Friday, July 14, 2017

Ethics and Computer Science Education

Are ethics and the effects of computer science a reason to teach CS to everyone? Increasingly we are seeing all sort of impacts on daily life because of computing. Some are unintended but others are intended and often some of these impacts are not good. What is going on? Basically I think two things. One is that people are not going beyond asking if something can be done to should it be done. The other is just plain unethical behavior done for profit. Perhaps education in ethical thinking can help. It is at least something we should try.

Computing and its effects are still relatively new. We’re doing things today with computers that were the stuff of science fiction not very long ago. Smart phones, GPS navigation, self-driving cars (I heard about self driving boats – big ones – at CSTA this week) and much more. Schools are teaching students how to make these things possible but are we teaching enough about how to weigh the consequences? Not always. But we should.

Teaching good behavior on the Internet and in social media is becoming very common. In fact in some places it is required to be taught. That’s great as far as it goes but computing is so much more than that.

The CS 2013 curriculum for undergraduate includes ethics and professional behavior. But what are we doing in K12? Are ethics part of the discussion in K12 standards? It is in the CS K12 Framework. Still it seems to be on the backburner for many teachers. Why? Well full curriculum for starters. There is not much room for it in the APCS A curriculum. There is in the AP CS Principles curriculum and hopefully there will be some good educational discussions in those classes.

Really though it shouldn’t be a separate topic in my opinion. Ethical behavior is something that we should bake into the curriculum in various contexts. We need students to be thinking about ethics from the very start. I argue that students need to learn to think about if something should be done as they learn how to do it. Take big data for example. Data analysis is a powerful and wonderful tool. It can be used to solve all sorts of problems from medical research to how to get around the neighborhood. But it can also be used in negative ways. Can you imagine what the  Nazis could have done with modern databases? Think on that for a while and realize that there are bad actors in governments in the world today.

Computers can be used to make car engines cleaner and more efficient. They can also be used, as we saw with Volkswagen, to cheat on emissions tests. Did the engineers who wrote that cheat code think about the ethical implications? We’ll probably never know but our students should be taught to think about it.

Some may argue that ethics belongs in a separate course or that CS teachers should leave that teaching to others but I think the special context of CS and in fact the special power that CS knowledge gives requires we, CS teachers, include it in out curriculum. More than that I think that everyone, not just the people who will be CS professionals, needs to understand how to think about ethical computing. Can we really expect business or political leaders to think about ethical use of computers if they don’t have training in the mix? I don’t think so.

The ethics of using computers, how and why they are used and what they can do, is increasingly an important life skill. Ethical computing is another reason we should teach CS for all.

BTW The other day there was a twitter chat about ethics and computer science education (Check the #EthicalCS twitter tag). Saber Khan is organizing them on Wednesday's during the summer (8pm Eastern time) and this was the first. It was an interesting conversation and brought a lot of ideas to light for me. I recommend joining in over the summer.

2 comments:

Doug said...

In my mind, there is no question whatsoever. Ethics needs to be taught and demonstrated by teachers in ALL subject areas. There is no need for discussion or debate.

In the Ontario Computer Studies curriculum document, it is explicitly stated in the section of the document dealing with Ethical Practices.

http://edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/computer10to12_2008.txt

Alfred Thompson said...

See also this Dilbert cartoon.

http://dilbert.com/strip/2017-07-11