Teaching Professional Issues in Computing through the Development of a Student Code of Ethics

Bernd Carsten Stahl, Chris Wood and Richard Howley


The importance of ethical issues in computing does not have to be emphasised at a conference such as ETHICOMP. It will also be not be contentious to state that one important part of addressing these issues is through the education of future computing professionals. How this is to be done is a rather different matter. In this paper we want to develop a new approach to teaching professional issues in computing by allowing students to develop their own codes of ethics. The purpose of this paper is therefore to develop a sound theoretical foundation for this endeavour which we intend to put into practice in our own teaching.

The student target group for whom we design this module are higher national diploma students in the UK. This means that we are looking at a population of students who do not aspire to the highest academic standards but who are instead interested in a reliable education that will promote their professional outlook. While this sort of student may be susceptible to the idea that ethical matters are possibly of importance to them in their future career as computer professionals they generally have little formal training or experience in dealing with such problems. Furthermore, in a course such as this one there are severe time constraints with regards to time and resources available. While there is a professional issues module in the course this will largely be taken up by practical skills such as project management.

Given this general situation we tried to identify those aspects that might influence the success of the course. At the same time we were looking for theoretical considerations that would allow us to conceptualise the course in a promising manner. We did this by considering two fields of theory: On the one hand we looked at different theories of teaching and learning, particularly as they pertained to the use of computing in learning. This is justified by the fact large parts of the course will take place in computer laboratories where e-teaching and e-learning will be a possibility. On the other hand we looked at ethical theory and how philosophical ethics could help us in the design of the course. Here we put our emphasis on that part of the ethical literature that is concerned with questions of computing or information. Of course this is quite an ambitious undertaking and we cannot hope to do justice to even one of these theoretical fields in a short paper such as this. Our choice of topics within those two fields is therefore necessarily somewhat eclectic but we hope that the readers will still be able to follow our approach.

The most important distinction we extracted from the theory of e-teaching and e-learning was that between constructivist and positivist teaching models. Positivist teaching models are based on the assumption that there is a given reality independent of human perception. True statements can be made by describing this reality the way it is. Teaching thus consists of transferring as many of such true statements and observations from the (knowing) teacher to the (not yet knowing) learner. In the constructivist paradigm knowledge is seen a something that is constructed by the learner through the process of learning whereby the learner’s constructions represent the relevant reality. While the distinction between positivism and constructivism raises many difficult philosophical problems it seemed to us that for our purposes only a constructivist approach could be justified. Ethical problems and ethical rules are entities that belong into the sphere of social constructions rather than natural occurrences.

A look at the ethical theory informed us that there is no generally recognised approach to teaching ethical issues in computing just as there is no generally accepted ethical theory. One possible way of proceeding with our task was thus to introduce the students to philosophical ethics by briefly discussing the most important ethical theories. However, this approach ran into problems because of the time restrictions as well as the lack of prior knowledge on the part of the students. Another approach to computing ethics that is often put forward as a practical solution but also as a way of teaching the subject is the use of codes of ethics. This seemed more practical to us, however, the use of a given code such as the ACM or the BCS code was problematic because it collided with our above decision of using a constructivist approach. Simply giving students a prefabricated code of ethics and indoctrinating them with it (or even critically analysing it) struck us as typically positivist.

The solution that we chose was therefore to have the students develop their own code of ethics for computer use. This combined several advantages: One of the most important arguments for this approach was that it will allow students to use their prior knowledge and experience to identify the ethical problems that computing use can raise. This will allow them to raise their level of awareness and should at the same time prove interesting to them. Second, by using this approach we are not committed to a particular ethical theory but instead rely on the students’ moral intuition. This should create contradicting views and interpretations which in turn should trigger ethical discussions which will allow the students to examine their own convictions. Third, the development of the students’ code of ethics should produce a “living” document which should allow the students to reflect on their own practices without the constant threat of sanctions. Fourth, students will, when confronted with other codes during their future careers, be able to better understand and critically reflect these codes.

A central problem of this approach is that it largely neglects considerations of traditional ethical theories. We realise the importance of teleology, deontology, virtue, justice etc. for these matters but we also had to keep in mind the limitations of the module and the students. They will generally have not background in philosophy and little aptitude for reading complex texts. Our fear is that exposing them to Kant, Mill, Rawls et al. will put them off ethics rather than explicate their moral reasoning structures. Also, we hope that the process of producing their own code of conduct and applying it to case studies and contrasting it with others will encompass will lead them to consider these reasoning skills. We thus see this module as an exercise in raising awareness which, if successful, should be followed up on by a more philosophically minded module.

In writing this paper we will try to lay the theoretical foundations for a module on professional standards for Higher National Diploma students. Our purpose in submitting this to the ETHICOMP conference is firstly to get some feedback that will hopefully allow us to develop these ideas. Also, we will review the theoretical considerations in the light of the teaching reality which will by then have taken place and will hopefully allow us a useful critique of our approach.