Embedding Ethics in European Information and Communication Technology Curricula

Penny Duquenoy, Bern Martens and Norberto Patrignani



In Europe, and most industrialised countries, ICT competences are a prerequisite for the majority of jobs, and even for life as a fully functioning member of society in general. In recognising this, universities, colleges, high schools, careers developers, train-the-trainers organizations, etc. have introduced ICT courses and programmes. But, ICT also introduces many, often quite new, ethical dilemmas for its developers and users (both professional and otherwise). Almost all of the above mentioned courses and programmes, however, focus exclusively on technical-instrumentalist competences, while neglecting ethics. This paper aims at analysing this gap in various ICT curricula and proposes content as well as methodology to fill it.
We do this by focussing successively on various contexts of ICT education.
Professional ICT education at universities and colleges (and equivalent)

Whether at academic or professional level, introducing ethical issues of ICT in higher education ICT curricula often constitutes a real challenge. Teachers are faced with students who have followed years of courses, all of them concentrated only on the technical side. A suggestion for introducing ethics in these situations is to start from real case analysis with a bottom-up approach. One example of a fruitful methodology was tested “in-field” at Politecnico di Torino in Italy for teaching computer ethics to PhD students in engineering (computer science, etc.). It is composed of four steps: describe a real controversial case, identify all stakeholders and their interconnections (“stakeholders’ network”), identify the ethical issues that arise from the scenario and finally, try to define possible alternative scenario(s). With this approach the students’ reaction is usually quite positive since they start from a familiar, technical context (e.g. a “national DNA database”) and then, with the support of the teacher, they “climb” the path towards non-technical issues like the social and ethical consequences of their projects.

In a verbal answer to the UK House of Lords Constitution Committee (February 2008) meeting to discuss “Surveillance: Citizens and the State”, and in response to a question regarding the training of IT professionals in privacy considerations, the reply was “… it is included in the exams and the courses but I have to say that most of the students skip that section because there are not enough marks on it and it is worthy but boring.”

In the Dutch speaking part of Belgium (Flanders), Leuven University College is currently the only institute of higher education where a course on IT ethics features on the IT programme (professional bachelor level). Not unlike the above mentioned Italian course, it focuses on specific cases, student projects, discussion and debate. In so doing, it proves fruitful not only to get future professionals thinking about the ethical aspects of their trade but also promotes several more general “soft skills” (arguing, presenting, debating, etc.). The course is an optional one, offered in the third (and final) year of the programme, and tends to be chosen by about 25% of the students. So, there definitely is an audience for such courses among even the most technically oriented of students. It must be noted however that this particular course is taught by a lecturer whose specialisation is in system management, network security and computer forensics. This probably contributes significantly to technical students taking an ethics course seriously (and voluntarily)…

Secondary (and primary) education

There has been a tendency in European schooling to focus on teaching pupils how to use ICT for their school work, and of course as part of a wider educational approach aimed at improving “digital literacy” and students’ employment opportunities. The substantive issues of “computer ethics” typical in conferences such as ETHICOMP, are not generally addressed other than aspects of computer misuse, and the dangers posed to school children. These latter issues appear to be brought in under a category of “eSafety” and serve to (a) educate children in the use (or rather mis-use) of mobile phones used as cameras, and the dangers of chatting online and (b) meet school policy and risk-reduction exercises. For example, the UK National Education Network states: “All schools have a responsibility to ensure that all pupils and staff access the internet safely and responsibly. Failure to do this could result in disciplinary or legal action taken against individuals, head teachers and governing bodies.”

The Rose Review (a report on the use of ICT in UK schools) published in March 2009 promotes the use of ICT in schools, and encourages greater use at primary level. Two points are worth mentioning here:

  1. pupils use ICT effectively to communicate their ideas and to present their work, but they are less skilled in collecting and handling data and in controlling events using ICT;
  2. teachers tend to give more attention to those aspects of ICT where they themselves feel confident.

And there are strong indications that the situation in most other European countries is similar.

The Flemish government recently published ICT learning objectives for children of age 12 and 14 respectively. The safe and responsible use of ICT features prominently among them, but if you look at the available teaching materials as well as current educational practice, the stress is almost exclusively on “utilitarian” features. The explanation for this state of affairs may well be the one given above: both teachers as well as textbook authors lack competence in ICT ethics.

Teacher training

We argue that, to meet the education needs identified above, ICT ethics must be treated in teacher training (at all levels, with the possible exception of kindergarten). In the Leuven University College teacher training programme, a course on ICT ethics has been compulsory for (future) ICT teachers since 10 years. In the fall of 2009, the course will for the first time also be offered as an option to students in other topics.




From a report on the Rose Review (Essex Primary ICT curriculum Newsletter):

Bern Martens, IT, Ethics and Education: Teaching the Teachers (and their Pupils), in Goujon, P. et al. (eds.), IFIP International Federation for Information Processing, Vol. 233, The Information Society: Innovations, Legitimacy, Ethics and Democracy, Springer, Boston, 2007, pp. 181-194