Teaching Computer Ethics to IT Students in Higher Education


Eva Turner,
Principal Lecturer,
University of East London,

Paula Roberts,
University of South Australia,


The teaching of computer ethics in the preparation of computer professionals, (and the education of the general computer user), is an area of increasing importance and interest, as well as an increasing scope of topics in the evolving discipline of social informatics (such as computers in work, health, education and safety-critical systems, professional ethics codes, information security and privacy, and Internet discourse and research).

This paper examines data gained from a survey of computer ethics programs in a sample of British and Australian universities with respect to provision, perspective and practice, and from an analysis of these diverse approaches (both integrated and specialized programs, some compulsory, some voluntary), the authors weigh the advantages and disadvantages of these approaches and suggest what the ideal content and scenario for teaching computer ethics might be.

The study
The research was conducted in two parts, firstly an email questionnaire was sent to computing lecturers through academic mailing lists which sought information regarding the provision and motivation for teaching computer ethics in their university and the program’s perspective and practice. The sample was taken from those universities in the UK and Australia which have Computing Science and Information Systems Departments.

Secondly, a case study in an Australian university explored the philosophical and psychological base for an integrated, skills/ethics approach to the teaching of a computer ethics program which involved a sequence of subjects in a Multimedia program. The research findings, likewise, are summarised under the headings of the program’s provision, practice and perspective.

The findings from the first stage of the research project (that is, the survey of university computer ethics programs) may be summarised briefly as follows:

There was little commonality in organizational policy for the provision of computer ethics programs, with few respondents indicating a departmental or university policy, and most reporting that computer ethics programs depended on initiatives by individual lecturers.

Many UK departments indicated compulsory provision for Computing / Computer Science/ IS / IT single honours degrees and one department stipulated that the program is only compulsory for those students who want to achieve the British Computer Society accreditation. Six departments indicated that the main reason for providing any teaching on professional and ethical issues are the requirements of British Computer Society. It appears likely that, in the universities of the other respondents, computer ethics teaching has been provided because of the personal beliefs of the staff involved.

There was a wide range in the approach to the teaching of computer ethics from specialised subjects to a part of a computing subject, or merely the discussion of professional issues in other than specialized subjects, while some departments offered only one or more sessions on what was termed the ‘Professional Development of Computer/IT/IS professionals’.

Several of the respondents provided a detailed syllabus of their courses, and the topics covered in the syllabi can be grouped into three distinctive groups, that is, Ethical and Social Issues of the Cyberspace, Professional / Legal Issues, and Mutual Influences of Society and Technology. None of these syllabi included the ethical issues of gender and race (except in questions of pornography and freedom of expression) nor disability, nor took account of cultural differences in computing skill acquisition and use (the ‘digital divide’). Most programs concentrated on the requirements of the BCS course accreditation, which currently requires only a little more than an awareness of legal issues.

Case Study
The second stage of the research involves a case study of the provision of an integrated, sequential program in computer ethics in a Multimedia award in an Australian university, in accord with the university’s anticipated student outcomes, termed ‘Graduate Qualities’. Of prime importance for the teaching of computer ethics is the university’s mandate to educate students as ‘ethical citizens and ethical professionals’.

The ethical perspective of the program is wide in its compulsory, introductory computing subject which teaches in twin strands both basic computing skills and social informatics. This subject is a pre-requisite for both computer science and arts students who progress to the Multimedia major. The skills/ethics approach continues in sequential subjects in the major, for example in image ethics (see Roberts & Webber 1999).

The ethics program has as its philosophical base the concept of computing as a valued human practice and, in particular, the treatise of MacIntyre (1984) on the inculcation of the virtues in a community of practice. The community of practice in this case study mirrors the artisan training in guilds in pre-industrial times where the master/apprentice relationship developed not only the skills of a craft but also the ethos of that craft for transmission to future generations of workers. Thus, in this computer ethics program, the students’ development of computing skills is matched by their development of an understanding of ethical responsibility in the practice of that skill.

The psychological base relates to the place and pedagogy of the teaching of computer ethics, both as part of the general moral development of the student (Kohlberg 1974; Blum 1994) and as part of the professional moral development of the student (Roberts 1994).

Student outcomes from this integrated program in computer ethics also are discussed.

The paper concludes with a discussion of the efficacy and appropriateness of both integrated and specialized programs in computer ethics (compulsory and voluntary) which are outlined in this research study, and, as part of this debate, refers to the perspectives advanced by experts in the computer ethics field, such as Gotterbarn & Rogerson (2000).

There appears to be a good case for having departmental policies and initiatives to support specialist lecturers in their inclusion of ethical issues in their computing subjects. There is also a growing awareness in computing departments of the importance of their courses being accredited by a professional organization such as the British Computer Society.

This accreditation process will present the opportunity for professional bodies such as the BCS and the Australian Computer Society to broaden and specify their requirements for computer ethics syllabi to include such important issues as gender, race, disability and culture.


Blum, L.A. (1994) Moral Perception and Particularity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D. Gotterbarn & S. Rogerson (1999) Computer Ethics: The Evolution of the Uniqueness Revolution, http://www.ccsr.cse.dmu.ac.uk/staff/Srog/teaching/cepe.htm and http://www.ccsr.cse.dmu.ac.uk/staff/Srog/teaching/cepe.htm, accessed 5/12/2000

Kohlberg, L. (1971) Stages of moral development as a basis for moral education, B. Beck, S, Crittenden & E.S. Sullivan (eds.) pp.30-41, Moral Education – Interdisciplinary Approaches. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

MacIntyre, A.C. (1984) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Edn. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press.

Roberts, P.M. (1994). The place and pedagogy of teaching ethics in the computing curriculum, Australian Educational Computing, April.

Roberts, P.M. & Webber, J. (1999) Visual truth in the digital age: Towards a protocol for image ethics, Australian Computer Journal, 3, 3: 78-82

BCS current and future accreditation requirements, obtained from http://www.bcs.org.uk/educat/accinf.htm and from the BCS, October 2000

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