Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook

Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook

Conversations about Responsible Computing and Employment Choices

Authors: Margo Boenig-Liptsin, Cathryn Carson

When students get out of the classroom and head toward employment, ethical discussions may become much more “real.” Rather than a theoretical discussion, a class project, or even a role-play, their livelihood is now involved, with bigger consequences than an internship or their college career. As entry-level workers, they may have only one option for employment. They may well have less of a voice than they’re used to having in school. Depending on their life experiences, they may have an excellent grasp of how the workplace may shape and constrain them, or they may be beginners in understanding these kinds of larger social dynamics.

Students are wise to ask how ethical considerations will actually show up in their working lives, especially in the context of corporate incentives and values. The power of computing in the real world is often channeled through large organizations that employ computing graduates in their technical workforce. These can be tech companies, government agencies, or defense contractors, or they can be, for instance, a bank or an insurance company’s IT organization. When we give our students tools with which to reflect on the social impact of computing, they may ask questions about an organization’s mission and how it aligns with their hopes for society. They may sense that some organizational settings can be unwelcoming to their identities, or others’. They may also personalize and individualize ethics into a concern about being directed to do something unethical.

At a larger scale, we all live in the midst of a major public discussion focused on unaccountable tech companies and their challenges to our society’s professed values. Computing students are often well aware of films like “The Social Dilemma.” Depending on their own identities and backgrounds, they may track ongoing controversies about misinformation, surveillance, and racial bias in algorithms. They may have read reports about whistleblowers such as Chris Wylie at Cambridge Analytica or Sophie Zhang at Facebook, followed the firing of ethical AI co-leads Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell from Google, or heard about tech workers who organized for labor rights and corporate change and in some cases lost their jobs. At some schools computing students have organized to protest campus recruiting or to support organizations such as “No Tech for ICE.”

Students may ask us as instructors for our thoughts about how they should apply for internships or jobs, or they may ask our departments to open up space for reflection or address questions about career choices or recruiting on campus. This can be personally challenging, and it can be a great opportunity to achieve Responsible Computing goals.

Key Questions:

  • What are students saying and thinking? What questions are they bringing? Start with where they are-are there questions they’re discussing with each other, or in settings like student clubs, but possibly not with the teaching team? Understand why.
  • What organizations seek to hire the students, and how do they reach them? What opportunities do students typically have for employment? Does the department or campus have a corporate affiliate program or a career fair? How would these be viewed by students of different identities? Are there pipelines for students who want to go into non-profits or public service?
  • What is the campus culture and departmental practice? A religiously affiliated school, a campus with a social justice orientation, a minority-serving institution, a regional feeder to particular industries, or an institution serving a distinct socioeconomic class of students will have different concerns. Consider how to align with, leverage, or challenge this culture. The department may need to have an internal conversation about what it means to discuss this topic with students, including respecting a sense of institutional mission or the circumstances and choice of each student where to seek employment. Consider opening a discussion with others in your organization.
  • What is the peer dynamic? Are student clubs a venue to talk about these kinds of questions? What resources would they require (e.g., facilitation, contacts to recent grads of your program)?
  • In what classroom settings or other departmental settings outside of a traditional classroom are ethics explored in the workplace? How is ethics taught in hierarchical or organizational contexts? Do these conversations happen in, e.g., organized club meetings, departmental panels, etc.? In addition to office hours or student club meetings, it’s legitimate to bring these questions into the classroom. For instance, an in-class role-play could include a recruitment situation or a conflictual team dynamic. A course that mentions formal codes of ethics could open a discussion by pointing to the literature showing that they typically don’t shape behavior very much.
  • Can internships or co-ops be leveraged to address these questions? Are questions of responsible computing included in your internship preparation or debriefing materials? How do you support any students who may encounter ethical questions?
  • Can examples outside of computing be used to frame the discussion? Computer scientists aren’t alone here. Physicists and other technical experts have grappled with these questions before. Exploring those cases can help students understand what they can do.
  • What steps taken to prepare for such conversations with students? As a faculty member, you are in a different position/situation than your students who are looking for jobs in the industry. You need to prepare yourself for such interactions (knowing questions that students are asking as in the first question in this list can be helpful). Here are some things to consider/take note of:
    • Be open to the issue, and acknowledge its legitimacy.
    • Be prepared for students to raise questions during office hours, student groups, or in class.
    • Let them know that you’re aware of the public discussion about irresponsible tech.
    • Recognize that their identities and futures are directly impacted and that as a professor you don’t face the same pressures.
    • Demonstrate respect and encourage their own exploration.
    • Consider all venues and settings in which they can discuss these questions.
    • Be straightforward and realistic about power dynamics in workplaces.
    • Don’t put it all on them to be agents of change.
  • What leading questions can be asked so that students think critically through their choices? Encourage students to think critically about their choices (assuming they have one and reassure them that they is no right or wrong way to do things but they owe it to themselves to think through their choices): e.g.
    • Are you interested in working for Company X because of external factors (reputation etc.)? How does the company align with your views in ethics/responsible computing? How does the culture of the company fit you? (Thinking of interviewing as you also assess the company for fit -- in turn, this can also reduce the stress of an interview process).
    • Once you start working for a company, understand that you can assert your power. Sometimes ethical/responsible computing issues might not have been considered in your company. May require you as a practitioner to work harder -- is there a solution in which you can both achieve the goal while supporting ethical goals (ex: user's privacy/rights)?


☐ Collect questions that students themselves have on responsible computing in the context of employment choices.

☐ Identify organizations that hire your students and reach out to them.

☐ Consider opening a discussion with others in your organization (while taking the culture of your organization into account)

☐ Understand the peer dynamics of your students

☐ Identify classroom or other department settings where you can explore responsible computing issues in the workplace

☐ Identify internship or co-op opportunities to address these questions

☐ Identify non-computing examples to frame the discussion

☐ Do your homework and prepare for your student interactions

☐ Guide students to think critically about their employment choices.


UC Berkeley

At UC Berkeley, we have tried to incorporate some of the Checklist items in our major requirements as well as classwork:

  • Identify classroom or other department settings where you can explore responsible computing issues in the workplace
    • In DATA 104 (Human Contexts and Ethics), class sessions explore tech worker activism and the Silicon Valley ecosystem. The course brings in the local contexts, such as on-campus protests against Palantir recruiting and connects it to larger structural issues in the tech world, such as labor, power, and failures of representation. Discussions of the tech workplace are supported by giving students a “Toolkit” that help them analyze the issues at stake and identify opportunities for action. As part of their final writing exercise, students have the option to craft a memo for their imagined future employer seeking to bring about change on an issue that concerns them.
  • Identify internship or co-op opportunities to address these questions
    • Students who receive internship credit as part of the Data Science major reflect at the start and end of their internships about ethical issues they’ve found themselves addressing. This reflection is prepared through short writing exercises in classes and regularized through use of a standard form that includes a question about ethical learning. In interim check-ins and a final wrap-up, students discuss how the dynamics of their internship workplaces enable or hinder responsible computer science practice. Rather than spectacular cases, they typically give examples of mundane situations in which their understanding of the challenges of ethical practice was deepened.

Haverford College

At Haverford College, conversations about responsible computing and employment haven’t (yet) been integrated into the curriculum and so far have incorporated the following Checklist item:

  • Identify classroom or other department settings where you can explore responsible computing issues in the workplace
    • We address these conversations via ad-hoc panels and alumni discussions. For example, an alum now in industry volunteered to come back to hold an open lunch discussion with current students about ethical choices and concerning impacts his own work has had on society. He described technical mistakes he made that had negative impacts, how he uses his voice as a white man to challenge the status quo, and the importance of solidarity organizing (e.g., unions). He also discussed his thinking about whether he does more good than harm staying within the industry, and the important roles that outside pressure can also play. The students asked lots of questions and there was discussion about important current issues.

Guilford College

At Guilford College, we have tried to incorporate some of the Checklist items in a course assignment and in structured class discussions.

  • Collect questions that students themselves have on responsible computing in the context of employment choices.
    • In PHIL 241 (Ethics In A Digital World), students are assigned to interview or "shadow" someone who works in an IT-related field. One class session is dedicated to generating questions to ask their interviewee The students are also given some questions to “seed” the conversation, including, “What kinds of ethical questions have arisen in your work? What moral values or principles have helped you to answer those questions? What kinds of support do you have in your company for acting on those values and principles?”
  • Identify classroom or other department settings where you can explore responsible computing issues in the workplace
    • In CTIS 320 (Seminar in Cybersecurity), upper-level students meet weekly to lead discussions of ethical issues faced by security professionals and the standards of professionalism for cyber and network security administrators that go beyond mere compliance with the letter of the laws or with professional codes of conduct. Guest speakers with cybersecurity backgrounds describe their experiences facing ethical issues raised by cybersecurity technologies and relevant current laws while trying to adjudicate between the priorities of citizens, governments, corporations, and others.

University at Buffalo

At University at Buffalo (UB), we have incorporated the following check-list item in our coursework:

  • Identify classroom or other department settings where you can explore responsible computing issues in the workplace
    • As part of an in-recitation activity in CSE 199 (a first-year seminar that is required of all CSE majors but is also taken by non-CSE majors), we asked students to think about how they would handle being employed by a company that is doing something that is unethical. (See the end of the “Worksheet” in the linked activity to get a sense of the whole activity.) In particular, to drive home the point that there is more than social desirability bias involved in answering such questions, the students were told that:
      • They're disagreeing with their boss' decision
      • They just started at this company
      • They might really need this job
      • And they definitely might be fired and put into a precarious financial position given the above
    • There was a range of responses from students saying that they’ll go ahead and do the unethical thing since their livelihood was at stake to saying they’ll go ahead and quit their job without any hesitation. There was a very interesting reply where a student said that they will not quit their job but will leak the story to the press (which was an interesting response that we had not anticipated!).


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