Teaching Ethics in Informatics: A Comparative Study

Jesús Díaz del Campo, P. Barroso and John Weckert


In recent years, Schools of Informatics have begun to introduce studies in ethics, to the extent that this subject matter has become an essential part of the curriculum of students in this field. At this stage, the debate concerning the appropriateness of incorporating instruction in human and social issues into studies involving high technology careers appears to have subsided. No branch of learning, even in technological fields, can consider itself neutral since all professional activity has social consequences. This has enhanced the importance of the presence of Deontology in the subject matter offered to the future informaticist, particularly since a number of studies have demonstrated that the system of values of a student, regardless of the discipline, changes after he or she has attended classes in Ethics.

However, the range of approaches to this subject in the different schools is enormous, depending basically on the teaching staff, the department that organizes the instruction and the student receiving it. The authors of this report studied the present situation in Australia and Spain, two countries that are extremely different from one another, to determine who should teach the Ethics and Deontology of Informatics, as well as what, how and where, when and to whom it should be taught.

With respect to who, the available literature does not lead to any consensus. For some authors, under ideal circumstances, the instructor should hold a doctorate in philosophy with additional training in informatics. In contrast, others contend that the professor should be an informaticist with knowledge of philosophy. Each side provides arguments for and against one of the other stands, only to conclude that, in any case, it is evident that both types of professionals should be prepared to impart these classes, having had the proper training.

To examine two of the most interesting questions dealt with in this study, the aspects of what and how, it was necessary to gather the opinions of both instructors and students. The tools employed for this purpose consisted of surveys, one designed for each group of subjects, based on the titles of 25 lectures and 18 teaching techniques.

The first is composed mainly of a list of the major themes found in deontological codes, and is based on the analysis and actual application of the principals most frequently mentioned in the literature, including such subjects as ‘Access to information and absence of discrimination’, ‘Copyrights: no to software plagiarism and piracy’, ‘Professional integrity of the informaticist (refusal of bribes)’, ‘Respect for intimacy and privacy on the part of the informaticist’, ‘Professional solidarity of the informaticist’, ‘Avoidance of conflict of interests on the part of the informaticist’, ‘The use of only licit and legal means on the part of the informaticist’, etc. On the other hand, the survey concerning teaching methods focuses on 18 techniques, including: ‘Analysis of case studies’, ‘Didactic lectures’, ‘Small discussion groups’, ‘Interviewing of professionals by students’, ‘Guest lectures’, etc.

Among other results, these surveys enabled the authors to observe and analyse the possible similarities and differences in two countries separated by vast geographical and cultural differences, as are Australia and Spain, with respect to:

  • the concept of this course.
  • students and instructors, taking into account the fact that most similar studies overlook the opinion of the students, a factor that the authors took into consideration given the probable existence of significant divergence between the real situation and the expectations of the student population. For example, with respect to teaching methods, in several previous surveys, the authors have observed that students prefer the study and analysis of actual cases over didactic lectures. This reflects the classical debate as to whether it is preferable to stress theoretical teaching or practical training. The existence of these earlier experiences also enabled the authors to observe the changes in attitude exhibited by the students over the course of time.

The issues concerning where, when and to whom are also analysed in the context of each of these two countries, since there is no clear consensus with respect to the stage at which the course should be offered and how many credit hours should be granted, or, on the other hand, whether it should constitute a complete course, an introductory course or a seminar.

Finally, and above all, the main conclusion gathered from this examination of students, instructors and school administrators confirms the original proposal, that Deontology should be a required course, mandatory for the academic training of the informaticist, rather than the exclusive patrimony of private or church-affiliated universities.