The Problem of Teaching Ethical Theory to Computing Undergraduates

Suzy Jagger


Practitioners have identified that the teaching of ethical theory presents problems for students learning ethics as part of a professional degree programme. This is particularly the case where the course is compulsory rather than optional and is due to the student feeling they did not ‘sign up’ to learn these philosophical concepts. Thus, there is often a balancing act in judging how much theoretical content to put into a module and differing views on whether ethical theory should be taught at all. This study examines the extent to which students on a first year undergraduate computing course were able to understand and apply ethical theory to help them identify ethical issues, using a step-by-step model.

The study utilises empirical measurement from the perspective of moral development theory by incorporating three scoring methods. An ethical theory score, a moral sensitivity score and a moral judgment score. The ethical theory score was devised from coursework in which student understanding of three specific ethical theories was evaluated. The second score – the ethical sensitivity score – was devised using a tiered approach to analysing students’ identification of ethical issues in relation to a particular computing-related scenario. This measurement was an adaptation of a similar approach taken by Bebeau (1985)and Clarkeburn (2002). The third score, the moral judgment score was devised using a well-documented psychometric test, the Defining Issues Test, developed by James Rest (1999).

The scores were correlated against each other to identify the relationships between them with regard to ethical understanding and application, identification of ethical issues and moral judgment. The study highlights the inherent problems students encounter in understanding ethical theory but also shows a correlation between a high understanding of theoretical ethical concepts and ethical sensitivity and judgment. This suggests that, students who have mastered the theoretical concepts are more able to identify ethical issues and make moral judgments or the converse, that those with higher levels of moral judgment (as defined by the Defining Issues Test) and moral sensitivity are better able to understand theoretical concepts. The link suggests that although problematic, ethical theoretical concepts should be on the curricula but that there are issues in how to teach these theories effectively to this type of cohort.

1. Introduction

There is some published work exploring the link between professional ethics and moral development (Daniel et al., 1997 Loe et al., 2000 Robinson et al., 2000 Kavathatzopoulos, 1994) but less which evaluates specific teaching methods using multiple data sets. In the arena of computing ethics there are a limited number of studies which examine individual teaching methods in detail to determine what works and what does not which touch on moral development, but there is a clear need for further, more coordinated, research (Smolarski and Whitehead, 2000 Staehr and Byrne, 2003).

This research was designed to determine the effectiveness of a step-by-step moral decision-making exercise which incorporates ethical theory to help students develop moral decision-making skills. The study utilises three measurements. Two of the scores (moral sensitivity and moral judgment) were designed to measure two of four components represented in Rest’s Four Component Model of moral development (Rest, 1984). A third measurement, the ethical theory score, was devised within the study to measure student understanding of ethical theory.

Approaches to ethics teaching

The various classical approaches to ethics teaching centre on instruction in ethical theory. Theories such as; utilitarianism, deontology, social contract theory and virtue ethics are the most commonly referred to on computing courses and are briefly explained in most computing ethics text books. Ethical theory is often used by practitioners to aid students in evaluating dilemmas. Advocating ‘least harm’ and ‘greatest amount of good’ as key phrases in determining possible solutions provides an ethical benchmark from which to work. Presenting students with options from a philosophical perspective allows a level of guidance without being prescriptive.

The use of the ethical scenario is a common approach in ethics education to aid the development of moral reasoning skills through critical analysis and involves students analysing an ethical dilemma within the context of the profession. Baetz and Carson (among others) conclude in their research that, when approached sensitively and thoughtfully, dilemma analysis is a valuable tool which contributes to a positive learning experience (1999). A number of professional ethics text books provide an assortment of dilemmas for discussion and analysis.

There are many step by step models which are used both in business and education. An example is Wolcott and Lenk’s model (2003) in which students analyse an ethical dilemma through a series of four steps. The teaching method adopted on the course utilised this approach (with adaptations) and responses provided data for the ethical theory score used in the study.

2. Research Method

The paper provides in-depth explanation of the research methods used to obtain the first two scores which are correlated against each other. However, explanation concerning the third score, the moral judgment or P-Score is the topic of another paper (although the results are correlated against the scores in this paper as it is the same cohort and part of the overall project).

These scores were compared against each other to determine the level of correlation between understanding and applying ethical theory, identifying ethical issues and making moral judgments.


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