Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook

Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook

Managing Resistance

Authors: Oliver Bonham-Carter

Resistance to the computing curriculum incorporating ethics and responsible computing typically comes from two sides: students and faculty. Both students and faculty in computing may not “buy-in” into the idea of teaching and learning ethically/responsible computing-inclined material in their computing courses. An additional challenge may also come from faculty and students who are domain experts in areas such as ethics.

The idea behind integrating ethics into computing courses is to meet computing students where they are. While computing activities and labs incorporating ethical discussion/responsible computing or thinking are embraced by many of the students, there is a vocal group of students who do not feel that these themes are relevant to them, their training, and/or their future career goals. In other words, students are unable to make broader connections, which is exactly the trend we are trying to dismantle.

To get these students on board, meta-teaching may be paramount, having broader discussions with students about general ethical/responsible computing thinking with the goal of helping everyone understand why ethics and responsible computing are integral issues in all computer science courses and careers. Additionally, exposing students to an outside expert perspective whenever possible is important. This can be accomplished through guest speakers who talk about issues of ethics related to the topics of the course, analysis of broader research literature written by technologists, and showcasing specific examples of the failure of technology in relation to the issues of ethics. It is also very helpful to get even a small number of students on board, who can then promote this type of thinking and activities, and their importance. Finally, employing out-of-the-box teaching strategies can remove the layer of resistance that students may feel toward the subject of ethics, for example by teaching computer science ethics through science fiction (Burton, Goldsmith, Mattei, 2018; Fiesler 2018).

Other push-backs to incorporating ethics in computing courses may come from computing faculty members who feel that their "area is not in ethics" and that they did not truly understand how to teach responsible computing in their courses. To overcome this dilemma, a department can organize a series of ethical-thinking workshops in which articles and teaching strategies can be discussed. Departments can also bring in speakers from industry and academia to discuss approaches to making ethical decisions in their research and industries to help faculty grasp the importance of incorporating this skill in computing students’ training.

Finally, resistance may also be encountered from faculty outside of the computing department who may question the ability of a computing department to teach ethics in a class. For instance, the Department of Philosophy having members who are trained ethicists may wonder how a "bunch of computer guys" could effectively teach a subject as ethics. However, the way to fix this is to involve such domain experts in the development of ethical/responsible computing interventions (see the related section on Working Across Disciplines). In addition to improving interdepartmental collegiality, perhaps, more importantly, this makes sense from the point of view of involving domain experts to help develop ethical/responsible computing interventions.

Key Questions:

  • What strategies will be used to overcome the resistance from computing students? Expecting students to “fall in line” will not lead to favorable outcomes. Employing meta-teaching strategies including (i) explaining why responsible computing is important for computing professionals; (ii) inviting guest speakers to class; (iii) getting a small group of students on-board with responsible computing before the course starts and (iv) using unconventional methods (e.g. using science fiction) to remove students’ resistance. Some of these interventions will lead to difficult conversations for which preparation is key.
  • What strategies will be used to overcome the resistance from computing faculty? Consider providing education opportunities for computing faculty (e.g., via talks from experts who can speak to the importance of responsible computing) as well resources (e.g., responsible computing interventions in similar courses in other schools) that computing faculty can use to incorporate responsible computing in their own courses. If relevant, synergy with accreditation requirements could be a useful tool (see the section on accreditation and ethics for more on this).
  • What strategies will be used to overcome the resistance from non-computing faculty? This is more of an opportunity than an “obstacle”-- think of a way to involve non-computing faculty experts in the design of the responsible computing interventions (see working across disciplines section for more on how to do this).
  • Who are the partners in helping to manage these resistances? Other faculty? Student teaching assistants? Outside experts? Industry partners? See the section on student teams dynamics for more on how to involve students in the process of creating (and championing) responsible computing in your department. See the section on working across disciplines on how to involve non-computing experts. See section on industry partnerships on how the industry can be meaningfully involved in responsible computing efforts in your school.
  • What resources can be provided to faculty in helping to manage possible resistance? What kinds of literature may be used as common readings in the department? What resources from other schools with similar courses perhaps may be used by your faculty?
  • What are the learning outcomes and assessment mechanisms for the responsible computing interventions? Some of the resistance can be overcome by having clear learning outcomes and assessment plan/grading rubrics. Clear learning outcomes (that are communicated well) can help overcome student resistance and assessment data can be useful to convince other faculty members that responsible computing interventions are worthwhile.


☐ Develop strategies to manage resistance from students (including situating responsible computing in proper context for your students).

☐ Develop strategies to manage resistance from computing faculty

☐ Develop strategies to manage resistance from non-computing faculty by including their perspective on ethics and computing.

☐ Include all partners early on and get their feedback.

☐ Develop relevant learning outcomes and an assessment strategy.


Allegheny College

At Allegheny College, we targeted the course CMPSC 301: Data Analytics to introduce responsible computing material. This course has a required and related lab component, where students are introduced to a data analytics project in a specific area and are invited to complete a particular assignment related to it.

For instance, in a Data Analytics lab in which personal data and privacy was a theme, an article was presented to discuss violations of personal tracking (locational) information, as automatically obtained by smart-phone apps.

Questions were presented to students to discuss the ethics and potential abuse of obtained personal tracking data. While much of the class embraced the questions and wrote insightful reflections, two students did not see the relevance of the activity, and the responses to the questions were light or absent. When the instructor reached out to the students to find out why their answers had suffered in their lab reports, it was learned that the ethics were uninteresting to these students because they only wanted to write code and develop working and interesting software in their chosen areas of technology - financial data analysis and game development.

Check-list walkthrough. We present how we handled some of the checklist items in Allegheny College:

  • Develop strategies to manage resistance from students
    • Students are often more readily able to learn from their peers than their teachers. At Allegheny College, students who had completed summer course development projects (in CS ethics) gained experience in CS-level ethics. Summer projects originated from one of the application courses (Artificial Intelligence, Bioinformatics, Data Analytics, Database Systems, Robotics and Web Development) and each student became a specialist in the area of the course. During the semester, these students were known as "Technical Leaders", and were chosen to assist in the pedagogy of their expertise area. Our Technical Leaders helped to design effective labs for which ethical thinking was a focus, they ran activities in class and they hosted discussions afterward to help their peers enrich their learning.
    • In addition, we were able to overcome other types of resistance by students of our department and others from campus by inviting thought-leaders in research from academia and industry to come to give talks to all students to attend (CS majors and non-CS majors, alike). During their talks, the speakers discussed field-specific ethical dilemmas which were followed by discussions of guidance in overcoming these challenges to reaching responsible conclusions and making sensible decisions.
  • Develop strategies to manage resistance from non-computing faculty
    • For each lab project, students are given articles related to the theme of the project and ethics to read, whether it is around data analysis of vaccine data or political science data. Also, a guest speaker is invited from the themed area (e.g., global health, psychology, economics, etc.) to talk about how data is used in their field and the ethical challenges that are encountered in their work. Students are then invited to complete a specific data analysis task related to the technical contents of the course while interrogating its ethical implications in the process. They present their results and write a report based on their findings and reflections on the ethical component of their work. This integrated approach really helped bring students on board as they received the same perspective of the importance of ethical thinking in data analysis from the instructor, articles, and outside experts. It also allowed faculty from other fields to participate and share their expertise, getting their buy-in into this style of teaching in computing.


Related Pages

Authors and Contributors

Image of Oliver Bonham-Carter

Oliver Bonham-Carter (author)