Using the Defining Issues Test for Evaluating Computer Ethics Teaching


Lorraine J. Staehr
Department of Information Technology

Graeme J. Byrne
Department of Mathematics

La Trobe University,
Bendigo Australia


The importance of computer ethics education for the computing professional was recognised a decade ago by its inclusion in the computer science curriculum (Computing Curriculum, 1991). Since the publication in 1997 of the Australian Computer Society’s (ACS) body of knowledge for computing professionals (Underwood, 1997), a higher priority has been given to the teaching of computer ethics in Australia. The teaching of ethics in computing courses is now mandatory for professional level accreditation of a tertiary degree. The ACS core body of knowledge states that computing students should be “encouraged to develop a personal ethical framework”.

Two questions arise from this:

  • How do we teach computer ethics in such a way as to encourage students to develop a personal ethical framework?
  • How do we evaluate our teaching to see if this aim has been achieved?

An attempt to answer the first question was made in Staehr (1999).
This paper reports on a study that attempted to answer the second question. It is based on the work of Kohlberg who applied the developmental approach of Jean Piaget to the analysis of changes in moral reasoning. Kohlberg used surveys as a research methodology for assessing moral development. He presented subjects with moral dilemmas and asked them to evaluate the moral conflict. He found that moral growth begins early in life and proceeds in stages throughout adulthood. He defined three levels of moral development, with each level having two stages:

Level I: Preconventional Morality (age 4 – 10)
Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation
Stage 2: Instrumental-Relativist Orientation

Level II: Conventional Morality (age 10 – 13)
Stage 3:”Good Boy/Nice Girl” Orientation
Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation

Level III: Postconventional Morality (adolescence – adulthood)
Stage 5: Legalistic Orientation
Stage 6: Universal, Ethical Orientation.

The Defining Issues Test (DIT) of moral judgment is a questionnaire based on Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Although the DIT has been used with a variety of professional/occupational groups to our knowledge the DIT has not been used to evaluate the teaching of computer ethics. The DIT was purchased from the Center for Ethical Development at the University of Minnesota and was administered to final year computing students at La Trobe University Bendigo. It presents respondents with six moral dilemma scenarios to evaluate. One group of students enrolled in the course Professional Environment was used as the experimental group, and the control group was drawn from computing students not enrolled in Professional Environment. The questionnaire was administered at the beginning and end of the semester to both groups with the aim of detecting any significant changes in moral development over the semester. As there was a computer ethics component within the Professional Environment course, the hypothesis was that students enrolled in this course would exhibit a greater increase in score for moral development at the end of the semester compared with those in the control group. The above experimental design is commonly called repeated measures, or a “before-and-after with a control group” design. Other factors such as gender were incorporated into the design.

For both the experimental and control groups a general increase in moral development was observed over the semester with gender being a non-significant factor. The experimental group performed significantly better than the control group, indicating a positive outcome due to the computer ethics teaching.


Computing Curricula 1991. (1991). Report of the ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Curriculum Task Force, (Ed. Tucker, A.), ACM Press, New York, 1991.

Staehr, L. (1999) Teaching Ethics to Computing Students. Proceedings of the First AICE International Conference, Ed. Simpson, C.R., Melbourne, Australia, pp. 347-355. Full paper available online:

Underwood, A. (1997). The ACS Core Body of Knowledge for Information Technology Professionals. The Australian Computer Society Incorporated.