Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook

Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook

Manage Teaching Team

Authors: Ron Cytron, Udayan Das

The success of incorporating responsible computing into a department’s curriculum depends heavily on a smoothly functioning teaching team, which includes instructors, teaching assistants, faculty assistants, staff, and students. This section is about managing a successful teaching team when developing and teaching responsible computing material. While managing a teaching team can be challenging for any computing course, teaching responsible computing within a computing course presents its own unique challenges since it is generally challenging to find qualified teaching staff. This is true in all aspects of teaching responsible computing, including but not limited to: creating the course material, facilitating difficult conversations in classes as well as evaluating student submissions.

There are some considerations that are not necessarily specific to teaching responsible computing but teaching computing in general: (1) As mentioned in the Broadening Participation and Responsible Computing section, increasing the diversity of the student population is part of teaching responsible computing-- in particular, managing a diverse student population means hiring a diverse teaching staff. How is your department trying to broaden participation? (2) While some departments rely solely on their doctoral students to assist in instruction, having undergraduates assist in teaching has many advantages for both the TAs and the students they mentor. (3) How teaching assignments are done in a department as well whether there exists a predictable “rhythm” to how instructors and TAs are assigned to courses are also important factors.

In addition as mentioned earlier, one of challenges in creating a teaching team for responsible computing content is to make sure that the teaching team is qualified. While computing departments hire teaching staff based on traditional courses, most of the teaching staff (including instructors as well as teaching assistants) might not be qualified to teach responsible computing. This can be handled in two ways: (i) include instructors (and teaching assistants) from outside of the core departmental teaching team-- this could mean hiring part-time faculty or hiring instructors from other relevant departments. This is necessary given that teaching responsible computing by its nature requires collaborating across disciplines. (ii) To create a sustainable teaching team, proper training must be put in place to train computing faculty and teaching students (perhaps with help from collaborators from other disciplines).

Finally, as mentioned in the Making Lessons Stick section, responsible computing cannot just be included in individual courses, the whole curriculum and the department culture must be supportive of responsible computing. This means that the teaching team should also be defined as the entire department and one must think about how the department as a whole can support responsible computing.

Key Questions:

  • What are the processes in place to broaden participation in the computing program? For example, Increased student interest in computing has led to some departments putting strict(er) admission requirements than other departments. This can affect the makeup of the student population.
  • How are teaching duties assigned to faculty in the department? Are the courses taught by the same instructor? Rotating faculty teaching a given course could prompt better health in the course itself, as new ideas and new materials are introduced (though this needs to balance the preference of an instructor to teach the same course to amortize preparation time).
  • Is there a plan to hire part of the teaching team from other departments/outside the school? Students who are well-versed with the traditional requirements of a course, may nevertheless be inadequately prepared for teaching Responsible Computing material. This is an opportunity to involve students from other departments (philosophy/humanities/communication), apart from benefiting the Responsible Computing project, it can also lead to unexpected interdisciplinary collaborations enriching the program as a whole. Similar strategy can also apply to non-computing faculty (or even part time faculty from industry) teaching key courses such as in Tech Ethics. Having a teaching team with diverse backgrounds means more effort needs to be made to include everyone (See the section on Working Across Disciplines for more on this).
  • Is there adequate training on Responsible Computing material? This is especially important to create a sustainable group of teaching assistants from the computing department who can say evaluate student submissions. Such a training could also be trained at computing faculty who are interested in teaching responsible computing but might not have the background. If only graduate students are hired as TAs, consider hiring undergraduates as TA. (This article contains interesting analysis and a strong argument for involving undergraduates as TAs.)
  • How is a Responsible Computing Ethos being developed? Is everyone involved with teaching in the academic unit aware of the Responsible Computing orientation? Even faculty who do not teach Responsible Computing material nevertheless are aware of the unit’s attempts to incorporate the material and approaches throughout. For example, is this discussed from time to time at faculty meetings, for example?
  • How is Responsible Computing work being assessed? There may be different modes of assessment than the rest of computing course work. How is success measured? Who is doing the assessment, and do they have adequate training? See the section on Learning Outcomes and Assessments for more details on how to develop the outcomes and assessments.


☐ Revisit departmental procedures that might inhibit broader participation.

☐ Revisit how your department assigns teaching duties to faculty members.

☐ Establish a plan to include teaching staff members from other disciplines and from outside of the school if necessary.

☐ Establish a training program for teaching responsible computing.

☐ Establish a plan to develop responsible computing ethos.

☐ Establish an assessment plan and who will be doing the assessment.


Washington University in St. Louis

Checklist walk-through

  • Revisit departmental procedures that might inhibit broader participation.
    • At Washington University, we find that the size of our computer science cohort (those students destined to graduate at the same time) doubles from matriculation to commencement. This has been true for 30 years, well before the dramatic increase of interest in CS studies. While admission control is effective, it requires that students know at 18 years of age whether they want to study computer science. We have avoided admission control and have instead embraced our department’s motto “You belong here”.
  • Revisit how your department assigns teaching duties to faculty members.
    • In concert with a minimal required curriculum, we find that asking faculty for three courses they might teach each semester consistently yields every faculty member getting one of those choices.
  • Establish a training program for teaching responsible computing.
    • We have also observed that our undergraduate TAs connect better emotionally with the struggles our students have, because they have experienced those same struggles more recently. In our course evaluations, our undergraduate TAs surface consistently as an essential element for success in our courses. We find that TA coverage is excellent when the following formula is followed. Let N be the number of students in a course. TAs are then hired to cover N/2 hours each week. For example, a course of 100 students would strive for 50 hours of TA coverage each week. Those hours are distributed among multiple TAs, but we find most students prefer not to work more than 5 hours a week because of their other responsibilities as undergraduates. Then the approximate number of TAs needed is N/10 if each can cover 5 hours a week. We have generally found it much easier to hire more TAs who work fewer hours a week than the opposite of that; both approaches consume the same number of dollars per course.

Loyola University Chicago

Experience from Loyola University Chicago’s (LUC) School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS) indicates that part-time (PT) faculty are an excellent resource in terms of bringing in current industry experience and perspectives into the classroom. At SCPS LUC, COMP 317, Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues in Computing course was further developed by PT Faculty members with an explicit focus on current Tech industry issues and perspectives.

Checklist walk-through

  • Establish a plan to include teaching staff members from other disciplines and from outside of the school if necessary.
    • PT faculty also tapped into their network to bring in guest speakers and judges for the “Public Forum Debate” assignment
    • FT faculty have extended that model by including a Professor of Philosophy with a specialization in Ethics as a guest/judge in the Tech ethics course
    • COMP 317 is an example of co-design/development between PT and FT faculty
    • In general, our experience has been that working professionals bring a wealth of real-life experience, including example scenarios, that are extremely valuable to discussion of Responsible Computing. If your department/unit is largely composed of full time faculty teaching, it can still be valuable to bring in working professionals for panel discussion on specific topics. This is also done in COMP 317.
  • Revisit departmental procedures that might inhibit broader participation
    • Admissions controls were also relaxed for the CS certificate and BA in IT programs. This has resulted in a more diverse group of students going through the programs. The same strategies are being applied to newer programs, and in time will apply to a graduate program as well; altogether steps towards Broadening Participation in Computing.

Georgia Tech

Co-Developing Workshops with/For TAs:

In our experiences, undergraduate and graduate TAs in computer science departments may have many novel ideas for integrating assignments and activities that foreground ethics into computer science courses they teach, but few opportunities to develop these ideas. Moreover, most TAs have not been exposed to the rapidly developing curricula and teaching strategies to support ethics instruction for computer science contexts.

Checklist walk-through

  • Establish a training program for teaching responsible computing.
    • Thus, a central focus of our work has been to develop workshops for TAs that serve two purposes. First, these workshops present a variety of contemporary approaches to embedding ethics into various computer science courses. Second, these workshops subsequently provide opportunities for TAs to use these approaches as inspiration to collaboratively adapt or develop their own assignments or activities for the specific courses they teach.
    • We have found that simply providing time and space for TAs to be exposed to new ways of teaching ethics and for TAs from different courses to work together to ideate and co-develop what they see as the most relevant ways of embedding ethics into courses they teach is quite important. Likewise, our current efforts seek to co-develop these workshops with senior TAs in ways that are more meaningful for different student populations. We view this work as an important first step to growing a culture centered around ethics particularly in large computer science departments where TAs play a large role in developing and grading assignments and activities in undergraduate coursework.

Harvard University

Collaborative Pedagogy in a Teaching Lab

Embedded EthiCS @ Harvard is a collaboration between Computer Science and Philosophy. Its ambition is to embed course-specific ethics modules within standing classes taught in CS, distributed throughout the full range of the curriculum. At a high level, the collaboration is simple: instructors from CS volunteer their courses for the program, and the ethics module is developed and delivered by a PhD student from Philosophy. But the collaboration is in fact deeper than this description might suggest, involving an interdisciplinary pedagogical team called the Teaching Lab.

The Teaching Lab is the pedagogical core of Embedded EthiCS, as the group is responsible for collaborating with CS instructors to set module topics and instructional plans; develop new modules when needed; refine existing modules as they come up for instruction again; reflect on the highs and lows of the current term’s modules, with student input; and, finally, prepare the modules for public access in our repository. This subsection will focus on two aspects of the Teaching Lab: its personnel and its management.

Checklist walk-through

  • Establish a plan to include teaching staff members from other disciplines and from outside of the school if necessary.
    • The Teaching Lab is comprised of a cross-disciplinary team that includes:
      • Graduate Fellows (GFs): The most important members of Embedded EthiCS, the GFs are Philosophy PhD students who work with the program in lieu of a traditional TA appointment. They have primary responsibility for designing and executing the modules, typically working with three courses per semester. In the Academic Year (AY) 2020-21, the program supported four Graduate Fellows each term.
      • Postgraduate Fellows in Computer Science: With support from the Mozilla Foundation, we introduced CS postdocs into the Teaching Lab in AY 2019-20 and have included them since. Their primary responsibility is to assist the GFs by helping them to understand the CS courses they’re working with, and to build a module that is meaningfully integrated with the course content. We ask for CS faculty to suggest good fits from among the postdocs already appointed at Harvard, and then recruit two from among those suggestions, ideally with research and teaching interests that do not overlap too closely. The program then supports a fraction of their funding.
      • Postgraduate Fellows in Philosophy: Each year, the Department of Philosophy appoints a new postdoc into a two-year position to help manage Embedded EthiCS (so, ideally, there is always at least one postdoc with some past experience at the start of each new AY). The postdocs share primary responsibility for managing the day-to-day operations of the Teaching Lab (more on that below). The junior postdoc typically also runs one module per term in order to gain direct experience with the program’s approach.
      • Faculty Supervisor(s): The faculty supervisor works with the Philosophy postdocs to manage the Teaching Lab, keeps the other faculty co-directors in the loop with respect to Teaching Lab activities, and preserves long-term institutional memory for the lab (as there will likely be frequent period of high turnover among the GFs and postdocs). This role has always been played by one faculty member at Harvard, but could be shared.
  • Establish a training program for teaching responsible computing.:
    • How does the lab go about its work? Here are some of the major beats in the lab’s semesterly workflow, highlighting how the tasks are managed among the lab personnel:
      • Just prior to the start of a new term, the Philosophy postdocs and faculty supervisor assign GFs to particular CS courses that have subscribed to the program, taking into account at least (i) GF preferences, (ii) relevant special background (e.g., facility with mathematical concepts), and (iii) evenly distributing new and recurring modules among the GFs.
      • Prior to or in the earliest weeks of the term, GFs meet with the CS instructors with whom they’ve been paired. In that meeting, the GFs and instructor make progress toward (or possibly even finish) settling on a module topic; consider how the module will be integrated into the course’s usual flow of readings, assignments, etc.; address various logistical details; and identify whatever next steps are needed. We try to set up GFs for a successful meeting in two ways. First, it’s ideal if they can be joined by two of the postdocs, one each from Philosophy and CS. That alleviates the burden of being the sole representative of the program, and also makes crossing the disciplinary divide a little easier by including a CS department member who is already “on their team.”
      • The most important work of the Teaching Lab is done in weekly 2.5-hour meetings throughout the term. The Philosophy postdocs schedule GFs to workshop their modules as they are being developed and refined. This gives them the opportunity to receive feedback from their peers in philosophy, from academics with more teaching experience, and with experts from CS. While the GFs are the chief architects of their modules, all of them are ultimately designed with input from the full lab.
      • Outside of the lab meetings, the Philosophy postdocs and faculty supervisor provide guidance with respect to the most important recommendations that we surfaced during workshopping sessions. The CS postdocs work one-on-one with the GFs to assist their technical research, as needed.
      • At the conclusion of every module, students are asked to complete a very brief survey that gauges, among other things, their interest in the ethical material that was presented and sense for how relevant it was to the experience in a CS class.
      • When the modules are run, at least one of the Philosophy postdocs attends (or views a recording after). This puts them in a position to assess whether certain design choices should be revisited, and also to debrief with the GF afterward. The postdocs provide general and specific pedagogical feedback, and help the GF to review the results of the student survey.
      • At the end of the term, the GFs write repository entries for each of their modules, according to standards that the Teaching Lab has developed. The Philosophy postdocs review and provide feedback on a first draft, and the faculty supervisor then signs off on or requests minor revisions for penultimate drafts.
    • The guiding ideal of the Teaching Lab’s structure is that the Graduate Fellows should be supported in undertaking a very difficult pedagogical assignment, especially for teachers early in their career. We try to put resources at their fingertips, and foster a collaborative, supportive environment.


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Authors and Contributors

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