Ethics throughout a Computer Science curriculum


Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of
Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, organizer of computers-society.org, and author of the recently published Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Every Computer Science student should get significant exposure to the social, political, legal, and ethical issues raised by the accelerating progress in the development and use of digital technologies.

The standard approach is to offer one undergraduate course, typically called Computers and Society or Computer Ethics.  I have done this during the current term at Columbia University, using my new textbook, Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).  We meet twice a week for 75 minutes.  In class, I present key topics covered in the book, and welcome a number of guest speakers who present their own experiences and points of view.  Every class is interactive, as I try to get the students to express their own ideas.  There have been four assignments: a policy brief, a book report, a debate, and a research paper.  Such courses are typically not required by major research universities, which is a mistake, but they are often required by liberal arts colleges.

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Must computer science students learn about ethics?


Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of
Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, organizer of computers-society.org, and author of the recently published Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

My textbook — Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives — may be used in a variety of courses and contexts, but is intended primarily for use by Computer Science (CS) Departments, as they attempt to educate and train tomorrow’s software professionals, managers, and IT leaders. If we want to monitor how well departments are doing this job, we should ask is if they are sensitizing their students to the ethical responsibilities of the profession. It is useful to contrast the attitudes and performance of CS Departments, typically situated in science faculties, with departments in Faculties of Engineering.

Concern over ethics in Engineering began after several major disasters late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, notably several bridge failures and the Boston molasses disaster, in which a flood or molasses wreaked havoc on nearby building and train systems.  There already had been created professional societies such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.  These societies then moved quickly to introduce Codes of Ethics and requirements for licensing and accreditation, which ultimately caused university departments and faculties to include some learning about and practice with ethical concerns as part of their curricula.  A later development was the creation in 1954 by the National Society of Professional Engineers of a Board of Ethical Review.

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