounting students and professionals primarily rely on textbooks, webinars, written and video case studies, and other largely non-interactive materials.

Assignments and tests tend to be theoretical and limited in their ability to create vivid, interactive scenarios. Students are given time and space to think about a situation and there is usually a clear-cut, correct answer. As a result, “students likely say what the teacher wants to hear,” says Steinbauer.

But in the real world, the waters are much muddier. A multitude of stressful pressures such as tight deadlines, senior management expectations, passing one’s probation period, conforming to organizational culture, and even unethical requests from bosses make it trickier to identify or implement the ethical choice, says Steinbauer.

“If you do a paper-pencil test, we get the answer, ‘I would never do such a thing,’ but in real life, it happens,” he says. “With virtual reality, we can recreate this organizational pressure and teach students how to do the right thing in that situation.”

Steinbauer’s virtual reality program recreates the office of a car manufacturer struggling to transition over to electric car production. With their headsets, users walk around the building, overhear a water-cooler conversation between employees and a phone call between the CEO and COO, and watch a video advertisement for the company.

In the end, participants have to decide whether to risk the lives of their customers or save the organization millions.

There are two scenarios. The ethical one focuses on the importance of organizational values, long-term profits, and stakeholder balance while the unethical scenario revolves around short-term profits, stock-market value, and executive bonuses.

In addition, Steinbauer and To placed research participants into either a text, video, or virtual reality format to engage them with the scenarios.

Participants then answered a series of questions to assess their experience. They also answered questions about their perception of factors listed on the Ethical Climate Index, which assesses ethical dimensions of a work climate including empathy, focus on self or others, and moral motivation and character.

One of the study’s major results is that, compared to the text and video groups, participants who underwent the virtual reality scenarios were more likely to risk the lives of their customers, says Steinbauer.

“While this sounds terrible, it unfortunately reflects what employees in similar situations would do,” he says.

The white paper says “experiencing the process of making flawed decisions in VR can help students identify their own weaknesses and learn strategies to improve their ethical conduct.”

The duo wrapped up their paper by urging business educators to create, and use, virtual reality scenarios in their ethical decision-making teaching and gave ideas of how to go about doing so.

To says the research showed her vividly the strong role emotions play in the ethical decision-making process.

“This is really an interesting discovery because previously, I read an article about multimedia learning that said the information we receive travels through our emotional area before going to the cognitive section, which is the way we naturally process information,” she says.

Both Steinbauer and To look back on their research partnership with fondness.

“Mai has a great educational background, which helped me a lot because I wanted to test the students using the virtual reality program,” says Steinbauer. “It was a really good match.”

“This experience has opened a whole new world in research for me,” says To, adding that her work with Steinbauer led to further research opportunities and her current position as a career services specialist with Herzing College’s Toronto Campus.

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