Teaching Computer Ethics in the Classroom

Teaching Computer Ethics in the Classroom

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Teaching Computer Ethics in the Classroom

The computer is considered one of the most technological advances of the twentieth century. As the general public becomes increasingly ‘computer literate,' the gap between technology and peoples' intellect notably shrinks. The readily available computers, software, and assorted output devices have enlightened many but, in turn, have increased the using of computers for unethical activities, privacy invasion and illegal purposes. Legal sanctions against abusive use of computers are a reactive approach. A proactive approach is to teach students about computer ethics in classrooms. An effective teaching method are the presentation of ethical scenarios. It is anticipated that through this method, students will personalize the need for developing ethical standards of behavior. The ultimate goal is for students, if necessary, to change their set of personal beliefs to include ethics.
The computer is considered one of the most important technological advances of the twentieth century. Security and privacy issues have been in existence long before the computer became a vital component of organizations' operations. Nevertheless, the operating features of a computer make it a double-edged sword. Computer technologies with reliable error detection and recording capabilities, permit the invasion of a supposedly secure environment to occur on a grand scale and go undetected. Furthermore, computer and communications technology permit the invasion of a persons' privacy and likewise go undetected. Two forces threaten privacy: one, the growth of information technology with its enhanced capacity for surveillance, communication, computation, storage and retrieval and two, the more insidious threat, the increased value of information in decision making. Information has become more vital in the competitive environment, thus, decision makers covet it even if it viol!
ates another's privacy. Violation of ones personal privacy, via computers, may in part be due to the incomplete understanding of responsibility on the part of those involved. Is it a management or a technical concern?

Ethical standards that evolved over the history of Western civilization deal with interpersonal relationships. What is right or wrong? What one should do and not do when dealing with other people. Ethical behavior in a business environment has not been as clearly defined. When businesses were small and the property of a few individuals, traditional ethical standards were applied to meet different situations. However, as businesses became larger, the interpersonal ethical relations did not provide any clear behavioral guidelines. Likewise, the principles of ethical relationships were even less pertinent to the corporate environments.

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Recently, there has been an increased interest in ethical standards for computer professionals using computers. This concern is heightened by the current focus on the ‘people side' of computer security. Is it a violation of copyright laws to copy software? Is this as serious as ‘stealing' data or illegally infiltrating and viewing data in a computer database?
As the general public becomes increasingly ‘computer literate', the gap between technology and people's intellect noticeably shrinks. Computer systems are no longer composed of one large, simple, straightforward batch-oriented computer. They are now integrated real-time query-based currently available computers, software, and assorted output devices have enlightened many. The danger is now more apparent that computer abuse will soon increase dramatically if it is not curtailed by legal sanctions and if people do not adapt some code of ethic.

Sometimes people employ ethics when it is convenient and to their advantage. At other times they set any ethical standards aside by rationalizing that there is a greater good that should be considered. Unfortunately ethical behavior is not part of the law of nature, but part of a person's set of beliefs and behavior.

An important aspect of computer users' ethical abuse includes the privacy question. Why exactly is a person's privacy important? There is no simple answer to this question, as long as people have concerns and commitments that may be harmed by personal disclosures.
     1. There are several reasons why medical records should be kept private, having to do with the consequences to individuals that facts concerning them becoming public knowledge. The average patient does not realize the importance of the confidentiality of medical records. Passing out information on venereal disease can wreck a marriage. Revealing a pattern of alcoholism or drug abuse can result in a person losing his job or make it impossible for the person to obtain insurance protection.
     2. When people apply for credit they are often investigated, and the result is a fat file of information about them. Now there is something to be said in favor of such investigations. Organizations granting credit need to know if the credit applicants are financially reliable. The trouble is that all sorts of other information go into such data bases. For example, it is possible that information exists about the applicant's organization membership, political views, and so forth. Clearly it is unfair for one's application for credit to be influenced by such irrelevant matters.

We live in an information-based society. More and more institutions are collecting more and more data about more and more people and more and more of their activities. Every time you get on an airplane, rent a car, apply for a job, registering an educational institution, you invariably cause a file to be created. You may also become another entry on an existing file. These are not transient files since most of them are permanent or periodically modified. These types of files can be used to relate you to others and infer conclusions such as: Who are you traveling with? Have you rented a car through this agency before and where did it occur? Who else registered with you? There can be many other implications.

"I like to think of it as a variant on Parkinson's Law. Namely, any institution that gets a computer inevitably figures out ways to fill the capacity of that computer. And when it's filled to the capacity of that computer, like in Parkinson's Law, it goes out and gets itself another computer."

What is the solution to this increasing penetration by computers that violate security and invade a person's privacy? Are laws and legal sanctions the only resolution? The paramount problem with relying on legal sanctions to protect information and punish violators are that they are reactive approaches. A proactive approach is teaching students about the need for ethical standards of behavior for computer professionals and users in classrooms. This may help assure that people who have an ethical code of behavior will not be tempted to illegally penetrate and copy data.

The first issue is which students should be introduced to ethical standards of behavior when using computers. The second issue is when this exposure takes place. The need for clear ethical standards can penetrate one's life and is a pertinent topic for discussion in all disciplines. However, this paper is concerned only with computer-related disciplines. Maybe the eighteen year old freshman in an introductory computer course can be exposed to ethical standards for computer users. Yet, the curriculum of this course covers many other important topics. Upper level students majoring in computer information systems or computer science are a better group for developing a teaching method for instilling ethical standards of conduct when using computers. These topics can be taught as one computer-related course or included in the curriculum of another course. There are different classroom procedures for exposing students to the abstract subject of computer users' ethical behavi!
or. The author prefers presenting scenarios for discussions. However, all faculty members do not ‘dive into the waters of a new teaching model.' Some prefer to stay with a teaching style that is comfortable and familiar. Therefore, what the author believes is the most desirable approach may not be everybody's approach.
Before enumerating three methods for teaching the subject of ethical standards, the computer- specific ethical issues are as follows:
     1. Storing and processing data. Should and unauthorized use of otherwise unused computer services or information stored in computers raise questions of appropriateness and fairness?
     2. Producing computer programs. Computer programs are assets. Should they be subject to the same concepts of ownership as other assets?
     3. Outputting computer information. To what degree must computer services and users of computers, data and programs be responsible for the integrity and appropriateness of computer output?
     4. Artificial intelligence and Expert Systems. Should the images of computers as thinking machines, absolute truth products, infallible, and replacements for human errors and as humanlike in nature absolve them from any serious considerations. These roles of computers specify a starting point for developing a method for conveying the need for ethical standards for conduct for computer users.

The first teaching approach to teaching of ethics is to lecture that ethics is a code of behavior. Begin with a clearly defined dictionary definition of ethics. "A set of principles of right conduct; A theory or a system of moral values; The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession" (American Heritage Dictionary, 1992 pp 630). Subsequently continue to lecture on a behavioral code of ethics for computer professionals. In turn, specify the risks and implications of the abuse of computer systems.
These could be a series of lectures in a computer course. This method will inform students about the meaning of ethics. Will this excite students and ensure they will adopt the "right" behaviors? Maybe, yet lectures are often the least effective way for students to learn and reflect beyond a casual examination of any lecture notes.

The second method to fill students with a sense of an ethical code of behavior is to assign readings in current periodicals and newspapers. There are many articles about professionals adapting to and violating real-life ethical issues. Reading periodicals may start a few students personalizing ethical issues. However, how does the instructor reach the other students who do not reflect on ethical questions? A majority of the students need to evaluate their own ethical behavior code before they can consider computer professionals' codes.

The third method is to get each student to personalize the topics of computer ethics by way of the presentation of scenarios. A typical scenario predicament for students is as follows:
     A company bought Microsoftware computer program for a part time student to use at work. The license agreement stipulates, "You should make a backup copy of this program, but you may only use the program on a single machine at any one time." Knowing you have permission to make a backup, why not make other copies for friends? They only use one computer each and these are backup copies. After all, making backups appears to adhere to the "spirit" of the license though not the ‘letter' of the license agreement.

Was this student's action in giving copies of the program to friends acceptable, questionable or unacceptable?

Since this particular case requires personal interpretation of copying software, a common dilemma for students, it can become immediately relevant. Another scenario that includes ethics issues applicable to student behavior is as follows:
     A university student obtained a part-time job as a data entry clerk. His job was to enter personal student data into the university database. Some of this data was available in the student directory, but some of is it was not. He was attracted to a student in his algebra class and wanted to asked her out. Before asking her, though, he decided to access her records in the database to find out about her background.
     Were the student's actions in accessing a follow student's personal information acceptable, questionable, or unacceptable?
Initially ask students to write answers anonymously to the questions posed by a scenario. In a separate paragraph ask them to determine what they would do in the same situation. After receiving the written responses, have a class discussion of the scenario and responses.

This method allows the students to hear other viewpoints and alerts them to issues that they might not have previously considered. Choosing scenarios that are more relevant to students are more likely to result in a student's personalization of the situation. A meaningful sequence of scenarios may alter student's attitudes toward a code of ethical behavior.

The subject of the scenarios can move to examples of business situations. These can cause the student to postulate about their possible ethical behavior in their future. The instructor can act as an information resource concerning the legal issues of a scenario, but not express their personal ethical attitude to a scenario. Representative examples of business-oriented scenarios are as follows:
          An employee at the county courthouse had access to all the records in the county data base. Over the past weeks, she had become suspicious about her neighbor's buying habits. The neighbor had purchased new lawn furniture, had her house painted and purchased an expensive new car. The employee decided to access her neighbor's records to determine how this neighbor could afford these purchases.

Was the county courthouse employee's action acceptable, questionable, or unacceptable?

If the county courthouse employee suspected that the neighbor might be involved in criminal activity, would that make her actions acceptable, questionable, or unacceptable?

A computer programmer enjoyed building small computer systems to give to his friends. He would frequently go to his office on Saturday when no one was working and use his employer's computer in his office to develop systems for his friends. He did not hide that he was going into the building; he had to sign a register at a security desk each time he entered on the weekends.

Was the programmer's use of the company computer in his office acceptable, questionable, or unacceptable?

A combination of the three instructional approaches can be an entire curriculum, or a significant part of another curriculum. Lectures, readings and experimental teaching seem to actively involve students in the learning process.

Teaching standards for ethical behavior has two primary objectives. The first is the instructor's emphasis on the importance of the subject. The second is to attempt to motivate students to incorporate a code of ethics into their behavior. Likewise, the objective is to ensure that ethical concerns are always a motive for following this code, not just when it is convenient. A beginning step of the teaching process is encouraging students to dissipate in scenario discussions. The next step is to calls students to think about how they with react and personally handle these different issues. The ultimate goal is the modification of the students' ethical behavior, if necessary.


     Abstract     1

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