Providing Graduate Computing Students with an Appreciation of Appropriate the Ethical, Professional and Legal Issues

Barrie Thompson and Helen Edwards


It is widely recognised that Information Society Technologies (IST) are changing the world. For example, in the documentation relating to the priority thematic areas for research within the European Union Framework 6 initiative, it is stated that:

“Information society technologies (IST) are transforming the economy and society. Not only are they creating new ways of working and new types of business, but provide solutions to major societal challenges such as healthcare, environment, safety, mobility and have far reaching implications on our everyday life. The IST sector is now of one of the most important of the economy, with an annual turnover of EUR 2000 billion, providing employment for more than 12 million people in Europe.” (FP6, 2002)

However, as is highlighted in the call for papers for Ethicomp 2004 such technologies raise significant social and ethical risks for individuals, organisations, and society at large. In particular, there are major challenges and responsibilities for the Information System and Software Engineering professionals who must design, develop and support IST based systems. It is therefore imperative that in the academic programs that educate such future professionals there is an appropriate treatment of the relevant ethical, professional, and legal issues that they are likely to encounter in their careers.

At the University of Sunderland we offer a wide range of taught programmes at Masters level in computing. In the majority of these programmes, the students undertake a module entitled Research, Ethical, Professional and Legal Issues (REPLI). The purpose of the module is to provide the students with not only an ability to undertake postgraduate research but also an appreciation of relevant ethical, professional, and legal issues they are likely to meet in the future. In this current academic year the module will be undertaken by more than 300 full and part time graduates on campus who are undertaking six different Masters programmes ranging from a general MSc. in Computer Based Information Systems to a very specialised MSc. in Software Engineering. It will also be taken by a further 300 students at some ten Distance Learning Centres that are based across the world form Hong Kong to Nairobi. Details on the initial development of the REPLI module for two particular Masters programmes, including the influence of early Ethicomp conferences on its content, was included within a paper presented at the 1999 Australian Institute of Computer Ethics Conference (Thompson and Edwards, 1999). However, within the proposed paper for Ethicomp 2004 the following will be covered:

  1. How the module has further developed to cater for students from many different national and educational backgrounds.
  2. How the teaching and learning strategies has been adapted to meet the needs of a widening range of programmes.
  3. How ethical, professional, and issues are addressed within the module including the use of case studies and role-play to emphasise particular aspects.
  4. Conclusions regarding the effectiveness of the approaches adopted and what could be done to further improve matters.

Special attention in the paper will be paid to:

The attempts that have been made to involve the students in more practical activities. A major instance of such has been the use of a professional Code of Ethics (such as the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice produced under the auspices of the IEEE-CS and the ACM) and a fictitious case study “The Case of the Killer Robot”. Full details of the case study can be found in the text by Epstein (1997), however, we have used an abridged version which is freely available on the Web (e.g. at http:/ In the Killer Robot study it first appears that a fatality caused by an assembly line robot was due to errors, caused by a programmer, in the software used to control the robot. However, as the case study progresses it becomes more and more obvious that there are many other people who could be held fully or partly responsible. In the practical activities undertaken by the students they are divided into teams, one member of each team must present the case for their character being held responsible and another team member must present the opposing view. After each presentation there is a short time for questions from the class. Finally, the class votes on the relative guilt or innocence of the character. In the paper the various profiles of votes produced by students from different programmes and years will be presented and discussed in detail.


FP6 (2002), Sixth Framework Programme of the European Community, for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration Activities, The priority areas are detailed at:

Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. Details of this are available at:

Epstein R.A.G. (1997), “The Case of the Killer Robot, New York”, John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Thompson J. B. and Edwards H. M. (1999), “Ensuring that Ethical and Related Issues are Addressed in Two Masters Level Computing Courses: a Report on Developments and Experiences Over a five Year Period” Proceedings of the Australian Institute of Computer Ethics Conference AICEC99, 14-16 July, Lilydale, Melbourne, pp 365-375.