Markkula Center for Applied Ethics - Better Choices

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The Revised Version of "Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics" Is Now Live

Back in September 2013, the Center’s Internet Ethics program launched an online teaching module designed to spark a conversation about ethics in the introductory courses for software engineers and developers.  While all university engineering programs accredited by the ABET have been required since 2000 to include coverage of ethics, most students still encounter that material (if they do at all) in a separate course, often filled with discussions of case studies that are not directly relevant to software engineering.  Our module, written by Professor Shannon Vallor—Chair of the Philosophy department at Santa Clara University—is part of the effort to change that.

Writing in 1999, in an article titled “ABET’s Engineering Criteria 2000 and Engineering Ethics: Where Do We Go from Here?,” Professor Joseph Herkert discussed several possible approaches to engineering ethics education, including one that spreads instruction “throughout the engineering curriculum, e.g., in introduction to engineering courses, sophomore engineering science courses, junior discipline-based courses, and senior design experiences.” He contrasted that approach with the alternative of the separate required engineering ethics course:  the latter, he wrote, “can leave students with the impression that ethics is a sidebar rather than integral part of their engineering studies.”

We agree—and apparently quite a few software engineering professors do, as well. Since the launch of the module, 35 professors have sought (and received) permission to use all or some of the “Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics” materials.  Most of them teach in colleges and universities—but the module has also been tackled in two high-schools. And we’re hoping that some coding “bootcamps” will adopt it, too. The conversation about ethics needs to take place wherever people learn how to code, and it needs to be an ongoing one. As Professor Vallor put in in a Slate article about the module, "Ethics isn't a due diligence where you check off the boxes and you're done." 

This week, we’ve released an updated version of the module. The revision includes more guidance for instructors who want to use the materials in one, two, or three class periods (see “Notes for Instructors”), as well as an extended bibliography. The case studies have not changed—but we’d love to hear suggestions for additional ones, and feedback on the module overall!

Photo Credit: Students Coding at Hackathon by hackNY.org; used without modification under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license on Flickr.

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