Experiments in using Asynchronous Computer Conferencing to support the learning and teaching of computer ethics


Pat Jefferies and Simon Rogerson (UK)


This paper details a series of experiments in using asynchronous computer conferencing in supporting the learning and teaching of a final year undergraduate module to three cohorts of students. As such it illustrates the potential dimensions where IT and Internet technologies might be integrated to create a more effective and efficient learning and teaching environment within Higher Education (HE). It illustrates the way in which ICT can radically effect education establishments and the manner in which they interact with their students. The module specifically chosen for this study was a professional issues module entitled “Computing & Ethics”. This module is an optional final year module delivered to undergraduate students within the Faculty of Computing Sciences & Engineering who are based at two geographically dispersed campuses within the UK as well as to students based at an associate institution in Denmark.

As now widely acknowledged, the rapid expansion of networking capabilities and growing potential of access to such facilities is stimulating an exponential growth in the interest to develop technological resources to facilitate and enhance the learning experience within HE. This, coupled with the ‘political push’ and technological ‘pull’ currently prevalent in the UK, is encouraging educational institutions to experiment increasingly with tools which promote collaborative working which, in turn, are perceived to help in the development of more autonomous, responsible learners. Thus, it was not surprising that in delivering the same module to students on each of the three campuses that appropriate deployment of technology was considered to be worthy of investigation. Tutors based on each of the three campuses involved undertake delivery of the module and students are expected to achieve the same learning outcomes demonstrated through common forms of assessment. The module itself addresses the ethical and social responsibility issues surrounding advances in ICT. It considers in detail how the development of IT systems might encompass computer ethics and the value of professional codes of conduct are also discussed. Ethical concepts and consideration of computer ethics as a discipline provide a necessary philosophical foundation for this module and it draws heavily upon the research activity of the university.

Given the aims and objectives of the module it was felt self-evident that one of the major learning outcomes to be achieved was that students should develop their capabilities for moral judgment. Research has suggested there are a number of stages of moral development and that the highest stage of this (Level III, Stage 6) requires formulating abstract ethical principles and then upholding them to avoid self-condemnation”. (Kohlberg, 1969, 1972). It therefore follows that in order for students to attain this higher level that a social, discursive context seemed to be essential. As Lipman (1991) notes in a related idea called the “reflective model” of education, the conclusion is drawn that “the community of inquiry, especially when it employs dialogue, is the social context most reliable for the generation of higher-order thinking”. (McKendree, Stenning, Mayes, Lee and Cox, 1997). It seemed, therefore, given the nature of the computer ethics module, that learning should be largely underpinned by discussions around the various ethical issues encountered within real situations in order to develop this higher stage of moral development. A literature review at the time the module was first being developed did actually indicate that the use of prepared scenarios relating to ethical dilemmas were the preferred approach for those tutors currently teaching in the area. More recently Fleischman (2001) has lent further support to the adoption of this type of approach when he notes, there is a “need to engage the imaginative and empathetic powers of participating students in thinking about situations in which ethical conflicts may arise” (Fleischman, 2001, pp171-183). Promotion of a ‘deep’ approach to learning was also felt to be important in whatever techniques were to be used. As Davies (2001) notes ‘deep learning’ “is based on active involvement of the student in the learning material. Analysis and construction of the relationship of concepts leads to understanding.” (Davies, 2001, pp196-204). Thus it was felt that this module lent itself very well to the use of asynchronous computer conferencing in that it had the potential for both extending and supporting the wider discursive context.

This paper therefore seeks to explore some of the theoretical underpinnings that have prompted the adoption of asynchronous computer conferencing technology for group working in an HE environment. The paper will then go on to question the traditional approach of the “moderated” implementation of such technology with the campus-based student. For example, much of the literature suggests that computer-mediated conferencing has, to date, largely been used with adult, part-time, distance learning students and the emphasis on the tutor within this context has very much been on becoming a competent e-moderator. This particular approach is, however, questioned in relation to implementation with the campus-based student. It will then report on some of the issues actually encountered in implementing use of a particular collaborative working tool – WebCT – as an integral part of the learning experience within the teaching of the Computing & Ethics module. Such issues included determining which VLE might be appropriate, developing staff skills, determining the resources to be provided as well as in determining how to integrate and manage the discussion forum.

Finally the paper will reflect on the comments given by staff and students at the end of the experiment in order to provide an insight into some of the pedagogical and other issues that need to be considered to enable technologically facilitated collaborative methods to be effective in a campus-based HE environment. In doing some it will identify some of the key issues that need to be addressed for such an ICT application to be a beneficial driver of change.