Computer Ethics in Secondary School and Teacher Training

Bern Martens



At colleges and universities, computer ethics has established itself as an integral part of information technology programmes [1,2,3], at least in principle. However, little attention has been devoted to computer ethics at secondary school level and in teacher training.

In this paper, we argue that computer ethics should be incorporated in the secondary school curriculum. We distinguish three major reasons for doing so. First, awareness of the ethical en legal issues in information technology (IT) promotes a more considerate attitude towards (the use of) this technology in both expert and lay users. Secondly, insight into the ethical and social dimensions of information technology enhances a well-founded self-reliance in (future) citizens of our IT-based society. Thirdly, computer ethics offers opportunities to expose secondary school pupils to philosophy and ethics in an area which many of them perceive as highly personally relevant.

Throughout this contribution, we focus on courses which take information technology itself as a study subject. Other contexts also offer opportunities to address issues in computer ethics, but in this paper, we wish to concentrate on IT classes taught by IT teachers, and the specific chances and challenges in those settings.

Information technology as a subject in (Flemish) secondary schools

Flemish secondary education is divided in three grades of two years each: first grade from 12 to 14, second grade from 14 to 16 and third grade from 16 to 18 years of age. Currently, IT as a study subject mainly features in two different ways in this setting. First, some study programmes with a professional profile in second and (mainly) third grade specialise in IT, offering it at a volume of up to 10 hours of class a week. They aim at preparing pupils for the labour market as IT professionals, and/or serve as a preamble to college studies in IT.

Secondly, (nearly) all pupils get IT in second grade as a two-year course, one hour a week. This is meant as a general introduction to IT and its use. This course suffers from many problems. All too often pupils are merely expected to learn Word and Excel by imitating sequences of actions from the teacher or the book. In 2002, the situation deteriorated further because societal pressure led to the inclusion of the European Computer Driving Licence [4] objectives, effectively reducing it to a course in Office use. This, however, sparked a counter movement, partially inspired by Martens [5] , which proposed to gradually shift the focus of attention in secondary school IT courses, starting with IT use in first grade, and continuing with understanding IT in second grade, and learning to produce/maintain IT in third grade. In particular, the conceptual shift to understanding IT as one of the main goals in the second grade course implies (more) extensive consideration of computer ethics in that course.

Computer ethics in the secondary school IT curriculum

Understanding IT cannot be achieved by (only) using it. At the age of 14 to 16, pupils attain a level of maturity which allows addressing ethical and social issues relating to information technology. Therefore, computer ethics sessions and projects should be a substantial part of the second grade IT curriculum. Experiments by teacher training students over the last few years showed that many pupils are willing and indeed eager to discuss topics such as online pricavy, illegal copying, unethical web content, and even more “technical” ones such as open software, spyware and hacker ethics. Likewise, there were very positive reactions from (future) “IT specialists” in third grade, whenever students were invited to do sessions in that context. We have not systematically investigated the effects of such experiments, but pupils repeatedly contacted students upto weeks or months afterwards to comment on how stimulating they found the sessions, and/or ask for further information.

Educating the educators

If pupils react so enthousiastically, then why is there so little computer ethics in most IT courses in secondary school? One of the reasons is that the course outlines are overstuffed with “useful” subjects. Another important factor is the lack of competent teachers. It is crucial that IT teachers in their initial training get an extensive introduction to computer ethics, and those who move into the field “sideways” (without having had a formal training in IT and/or its teaching) should not only brush up on their “technical” knowlegde. Since 1999, the IT teacher training of the Katholieke Hogeschool Leuven features a seminar series on computer ethics for its last year students [6,7], which succesfully introduces them to the field and kindles considerable enthousiasm for incorporating computer ethics in their own classes in secondary school. Finally, in a long term project to support and improve computer ethics teaching practice in secondary education, teaching materials developed by the author and his students are made available on the web [7] for general use.



2. Terrell W. Bynum & Simon Rogerson (eds.), Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004.

3. Johnson, D.G., Computer Ethics (3rd ed.) , Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2001.


5. Martens, B., Informatica op school en in de lerarenopleiding, in Gombeir, D. e.a. (red.), ICT en onderwijsvernieuwing, Mechelen, Wolters-Plantyn, 2003 (in Dutch).

6. Martens, B., Het elfde gebod, Beschouwingen over informatie technologie, ethiek en samenleving, Acco, 2000 (in Dutch).