the ethi{CS} project
September 01, 2021

Reflections on the 2021 ethi{CS} summer project

This year’s organizer shares the challenges and opportunities of delivering a virtual ethi{CS} conference.
by Michelle Ciccone

I had the honor of putting together the 2021 ethi{CS} summer project, the second annual conference hosted by the Tang Institute’s ethi{CS} project. As we explored the field of tech ethics,I learned a great deal about the challenges and opportunities of creating space for online learning among a community of educators from around the world. Here are a few key takeaways.

Tech ethics can fuel multidisciplinary collaboration

The title of this year’s series was “Tech ethics in & out of the CS classroom.” As a former tech integrationist who regularly collaborated with educators across the curriculum, this cross disciplinary perspective was important to me. Computing technologies intersect with and influence all areas of life; all educators have a role to play in helping students develop more nuanced understandings of the impact these technologies have.

However, cross disciplinary conversations aren’t always easy to facilitate. We all have our own standards and learning objectives to meet, and disciplinary silos can take root. But the ethi{CS} summer conference made clear that tech ethics can actually be fuel for meaningful cross-disciplinary collaboration. During the second session, Drs. Meica Danielle Magnani and Nicholas Zufelt walked us through three different models of integrating ethics into CS education, including the deeply integrated project-based approach of the ethi{CS} project. Participants brainstormed how to use this framework to spark interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues, often in new and exciting ways. Can a CS and history teacher co-create a survey course that dives into the history of innovation? Can a CS and English teacher collaborate on a module that asks students to create their own speculative fiction about possible futures? Our students—and we educators!—will be more well-rounded and ethical digital citizens and developers if we work together.

Tech ethics education prepares our students to lead in a changing tech industry

A question that emerged throughout the conference was: What are we preparing our students for? This might be of particular concern to CS educators whose students may see computer science as preparation for certain types of jobs (in a way that, for example, a history teacher may not feel beholden to particular employment trajectories). As we center ethical conversations in our classrooms, do we run the risk of painting a false picture of what our students’ future work might look like in an industry that doesn’t, in practice, prioritize ethics?

But speakers made clear that the tech industry is changing, as is the context in which technologies are developed and deployed. Conference speakers challenged us to untether our classrooms from the influence of an industry that is the source of so many ethical issues, and connect classroom teaching and learning to the current events and social movements transforming our society. Including ethics within CS and technology education will prepare our students to not only be better engineers but also leaders in a new era of the tech industry.

In other words, this work isn’t extra, fringe, or beside the point: it’s central to preparing students for their future roles as technologists. In fact, our classrooms can play a role in reshaping the industry and therefore the technologies that (re)shape society. There’s so much power and promise there.

Continuing to build the tech ethics education network

Of course, this work isn’t easy, which is why the ethi{CS} project exists: to ensure that no educator feels like they need to do this work alone. The summer conferences have helped to build a growing community, and we’re excited to maintain this momentum as we head into a new school year.

As we start to reimagine what events may look like post-pandemic, I wonder where we go from here in the world of professional learning. Will people want to gather in person? How will we ensure full accessibility during hybrid events? Will Zoom fatigue ever go away? These are questions that the ethi{CS} project is already grappling with as we look ahead to the 2022 summer event.

As we advance this work and build a network of tech ethics educators, it will be important to maintain a low(er) barrier to entry, while also creating opportunities for deep connection and intensive collaboration. Striking the right balance in the format of future events will be important as we strive to meet the needs of this growing community.

I know I walk away from the summer ethi{CS} project with new insights and new lines of inquiry to pursue, and I hope that the participants and speakers do as well. Thank you to the Tang Institute for creating space to explore an emerging and essential field.

Michelle Ciccone is a graduate student at UMass Amherst and a Research Affiliate with the ethi{CS} project.

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