Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook

Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook

Engaging with Industry

Authors: Antonio Delgado, George Gabb, Irina Raicu

Engaging with industry allows computing faculty to stay attuned to the norms of the professional tech community; helps prepare computing students more effectively for their professional lives; broadens the reach of useful resources for ethical decision-making developed within academia, by making them available to any members of the software engineering/computing community; and, as a result, might well directly impact some of the work environments into which computing students will ultimately enter and build their careers.

Applied ethics is all about contextualizing and operationalizing ethical principles—a process that cannot happen effectively if faculty and students don’t have a good, up-to-date understanding of the context in which the ethical decisions are being made. Engaging with software engineers and others who work in industry is likely to surface issues that might not otherwise be top of mind for academic faculty: business pressures; complex interactions with multiple corporate departments (legal, communication, etc.); the challenge of determining what people with limited technical know-how understand and need to know; etc.

Students who access ethical computing lessons as part of their courses need to understand that their decisions will take place in a complex environment of competing pressures and, sometimes, competing goods. They have much to learn from interactions with technologists who have faced and made such decisions and have had time to reflect on them and either take pride in or regret their actions. Human beings learn from stories—and stories being told by the people who lived them are particularly powerful. Thus, industry engagement is key.

Recently, however, some observers have claimed that we live in a time of “techlash”—in which tech companies, and especially those dubbed “big tech,” are seen as functioning in various unethical ways that harm both individuals and the common good. Some academic institutions might therefore be reluctant to be seen as associating too closely with tech companies (and certainly both individual researchers and conferences have faced accusations for accepting funding for various projects from certain controversial companies). However, there are many kinds of engagement that don’t involve joint research or acceptance of funds.

One productive way to engage with industry representatives is by organizing panels that address important ethical issues now confronting computer science practitioners, such as ethical data collection; the ethics of encryption; fairness and machine learning; ethical hacking and vulnerability disclosure; etc. Such panels are particularly illuminating when the academic participants are drawn from multiple disciplines, including, for example, philosophy, sociology, business, or anthropology. Inviting industry representatives both as audience members and as panelists generates an even richer discussion, and extends the reach of the ethical computing conversations beyond academia.

Another option is reaching out to industry representatives to serve as judges in academic hackathons—if the participants and judges are both primed to consider the ethical aspects of the projects being developed. In this case, too, the engagement is more focused on individual technologists, rather than on the companies they work in. But those individuals will then return to their jobs with a new focus on ethical computing and a better understanding of the different ways in which current students are being trained (which, in turn, will shape those students’ expectations as employees). Given the growing conversation about ethics in tech, those industry participants in events such as panels and hackathons may well bring new insights into their own work.

One obvious connection between colleges and universities and industry (i.e. corporations as well as industry groups) is, of course, alumni networks. Many software engineers and computing professionals have long been interested in the ethical aspects of their work but have not had much opportunity to address them with their peers. For colleges and universities engaged in the Responsible Computing project, engaging with alumni working in the industry is likely to reveal those who have a particular interest in the subject; this may lead to collaborations in developing ethics case studies, new internship or mentorship opportunities, or even direct—and perhaps less controversial--funding.

Alumni might also be more inclined to participate as invited speakers in specific courses (especially now that so many classes and events are being held online), addressing ethical issues that are particularly tied to the subject matter of the class but might be too narrowly focused for a public event: the ethics of data labeling or database “cleaning,” for example.

Industry representatives might also be included in the committees or other groups convened to address the inclusion of ethics into the Computing curriculum itself. Here, too, their experience outside academia might provide important insights that would otherwise be missed. In fact, some companies and industry groups are now developing and sharing their own tools for embedding ethical analysis into the tech design, development, and deployment process, and/or generating white papers and other resources that can inform the Responsible Computing effort.

Another practical solution to engage students is to collaborate with private companies, nonprofits, and government agencies on the integration of projects with social impact in Computing courses. Going beyond classroom debate of ethical dilemmas, project-based learning formalizes values into practical applications. The hands-on tasks on social challenges not only allow the students to better grasp ethical values but also provide a tangible benefit to the community. Moreover, the collaboration between industry and academia fosters a model for strengthening the local nonprofit/advocacy ecosystem capacity to educate the community about the dangers and opportunities associated with Computing in their daily lives.


Key Questions:

  • How has the department already engaged with industry? Is it possible to add ethical computing considerations/topics to that current engagement?
  • Are there alumni who have already signaled a particular interest in ethics and ethical issues? Ethical issues could include privacy, accessibility, diversity in tech, etc.). These alumni could be someone to reach out to for advice on industry engagement.
  • If industry participants are invited to engage with students and faculty, what conditions should be established in order to enable an authentic, meaningful conversation?
  • How should faculty from other departments be engaged, whose expertise might actually counter claims made by industry representatives?
  • What is the plan to engage industry groups/individuals in industry that are working on responsible computing issues? Some options include including them to relevant panels or organizing workshops where they can participate.
  • How can a real project be incorporated in your computing course for students to see the value of ethics and social impact through hands-on? If not, can extra-curricular activities be created to engage students in these types of projects?
  • What are the companies or non-profits working on social impact projects? Can these companies be engaged and connected to computing students in those projects as interns?


Checklist

☐ Understand department’s current engagement with industry

☐ Identify alumni with interest in ethical and responsible computing issues

☐ Identify the “ground rules” for industry engagement in responsible computing discussions in your school.

☐ Identify (local) companies or non-profits working on social impact projects

☐ Invite industry partners to speak in computing courses or school events to engage students

☐ Identify courses or extra-curricular activities that can embed social impact projects

☐ Create a platform to connect computing students with social impact projects from industry partners


Examples

Santa Clara University

At Santa Clara University (SCU), the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (MCAE) has been a convening place for conversations about ethics in Silicon Valley, and a source of applied ethics resources worldwide, for more than 30 years. During that time, it has continuously engaged with companies, nonprofits, and individuals interested in the ethical aspects of their professions and everyday lives.

Checklist walk-through (Below, we show how some of the checklist items in the previous section of this document could be used. The checklist did not exist when the activities below were conducted/planned, so this walk-through is meant only for illustrative purposes.)

  • Understand department’s current engagement with industry
  • Invite industry partners to speak in Computing courses or school events to engage students
    • Industry representatives have participated both as audience members and as panelists in numerous events at Santa Clara University, mingling with SCU faculty from the schools of business, engineering, law, and arts and sciences (with philosophy professors and other ethicists actively involved). Those conversations in turn have often led to related articles, case studies, and other teaching tools that would then be developed by Markkula Center staff and made available, free, via our website, for any computing instructors interested in incorporating coverage of applied ethics into their courses.
  • Identify alumni with interest in ethical and responsible computing issues
  • Identify courses or extra-curricular activities that can embed social impact projects
    • Since 2014, Santa Clara University has hosted a hackathon called “Hack4Humanity.” As its name attests, the hackathon has always been focused on social impact projects; in 2020, however, MCAE worked with the hackathon organizers to add an explicit component of ethical analysis--as well as an ethical analysis prize. As an article detailing the results noted, “we found that not all teams who wanted to compete were able to, simply due to their lack of sleep and time associated with finishing the code for their projects. Despite this, 12 of the 27 final teams did submit an ethical analysis. After the hackathon, we even got a submission from a team that hadn’t been able to participate in the entire 24 hours of coding; although they were not eligible to compete for the prize, they decided to submit their analysis anyway, because the team found this challenge to be interesting and important.”
  • Identify (local) companies or non-profits working on social impact projects
    • Many technology companies frame their products at least in part as “social impact projects.” Given that, MCAE staff and SCU faculty jointly developed a compendium of materials designed to be used in ethics training workshops in technology companies; since then, Center staff have also delivered workshops (using those materials) at several companies (including Google X), and the materials have been adapted for deployment within additional tech companies.
    • Another avenue for engagement has been the center’s participation in groups such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Partnership on AI. Several MCAE staff members are participating in the drafting of WEF white papers and serve on expert working groups as part of PAI, focusing on issues such as AI fairness and transparency, AI safety, AI use and misuse in media and misinformation, and AI and labor. The various white papers issued by WEF and PAI groups can themselves serve as teaching materials for more advanced computer science courses: see, for example, the “Report on Algorithmic Risk Assessment Tools in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.


Miami Dade College

At Miami Dade College (MDC), in order to foster the brightest and most innovative students, we seek strategic partnerships and advice from the industry and the community. Community engagement is an important part of the work they do as educators. MDC is committed to working with partners to serve the needs of the community and train students in useful, workforce skills that lead to rewarding careers. Encouraging companies and organizations to develop a reliable source of talent that will contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of the community.

Quality partnerships serve as the foundation for the development of relevant cultural and civic programs and further the MDC value of engaging with the community in ways that actively improve social conditions.

Checklist walkthrough (In the rest of the example, we show how some of the checklist items in the previous section of this document could be used. The checklist did not exist when the activities below were conducted/planned, so this walkthrough is meant only for illustrative purposes.)

  • Identify local companies or non-profits working on social impact projects
    • We created partnerships with the following organizations:
      • Code for South Florida
      • Miami EdTech
      • Microsoft, Miami Police Department and University of Miami
      • Belle Fleur Technologies
    • Please see the rest of the example for more details on each of these partnerships along with more details on how some of the other checklist items could have been used.

Miami Dade College’s partnership with Code for South Florida

Code for South Florida is a non-profit organization putting open source to work to solve our community’s problems and represent the region’s interests in digital transformation. One of the main objectives of Code for South Florida is to connect people who can further inspire, contribute, and build a local culture of public service fit for a digital age. Code for South Miami is bringing techies together from Miami-Dade County to create solutions to bridge the gap between government and the people, with the help of technology.

  • Identify courses or extra-curricular activities that can embed social impact projects
    • MDC partnered with Code for South Florida to engage computer-science students in community projects of high social impact. MDC students collaborated as interns in the following projects:
      • Justice Discovery Initiative: A 6-week Sprint led by Code for South Florida, in partnership with Miami Dade College, and the City of Miami to discover opportunities in public safety and public data through open-source solutions with local technologists and resources.
      • People Budget: Elected officials at the state and local level often take limited resident feedback when making budgetary decisions. In Miami, we saw increased public feedback with elected officials not listening to all the feedback. This is what inspired PeopleBudget an open-source effort to bring public budgeting and drive civic inclusion through new models of engaging the general public in things related to the budget for community organizations and government.
      • Badge Watch: Open-source project for modernizing police complaints in the Miami / South Florida area. Florida is one of 12 states that offer public police complaints. In response to a local journalist creating a spreadsheet of cops based on Civilian Investigated Panel public data, we built a search tool which in 3 weeks got 1,500 users.
    • The collaboration between Code for South Florida and MDC in social impact projects was highlighted by the local newspaper in this article.

Miami Dade College’s partnership with Miami EdTech

Miami EdTech is an education technology non-profit on a mission to ignite the entrepreneurial spirit within today’s educators. MDC collaborated with Miami EdTech and Microsoft on a project to support high school teachers.

  • Identify courses or extra-curricular activities that can embed social impact projects
    • MDC students worked on increasing support for teachers through an app that shows the different resources teachers can use in the classroom.
    • The App was completed and reached 1200 teachers.

Miami Dade College’s partnership with Microsoft, the Miami Police Department, and the University of Miami

MDC collaborated with Microsoft, the Miami Police Department, and the University of Miami to host a colloquium about “Ethical Considerations and Social Responsibility of Facial Recognition Adoption”. The objective of this activity was to expose MDC students to ethics and social responsibility in technology today through a panel of experts in the field of ethics and facial recognition.

  • Invite industry partners to speak in Computing courses or school events to engage students
    • Part one of the event consisted of a presentation and panel discussion on the development and implementation of facial recognition software. The panel consisted of Microsoft’s Director of Civic Engagement office in Miami, the founder of Kairos, a facial recognition company based in South Florida, the Executive Officer to the Chief at City of Miami Police Department, and a doctoral student in Computer Science at the University of Miami and researcher on machine learning and computer vision. The panel discussion enabled the students to see the pros and cons of implementing facial recognition by any local police department.
  • Identify courses or extra-curricular activities that can embed social impact projects
    • As part of this colloquium, the School of Engineering and Technology, MDC’s Office of Social Change Innovation, the Idea Center, and the Ethics Department designed a role-play scenario that shows students how new technology could impact society. The second portion of the event consisted of an empathy presentation followed by the role-play in which students assumed the role of various decision-makers who had the responsibility of deciding whether a certain city should adopt facial recognition in its Police Department.
    • The role-play scenario was later adapted for implementation in groups ranging from smaller courses (15-30 students) to larger workshops (100 students). There is a public version of the role-play activity and its implementation instructions.

Miami Dade College’s partnership with Belle Fleur Technologies

Belle Fleur Technologies is an Advanced Consulting Partner that provides professional services to design, architect, build, migrate, and manage workloads and applications on AWS. MDC partnered with Belle Fleur to improve the way applications that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) recognize different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in resumes.

  • Create a platform to connect Computing students with social impact projects from industry partners
    • MDC students worked on projects making an impact and keeping the ethics principles on the technology that Belle Fleur applies. The student interns' input allowed them to teach the AI/ML from a diverse lens so the output will reflect a more diverse selection when looking for candidates from resumes and other data sources.


Resources


Related Pages


Authors and Contributors

Antonio Delgado photo.jpg

Antonio Delgado (author)

Headshot-Placeholder.jpg

George Gabb (author)

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu (author)