Grantees from Mozilla’s Responsible Computer Science Challenge recently presented their work at Computing Research Association (CRA) Snowbird, the flagship conference for the leadership of the North American computing research community. In a panel titled “Incorporating Ethics into Computer Science Education,” faculty from the University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Maryland Baltimore County, and The State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo) described the opportunities and pitfalls of different pedagogical approaches, classroom activities, and institutional frameworks. Together, they made a powerful argument for teaching responsible computing as a form of cultural competency: ethics in computing should be a norm in technical practice and a path for specialization, not an afterthought or add-on.
The panel was exceptionally well-timed (and well-received). Socially responsible research has become a main goal for the CRA and faculty across different types of institutions engaged with our grantees and the material they developed at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Education Board task force, headed by Professor Bobby Schnabel, has collated much of this work in a centralized repository as a resource to aid faculty in teaching ethics in computing topics. Mozilla has created a similar resource, the Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook.
Here are a few major insights from our esteemed panelists about implementing ethical approaches to computing at your own university:
When should you opt for a standalone class vs. horizontal ethics integration?
As Professor Casey Fiesler describes, standalone classes have a variety of benefits: They are taught by experts with deep subject matter expertise; they provide a foundation for thinking that can apply to other classes; and additional class time allows students to dig deeper into the conceptual foundations rather than focusing on individual applications. Standalone classes, however, risk a silo effect.
Horizontal integration can ensure that anyone who takes a computing class hears about ethics, which also avoids isolating ethics learning from its context. Integrating ethics within the curriculum fundamentally underscores that thinking about ethical implications is a form of doing computer science; it is inseparable from the practice of computing. To explore different models of ethics curricula, Fiesler has compiled an exhaustive collection of tech ethics syllabi and ethics-based computer science assignments.
Integrating ethics within the curriculum fundamentally underscores that thinking about ethical implications is a form of doing computer science; it is inseparable from the practice of computing.
What are major barriers to implementing responsible computing curricula?
Professors Helena Mentis and Atri Rudra both shared the eternal struggle of trying to add modules to a course that already has too much other material to cover. This burden is exacerbated by a lack of expertise and resources for how to seamlessly integrate questions about ethics in ways that do not silo the issue. Getting institutional buy-in can also be difficult without a department or school-level champion who can publicly support these initiatives with funding and institutional visibility, which requires a multi-year commitment. The grantees have addressed how to overcome these challenges in part through the Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook, particularly in the sections on hiring, promotion, and tenure and strategies for managing resistance.
How do you create an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning?
Professor Rudra presented insights from SUNY Buffalo’s Impossible Project, where first-year students came together to brainstorm and present findings on anti-racist computing. As disciplines, computer science and engineering are well-equipped to create homework assignments and coding projects. But integrating non-traditional pedagogical techniques (e.g., assigning reflection questions) within a first-year computer science seminar presented unique challenges. By collaborating with historian Dalia Muller and additional colleagues in computer science and media studies, students drew from historical work they read alongside their ethical coding exercises. They then presented final projects that radically reimagined how computing could contribute to antiracism and collective liberation.
Overall, the grantees shared a compelling vision about the future of responsible computing. For a list of teaching materials that the grantees developed in the first round of the challenge, click here.
- Bobby Schnabel (University of Colorado-Boulder)
- Helena Mentis (University of Maryland Baltimore County)
- Atri Rudra (SUNY Buffalo)
- Casey Fiesler (University of Colorado-Boulder)
- Crystal Lee (Mozilla / MIT)
The Responsible Computer Science Challenge – funded by the Omidyar Network, Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, USAID, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies – supports the conceptualization, development, and piloting of curricula that integrates ethics with undergraduate computer science training. The hope is that the Challenge will unearth and spark innovative coursework not only at participating institutions, but also at additional colleges and universities across the country and beyond. Since December 2018, the Challenge has awarded $3.5 million in prizes to promising approaches to embedding ethics in undergraduate computer science education, as well as a set of teaching and leadership resources in the Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook. If you would like to contribute to the Playbook, please sign up here. If you are interested in contributing to the Responsible Computer Science Challenge more broadly, please sign up for the Global Teaching Responsible Computing Community here.