Teaching Ethics in Computer Science – How it is approached in Spanish Universities

Rosalia Peña and Javier Extremera


The growing use of computers in every aspect of work has produced many social impacts. As a result, it is imperative that today’s Computer Science students realize the special responsibility they will face in their future profession.

More and more, the curricular recommendations for undergraduate Computer Studiesstress the necessity to include, in the set of themes, specific topics such as ethical reflections on the responsible performance of one’s professional duties. The influence the use of computers exerts both on society and on the philosophy of any given company must also be studied, as well as the way in which everyday personal relations are affected.

ACM/IEE-CS-91[1]. brought into the curriculum a new area:” Social, Ethical and Professional Guidelines” which was added to the existing nine basic areas that, until then, had been considered essential. In this way, the importance of this area has been raised to the same level as that of such subjects as Operating Systems, Computer Architecture or Databases.

This tenth area of study aims to train the students to identify some of the social problems and consequences of computing. The student is prompted into a personal reflection whose final result must be a change of attitude and behaviour in the way practical situations are solved when interacting with computers both at work and in every day life.

Much work has been carried out [2,3]. in order to contribute to build a framework which helps to teach and develop ways to implement the guidelines and aims of this tenth subject area. The revised model curriculum for a Liberal Arts Degree in Computer Science[4]. stresses the necessity of the introduction of this new Ethical Issues subject area in the introductory and intermediate level courses, i.e. in the first two years of study.

This new subject area is being widely accepted by both teachers and universities around the world. More than 170 references collected by Vance[5]. are a good proof of this fact.

The technology of Computer Science changes from day to day, and the Computer Science curriculum must keep pace with those changes. Changing the Spanish University curriculum is a complex task which may take a long time to implement. This may perhaps help to explain the great disparity of approaches observed within the various Spanish universities when they include this subject area in their Computer Studies.

For example, there are some private universities, such as the “Centro de Estudios Europeos CEES” in Madrid, which specifically include this subject area, (entitled “Deontology”) in the second year with a high number of lecture hours. A similar case is that of the “Deusto University” where this subject is taught as a sixty lecture-hour course entitled “Social Impact and Professional Ethics for Computer Science” . On the other hand, there are other universities that do not even mention the subject in their curricula or which teach it under some broader generic subjects as is the case of the Castilla de la Mancha University with its 90 lecture hour course on “Computing Legislation”

The Spanish legislation establishes a maximum number of total lecture hours per career. Many curricula are currently near this upper limit. On top of this, the “Real Decreto 614/1997[6] imposes additional criteria which aims to decrease the number of subject matters. This can be achieved by integrating different related topics into the same course. Under this new law, a subject matter cannot be shorter than 45 lecture hours. This also has a secondary effect. This law has made it more difficult to create new courses that cover Computer Ethics to its full extent.

This paper shows the situation of today’s programs at Spanish Universities and our experience with students.

At the University of Alcala we have developed one subject entitled Data Protection where we have integrated the following areas of interest:

  1. Social, Cultural and Ethical issues inherent in data management.
  2. Spanish legislation on Privacy and Confidentiality.
  3. Technical tools that provide security for data stored or managed on computers.

These three aspects dealing with data security require different approaches and class methodologies, which contribute to a more dynamic development of classes. The integration of these topics has given the students a more global perspective on the subject, and it has been noticed that their interest has increased. There is no doubt about the student’s appreciation of the moral issues and technical problems involved in data management. Practical everyday problems were regularly proposed in the class by the students themselves.

Other areas such as professional responsibilities, intellectual property and client-employee-company relationships, must be integrated into other courses. In this regard, the “Projects” and “Company Management” subject matters are being considered.