My University, My Facilities: Exploring Student Attitudes to Ethical Usage

Mary Prior and Mike Leigh



Over the past decade there have been several studies into the ethical attitudes of IS professionals [Prior et al, 2002, 2005]. Studies have also been undertaken that include the views of university students in the UK [Prior, 2004, Prior et al 2008] and in the USA [Grozinsky et al, 2008]. Some of survey instruments used in the studies covered a wide range of computer ethics issues, and were originally designed to be administered to IS professionals before subsequently being used with student subjects. Other survey instruments were designed explicitly to be used with students, but covered only a restricted range of ethical issues. This paper reports a study using a survey instrument explicitly targeted at university students of IS/IT, covering a range of ethical issues. It is also distinguished from previous work in being part of a co-ordinated study across three countries: the UK, USA and Canada.

Research Design

The paper will report the results of a study using a combination of questionnaire and structured interviews. A questionnaire was used as an efficient method of ascertaining the views of a large number of students; structured interviews were used to follow up particular issues raised by the questionnaire results, to probe in more depth the reasons for particular responses [Bryman, 2008].

The questionnaire was based on a survey instrument used in previous studies [e.g. Prior et al 2005]. It presents a series of statements to which the respondent indicates the strength of their agreement/disagreement using a five-point Likert Scale. A process of negotiation was used with collaborating partners to arrive at a set of statements tailored for the study subjects: university students. For example, a new set of statements concerning the use of social networking sites was introduced. Finally, the agreed questionnaire was contextualised at each site to take into account local cultural and/or institutional differences.

The profile of respondents differs in some respects between each of the three geographical sites taking part in the collaborative study. This paper reports responses from students at a UK university. Responses were sought from second and final year undergraduate groups and a postgraduate group. Students were studying on a variety of IT-related courses; the majority were under 25 but some mature students were represented, as were both male and female students. They came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, with the postgraduate group including a larger proportion of students from outside the UK.

After the questionnaires had been administered they were submitted to a collaborating colleague with statistical expertise and process using a statistical package. The results were analysed and interpreted to identify issues worthy of being followed up in greater depth in the structured interviews.

At the time of preparing this abstract, the structured interviews are not complete; however from the work completed to date some comments can be made on the findings.


Students appear to hold some views that are worthy of further scrutiny. For example nearly 50% of them agree or strongly agree that it is acceptable to make unauthorised copies of software to use for their university work. As many as 67% say it is acceptable to use the university’s facilities for their own non-profit-making activities. Some 20% do not care about the overall objectives or purpose of a systems development project, so long as it provides them with an interesting challenge – an another 25% are indifferent.

Behind the overall figures lie some interesting differences. On some issues, there is a clear difference between the 2nd and final year cohorts, with the latter showing evidence of more ethical awareness. On others, it is the responses of the postgraduate group that differ from the undergraduates. It is possible that on the one hand, the final year students have had more time and experience (most of them have worked for a year in industry as a part of their course) to develop their views; in addition, they may have had their attitudes further developed by undertaking a computer ethics module. On the other, there may be cultural factors at work when it comes to the postgraduate students, many of whom are from the Middle East. These are some of the issues to be pursued in the structured interviews.


This paper is a part of an ongoing series of studies into the ethical attitudes of IS professionals, and of students of IS/IT. It differs from previous surveys in being specifically targeted at university students, and being a part of a collaborative study.

The findings are considered important as it explores some of the developing attitudes of tomorrow’s IS professionals. If it is desirable to ensure that the IS professionals of the future adopt an ethical approach to their work, it is important to gain an understanding of how that approach may best be formed and enhanced. To what extent does the studying of a computer ethics module help in the formation of a professional, ethical approach to IS/IT related work? This and its sister studies will help to find an answer to that question.


Bryman, A. 2008. Social Research Methods. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.

Grodzinsky, F. S. Lilley, S. & Gumbus, A. 2008. Ethical implication of internet monitoring: a comparative study. ETHICOMP 2008, University of Pavia, Mantova, Italy, 24-26 Septebmer 2008.

Prior, M. (2004) Surveillance-capable technologies in the workplace: some evidence of the views of the next generation of computer professionals. ETHICOMP 2004, Syros, Greece, 14-16 April 2004.

Prior, M. Fairweather, N.B. Rogerson, S, Dave, K. 2005. Is IT Ethical? 2004 ETHICOMP Survey of Professional Practice. IMIS.

Prior, M. Rogerson, S & Fairweather, N. B. 2008. Exploring motivations for surprising views about ethical issues in Information Systems. ETHICOMP 2008, University of Pavia, Mantova, Italy, 24-26 September 2008.

Prior, M. Rogerson, R. & Fairweather, B. 2002. The ethical attitudes of information systems professionals: outcomes of an initial survey. Telematics and Informatics, vol. 19 (1), 21-36.

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