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What Do We Teach When We Teach Tech Ethics? A Syllabi Analysis

An analysis of a crowdsourced collection of 202 tech ethics syllabi from 94 Universities (mostly USA, but also Canada, Europe, South America, Australia/New Zealand, and the Middle East).

A general, broad-strokes, piece of research with noted limitations in its wider representation of academia but also very welcome as it provides insight into the content of myriad tech ethics classes.

The paper provides several key conclusions:

1) "Though most classes are taught within computer science, and the most common home department for instructors is also computer science, it is more common for the instructor’s disciplinary background (as represented by their terminal degree) to be in philosophy or information science than in computer science."

2) "The most common topic, appearing in 57% of the syllabi analyzed, was law and policy...Traditional ethical theories and other aspects of philosophy are covered in 53% of the syllabi analyzed...A little over half of the syllabi analyzed covered some aspects of inequality, justice, and human rights..."

- With remaining topics including, "AI and Algorithms, Social & environmental impact, Civic responsibility & misinformation, AI & robots, Business & economics, Professional ethics, Work & labor, Design, Cybersecurity, Research ethics, Medical/health."

3) "The overarching goal of ethics courses appears to be to teach students to recognize ethical issues in the world (similar to the “issue spotting” skill that is critical to legal education), critically evaluate and assess these issues and technologies (including considering multiple perspectives and potential consequences), and make well-reasoned arguments based on these critiques"

Ultimately, academics in computer science have taken up the call to action to incorporate ethics into their courses, but there is certainly a great variation in course material with no standards in practice to guide them. In addition, the paper notes one pedagogical debate as to whether ethics courses should be standalone, or whether they should be taught from day one alongside technical topics.

The authors themselves conclude:

"This reminder– that code is power, and it should be used responsibility–could be part of every computing course, but is arguably most important at the very beginning of the process of learning to code. This strategy might even be a way to combat an "I’m just an engineer" mindset that ethics is "someone else’s job" by emphasizing its role in computing from day one and then continuing this reminder throughout the curriculum."

Read here.

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