The challenges of teaching ethics in a multi-cultural university setting

AUTHOR

Kim Munro and Kathy Munro (South Africa)

ABSTRACT

This paper explores the challenges of teaching ethics in Information systems to two diverse groups of students, in an entry level course at a large, multi-cultural, urban, South African university. The objective is to identify and determine the prior ethical values and norms of students coming from a range of cultural, language, age and class backgrounds. The two respondent groups are younger students (full-time students, age 18 to 21) and somewhat older, adult students (part-time programme for age category primarily 25 to 40 years). We will then explore how pre-existing ethical values to business operations can shape the curriculum design of an ethics component in Informations Systems at first year university level.

Via the case study method, this paper provides an insight into the relationship between prior ethical values and the subsequent curriculum course design focusing on ethics. This paper should be of relevance to other societies and academics grappling with similar cultural challenges in teaching ethics courses.

It is vital that Information Systems students are provided with some type or kind of ethical training as part of their tertiary education. The extent of the knowledge base of Information Systems graduates (or Bachelor of Commerce graduates with Information Systems majors) and their potential responsibility as Information Systems professionals make these professionals prime targets to engage in unethical conduct with massive and potentially disastrous implications for business success in a developing economy. Ethics education in the computing field of higher education has been acknowledged as an essential component in the curriculum. In South Africa most information systems and computer science departments at universities have lecture programmes to make students aware of ethical issues in the computing field, but there is debate about the extent and positioning of ethics education in the curriculum.

There is a wide array of different sub-cultures and races in South Africa. Although South Africa since 1994 functions as a non-racial democracy, the legacy of apartheid, past educational deprivation, the colonial past and the persistence of linguistic divisions continue to shape cultural perspectives. English is the language of communication and instruction at the University of the Witwatersrand, although at a national level eleven official languages are recognised. Local students at the University of the Witwatersrand come from white, black, asian (South African Indian), coloured and chinese backgrounds. A further emerging significant group comprises of students from other African countries who now study at the university (students coming from Zimbabwe, the D R C, Angola, Malawi, Botswana and Mocambique). Most full-time students enter the university as recent school leavers with little business experience. The principal age category is 18 to 21 years old.

In 2000 the University of the Witwatersrand introduced a new programme aimed at widening access to degree studies by opening evening, part-time courses to mature adult, working students. These students are somewhat older, with variable business experience. Information Systems was one of a select number of courses available to these students. A high-percentage of the students registered for Information Systems on the part-time programme are already working in the Information Systems field, however have not obtained a degree, and have decided to return to university in a part-time capacity to obtain one.

During the past two years there has been considerable debate about the appropriate positioning and extent of the teaching of ethics in the curriculum. There has been a limited exposure to ethical issues through the structure of most textbooks. The curriculum is heavily shaped by American textbook contents and do not necessarily address the unique African perspective. Most introductory level textbooks in the computing field have one chapter on ethics, however in second and third year, as the subject becomes more specialised, ethics education is neglected. The authors seek to argue that cultural and classroom diversity impel teachers of Information systems to foreground the teaching of ethical issues from the first year of study through to the Honours (fourth) year of study.

This paper aims to establish whether cultural, familial, age, linguistic differences and diversity in business experience impacts on initial attitudes to ethics in the practice of information systems. A written questionnaire administered to 200 full-time students and 60 part-time students at first year level registered for the Information Systems course will provide the basis for a statistical and qualitative analysis of students entry-level ethical values and norms. This data will inform the argument that ethical issues should be taught in a coherent and consistent manner at all levels of teaching. It will discuss the differences in ethical attitudes of part-time versus full-times students, and suggest mechanisms of instruction to cover all the necessary aspects of ethics in Information Systems. Moreover, it will add to the current base of research on the teaching of ethics and highlight the topics that should be emphasised more strongly than others in university ethics courses.

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