Integrating Ethics Into Computing Curricula
Associate Professor of Computer Science Sorelle Friedler is one of the collaborators on a new playbook that aims to help higher education institutions incorporate ethics and responsibility into their computer science curricula.
Haverford College is part of the inaugural cohort of 22 colleges and universities who have come together in an unprecedented collaboration to create a playbook with lessons learned on how schools can update curricula to help students bring ethics and a holistic view of society to the design of technology products.
As part of the Responsible Computer Science Challenge, the participating schools and Mozilla have released the Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook that will help higher education institutions integrate responsibility and ethics into their computing curricula, ultimately driving a cultural shift in the tech industry and building a healthier internet.
Associate Professor of Computer Science Sorelle Friedler, a recipient of a Mozilla grant for this work, was one of the playbook’s co-authors. She, along with her colleagues at Haverford and at the University of Utah and Brown University, worked to integrate responsible computing ideas into the data structures and algorithms curriculum.
“I think it's critically important that computer science students learn about, and question, the ethics of computing systems as they learn to build them,” she said. “In our developed lesson plans and programming assignments we've addressed issues critical to democracy (voting roll purges), criminal justice (racial bias in automated risk assessments), and the environment (the CO2 emissions of code). Integrating such examples into the computer science curriculum demonstrates the importance of ethical and responsible design of computing systems while helping students to draw connections between computer science and the rest of our liberal arts curriculum.”
The launch of the Playbook comes at a critical moment when computer science education is booming, with a 300 percent rise in bachelors in computer science enrollment between 2009 and 2019 (CRA Taulbee Survey).
These students will wield tremendous power, according to Kathy Pham, a computer scientist, Mozilla Fellow, and co-editor of the Playbook.
“The code they write may be used by billions of people, influencing everything from which news stories we read, to what kind of personal data companies collect, to who qualifies for parole, insurance, or housing loans -- and who does not,” said Pham. “In other words, these students have the power to shape society. When that power isn’t coupled with responsibility, the results can have unintended consequences, negatively impacting users’ autonomy, privacy, security, or wellbeing, as well as causing harm to society as a whole.”
There were two main challenges to launching such an initiative: the diversity of cultures among institutions, and the fact that computing faculty couldn’t design this curriculum alone. The nature of responsible computing requires input from experts in other departments, particularly humanistic studies, a field where issues of ethics and society have been studied for centuries. With this in mind, the Playbook collected contributions from more than 30 authors from all types of institutions—liberal arts, private and public, community college, Ivy League,Jesuit, Quaker, and more. Each participating institution conceptualized, developed, and piloted undergraduate computing curricula that address the social impact of computing. The Playbook uses lessons learned from their efforts to create a framework that can be adopted by computing programs everywhere.
The Playbook is divided into 20 sections, including Working Across Institutions, contributed by Friedler. Other sections include Choosing Computing Courses, Learning Outcomes and Assessments; Accreditation and Ethics, Broadening Participation and Responsible Computing, and Discussing Justice and Equity.
“In the Playbook, we describe some of the difficulties and benefits of doing this type of cross-institutional work,” said Friedler. “We also describe some of the specific activities we've integrated into the Haverford computer science curriculum in the examples in the Choosing Computing Courses section as well as in the Discussing Justice and Equity section. These curricular modules have been developed in cooperation with Jon Wilson in environmental studies, Sara Mathieson, Rajesh Kumar, and Alvin Grissom II in computer science, as well as our students. The Conversations about Responsible Computing and Employment Choices section also includes a discussion of our efforts to hold conversations with alums and current students about how to make ethical choices as a computing industry employee.”
Each section contains an overview; key questions for educators to ask themselves; step-by-step checklists; case studies of how participating institutions have integrated those checklists into their programs; and links to additional resources. The authors are encouraging faculty from additional institutions, especially those outside the United States, to add to this body of work; submissions are welcomed.
“It is not enough for us to think about the ethical consequences of technology designs after they’ve had a negative impact,” said Pham. “The Playbook offers a framework for embedding ethics and responsibility into undergraduate computer science curricula—before students land jobs and start coding—and to train the next generation to foresee how their technologies may affect humanity.”
“My main feeling about the Playbook is a sense of wonder about what we as a group were able to achieve,” said Atri Rudra, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University at Buffalo, and a co-editor of the Playbook. “A couple of months back I was talking with a new colleague who is interested in responsible computing in education, and they listed five or six things that they thought were important to consider, and I realized we had a section for each of those topics! Until then I’d been immersed in the logistical weeds of the Playbook, but that moment made me realize that we have created something that could potentially be great!”
The Playbook is a collection of learnings and best practices gleaned from the first two years of a three-year RCSC initiative led by the Mozilla Foundation, Omidyar Network, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. RCSC has provided $3.5M in grants to 19 colleges and universities to conceptualize, develop, and pilot curricula that integrate ethics with undergraduate computer science training.
Learn more by joining the Global Teaching Responsible Computing Community of Practice or by attending the Teaching Responsible Computing Day Summit on July 29, 2021.