Ethics in computing 

Introduction and Context

A major issue with the teaching of computer science subjects is the integration of computing ethics into a technical course. The issue has been around for a number of years, not only within teaching but the sector at large (Stahl et al., 2016).

Moore identifies a number of representative issues within ethics teaching computer science, which can lead to “co-option, whitewashing and assumed universal values” (Moore, 2020). Polmear et al. give a detailed breakdown of faculty perceptions on challenges of teaching ethics in an engineering environment ranging from student-based issues (Lack of Student interest, Student Resistance & Student Difficulty), to faculty issues (Faculty Interest/Support, Lack of Faculty Training/Experience & Need for Faculty Development) as well as some broader issues about how ethics is treated as only a need for Accreditation, being elective in an already packed Curriculum and being a soft skill which is “Not Engineering” (Polmear et al., 2019).

I am a Lecturer in the Computer and information sciences department and have been exploring ways to address these issues in my teaching. Below I present reflections on three such attempts: presenting study ethics in cybersecurity courses, a master’s module on human-computer interaction for social change and a final year module on data security and governance which used debates to explore ethical issues within computing.

Reflections

Study ethics with cybersecurity students

Practical issue

In the module “Human factors for Cyber Security” students develop a research project to examine how people impact cyber security of a system. As part of this students develop projects based on real-world issues. In my role as tutor in this module, I headed the topic of “Workplace Surveillance” with students to explore topics such as “Bossware” and workplace security training”. Through these projects, the goal was not only for students to explore the issue of their project but as to give consideration to the study methods and ethical components of their research.

Approach

The module began with Introductory videos on each topic at the start of the year driven by the teams research (for example, my own work on remote working during the pandemic). From this a pragmatist approach was taken allowing students to address real challenges as presented to them in their own life’s and based on other academic works. Where students felt they struggled with lack of direction, guidance was given in weekly sessions slowly building skills through workshops and developing proposals with tutor guidance.

The aim was to infuse these subjects in the weekly sessions, having the individual projects be a method to explore ethical implications as discussed by Bielefeldt et al., only 32% of instructors feel this is broached sufficiently with an undergraduate programme (Bielefeldt et al., 2017).

The aim of the module overall is that by completing the assessment students could construct a deeper understanding of the topic they choose and how to apply ethics to their technical course. This led to a strong focus on assessment for learning, with constant use of formative feedback, worked examples and in-class discussions based on students’ work to ensure that all students could engage in the taught material and offer them support where needed.  

Evaluation

Overall, marking their assignments showed students performed well and created well-rounded and insightful projects. Where students struggled was with a sense of choice paralysis, due to the wide range of methods and topics. This was seen as too much to take on for some students, learning both a number of possible research methods and choosing from one of many topics. To address this in future, a more concrete foundation will be given: choosing from topics covered in previous areas of the course and focusing on a more specific set of research methods, with scope for students to be more creative within those constraints.

HCI for SC 

Practical issue

The second example was a master’s level module for over 70 students: Human-computer interaction for social change. This module doubles down on these issues identified by Moore, with students being introduced to not only a number of new skills but with the increased framing of how to apply these skills to broad societal issues. With students coming from a number of different backgrounds careful consideration was given to how we introduce such a range of topics, especially while teaching such a large class entirely online.

Approach

One of the most novel approaches for the students was the use of Critical design (Jakobsone, 2017). While many were familiar with traditional design methods that were covered in the first half of the course, i.e., the students considered how we may design “Adversarial” technologies that help identify problems (DiSalvo, 2018). A flipped classroom delivery method was used throughout the course, first, a video lecture was given to the students outlining the topic alongside three example projects for them to explore outside of class in their own time. Then a group seminar and workshop were taught back-to-back, first exploring the materials and projects from the flipped content and then applying that new knowledge practically in preparation for their assignments.

Quinn highlights a number of techniques for improving ethics teaching in computing (Quinn, 2006). Firstly, the choice of topics should consider a number of social issues and contexts, for example, “social context of computing, methods and tools of analysis”, which we explored in the session via privacy-based critical designs: Blowtooth, Emotidog and Sentient City Survival Kit (Kirman et al., 2012; Lawson et al., 2015; Sentient City Survival Kit, n.d.). Quinn then advises a guided discussion allowing students to reflect on the issues, in this session we broke out into three tutor-led groups to discuss each of the projects and recorded our discussions via a shared online Google Sheets presentation to “keep track of major points raised” as suggested by Quinn (Quinn, 2006).

Evaluation

In practice, students generated three interesting discussions which we then presented back to the group as a whole via a tutor-led panel, with students using the chat function to ask questions and input further thoughts. The use of these digital teaching methods allowed for further interaction and sharing of viewpoints. Largely student feedback on the sessions was very positive (K5, K6):

think the teaching is excellent, the flipped content is well thought out, the seminar and workshop tasks are useful and insightful and the subject area is very fascinating”

“Thursday’s classes were great, thoroughly enjoyed the topic areas and liked the individual work. The small groups to discuss ideas were a nice environment and then being able to ask questions in the live panel was useful and informative too.” quotes from an anonymous from our weekly feedback forms.

A major issue the interactive sessions had was the disengagement of students online. This came both in form of the live discussions with students not responding and in engagement with the flipped content. It has been noted how students’ interaction in online discussions can be limited during the pandemic (Chiu, 2021), this led to greater use of chat discussions and live polls across the module. However, a more impactful issue came from students coming unprepared with the session’s reading Quinn suggests including weekly quizzes may encourage engagement “Classroom discussions are meatier if students actually complete the reading assignments. Short weekly quizzes encourage students to keep up with the reading. On the midterm and final examinations, multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blanks questions test the students’ factual” (Quinn, 2006)

Debates DSG

Practical issue

The final year module Data security and governance explores a number of issues within computing, with the main event of the module being the debates. The module focuses on two cohorts: IT for Management and business and Computer Science. Their normal assessment methods are Reports, coding and occasionally essays, but largely in previous years, we have seen students struggle with the debate format. For this iteration of the module, the main aim for me was to increase the quality and depth of students’ argumentation around ethical issues.

Approach

Students presented debates on 6 debates in total covering:

  • Governments should/should not be able to access individual’s social media for security reasons
  • Increasing dependence on the Internet of Things does/does not place a grave threat to both national and personal security
  • Alphanumeric passwords will/will not be replaced as the authentication method of choice in the next 5 years
  • Surveillance in the workplace increases/decreases employee motivation and productivity
  • Intellectual property enforcement encourages/discourages human creativity
  • Robots and ambient agents will/will not see the demise of human intermediaries (e.g. teachers, librarians, travel agents, etc.)

To support the development of these debates a number of interactive sessions were included alongside video lectures on each of the related topics building on ideas of argumentation and ethical dilemmas (Bligh, 1985). The key sessions for developing the debates were a session on debate structure focussing on narrative and a mock debate on “Privacy versus Security”. The debate structure session introduced how debates are used for academic discourse while bringing the idea of narrative, through the hero’s journey (Luomala & Campbell, 1950) and how we can use this literary technique to build compelling arguments. For example, prior pedagogical works have demonstrated a number of benefits of narrative perspectives:  They are often memorable, and grounded in experience and reflection (Greenhalgh & Hurwitz, 1999). By teaching this method and providing an example debate the students were shown “The power of Metaphor” in their approach to debates (Goldstein, 2005). The mock debate was built around the group work in preparation for the debate (Dolmans et al., 2001) with students providing sources for both sides of the argument (Hendricks et al., 2000) and collectively building an argument for and against, exploring source quality (Emerson et al., 2005) and building rebuttals.

Evaluation

The debates overall went well groups that did well had a range of sources, responded directly to the other group’s points and made critical use of references. Groups that did not do as well, were not clear when they were using sources or relied too heavily on a few sources and could not always respond directly to the other team’s rebuttals. As part of an enquiry project, a short survey was conducted with students and the other tutor on the module to explore the impact of the new materials. Two students responded to the survey, and their qualitative feedback showed That the new materials helped in some ways:

“Different approach to a presentation of findings. Interesting to use debate format to hear other groups and compare opinions“ P1

“They came with references so further reading was very easy.” P2

However, they also noted some aspects of the logistics of the project which detracted from their experience.

“Lots of small assessments is hard to keep track of in terms of deadlines. Would be easier to combine some of the deadlines or give heavier weightings.” P1

“Allow the completed script to be read beforehand so there is not too much difference from the live debates.” P2

A short survey was also completed by the other tutor on the module who gave some feedback on how students performance compared to the previous year

Referencing better than last year:

“Some students were more explicit about their sources. This was a big problem last year, where the moderator needed to continually ask for the references. That was still necessary this year, but to a lesser extent.

The quality of the references chosen varied greatly by group.”

Argumentation better than last year: It was close, but I think students were a bit better this year in rebutting arguments, with more backwards and forwards amongst the good groups. There more instances of groups piling on their arguments without response from the other group, and then the same happening the other way around, but by the end of the debates this was fixed (with some groups)”

Teamwork worse than last year: There were some instances of groups working together to decide on the best points to rebut, or even who would take the honours, but in general it seems like more of an individual task. It was not great last year either, but it’s hard to know whether the lack of visual feedback (i.e. cameras) made it seem as if though there was were less awkward moments last year.”

They also gave some direct feedback on the new materials:

“I think the new materials are great, especially around putting together a narrative. Specific guidance on how you put together a debate argument is also very helpful, in particular the example debate (using the structure).

I think that maybe they need more practice before they do their debates, and maybe we need to emphasise this narrative more in the formative feedback.”

They also gave some additional feedback informally after the survey concluded.

Actually, having read some more of the scripts I think their narrative storytelling might be better than last years. Not by much, but some students did an excellent job (probably those who actually looked at the materials

Overall, the changes to the module were relatively successful, however, also highlighted some new avenues for improvement. Teamwork was an issue, with the assignment being “individual but in a group” meaning while there were no direct conflicts teams did not make the best use of each other and there may be some issues of exclusion within groups. In the future, there is a plan to open this module up to the entire department as a core module, this will result in a class of ~50 turning into a module with almost 300 students on it. The first steps to address this are already being taken, with an update on teaching materials and removal of the two non-debate assignments allowing for a singular focus for the module. However, there are still a number of open issues around the scalability of the module and how it can retain its focus on bringing ethical issues in computing to the forefront

Conclusions

In this essay I have reflected on three teaching methods I have used to integrate ethics into computing course, including project-based work, a flipped classroom practical exercise and a debate-based assignment

In this, I have tried a number of pedological approaches and subject knowledge in data governance and human-computer interaction. In my first example, we rely on a constructivist mindset for learning and getting students to use their projects as a method for exploring the ethical and societal implications of cybersecurity. In our master’s cohort, we use critical design and tutor-guided discussions to highlight societal issues and allow the students to engage more broadly in the discussion.  And finally, the data security and governance debates demonstrate a good example of how we can support students in the argumentation of these issues.

In terms of personal reflection, I have found across my teaching activities it can be difficult to get initial buy-in from computing students on the topics of ethics. However, by engaging with a diverse range of students in discussion and providing theory-based examples of ethical dilemmas in computing to them, they are able to have informed and nuanced debates about the state of their field and gain more independence as learners.

References

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Lawson, S., Kirman, B., Linehan, C., Feltwell, T., & Hopkins, L. (2015). Problematising upstream technologythrough speculative design: The case of quantified cats and dogs. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings, 2015-April, 2663–2672. https://doi.org/10.1145/2702123.2702260

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Polmear, M., Bielefeldt, A. R., Knight, D., Swan, C., & Canney, N. E. (2019). Faculty perceptions of challenges to educating engineering and computing students about ethics and societal impacts. ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings. https://doi.org/10.18260/1-2–30510

Quinn, M. J. (2006). On teaching computer ethics within a computer science department. Science and Engineering Ethics 2006 12:2, 12(2), 335–343. https://doi.org/10.1007/S11948-006-0032-9

Sentient City Survival Kit. (n.d.). Retrieved May 12, 2022, from http://survival.sentientcity.net/umbrella.html

Stahl, B. C., Timmermans, J., & Mittelstadt, B. D. (2016). The Ethics of Computing. ACM Computing Surveys (CSUR), 48(4). https://doi.org/10.1145/2871196

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