The Evaluation of a Computer Ethics Program

Article excerpt

Introduction

The importance of teaching computer ethics in undergraduate information technology (IT) degree programs is shown by the topic's inclusion as core content in the Computing Curricula 2001 body of knowledge (Engel, 2001), the Information Systems (IS) 2002 body of knowledge (Gorgone et al., 2002) and the Australian Computer Society (ACS) body of knowledge (Underwood, 1997). In Australia the teaching of computer ethics is mandatory for ACS professional level accreditation of an IT degree.

While it is important to develop effective teaching and learning strategies to obtain quality learning outcomes for students in computer ethics programs, it is equally important to design strategies to evaluate the success of these programs. The teaching and learning strategies that are used in the computer ethics component of an elective capstone course on social, ethical and legal issues in IT at La Trobe University, Bendigo are described fully in Staehr (2002). In this paper the evaluation of the computer ethics component of the course is reported.

Background

The Four Component Model of Moral Behavior (Rest, 1994) outlines the conditions necessary for an individual to behave morally (see Table 1) and provides useful guidelines for the design of moral education programs. The student must:

1. be able to recognize that a moral dilemma exists (moral sensitivity),

2. have the ability to make a morally justifiable decision,

3. place moral values above other values (professionalism), and

4. have the strength of character to carry out the morally justifiable course of action

for moral behavior to occur. This model is useful to consider when designing moral education programs so that all aspects of moral behavior are addressed. Therefore, although this study only evaluates moral judgment it is important that in computer ethics teaching the other three components of moral behavior are addressed. Bebeau (1994) and Duckett and Ryden (1994) provide ideas for learning activities and curriculum in professional education programs that address all four components in the model.

This study used the Defining Issues Test (DIT) of moral judgment to evaluate the teaching of computer ethics to students enrolled in an elective capstone course on social, ethical and legal issues in IT. (Note that the questionnaire is copyright and may be purchased from the Center for the Study of Ethical Development, University of Minnesota). The theoretical basis of the questionnaire is Kohlberg's theory (Kohlberg, 1986) of moral development. The DIT has been used to assess moral education programs for a variety of professional/occupational groups, for example, medicine, dentistry, teaching, accountancy and journalism. The diversity of professions that have used the DIT indicates its likely successful application to the assessment of professional ethics programs in the information systems and computer science disciplines.

The DIT is not the only instrument that could have been chosen to evaluate computer ethics teaching, as it is not the only test that purports to measure moral judgment. An alternative contender is the Moral Judgment Test (MJT) also based on Kohlberg's work. It was developed in Germany and is widely used in Europe. There has been some discussion in the literature about the relative merits of each test (Lind, 2001; Rest, Thoma & Edwards, 1997).

The DIT was chosen rather than the MJT for three main reasons. Firstly, there has been more consistency in the version of the DIT studied over the years (i.e. a stable set of dilemmas, items and instructions to participants compared with the MJT). Secondly, the DIT has been used in a wider range of types of research studies. And thirdly, the original MJT is written in German and the equivalence of its translation to English has been questioned by Rest et al. (1997).

The standard DIT has generic moral judgment scenarios for students to score, not professional specific scenarios. …