Academic journal article Journal of Information Systems Education

Using Debates to Teach Information Ethics

Academic journal article Journal of Information Systems Education

Using Debates to Teach Information Ethics

Article excerpt


Debates have been used successfully as a teaching method in many disciplines, including Sociology (e.g. Huryn, 1986), Hospitality (e.g. Edelheim, 2010), and even in the technology field (e.g. Scott, 2008). While most Information Systems (IS) topics may not, on the surface, lend themselves to the debate format in a classroom setting, the area of Information Ethics is an ideal subject for using debates to enhance student learning. The use of teaching methods that enhance critical thinking skills, such as debates, may improve the students' abilities to better apply ethical theories and resolve moral conflicts (Vartiainen and Siponen, 2010).

This experience report details the use of debates in an Information Ethics course offered at a typical four-year public university in the United States. The use of debates in the class has been extremely successful. Students are more engaged, multiple points of view are expressed, and there is less reliance on simply reading and regurgitating facts. As a side benefit, debates also help to improve the students' communication and presentation skills. It is hoped that the material and suggestions provided in this report will aid other faculty faced with teaching this sometimes difficult topic.


The College of Business offers an Information Ethics course as an elective in the Management Information Systems (MIS) major, although it is open to all students in the College. In most semesters, the course enrollment consists mainly of students majoring in MIS, with one or two students from other business disciplines. It is assumed that the students have little background in ethics, so the first three weeks of the course are spent introducing the students to the main ethical theories (utilitarianism, deontology, egoism, etc.). The students are then introduced to ethical decision-making, using an analysis process such as that presented in Kallman and Grillo (1996), followed by an overview of the main topics in Information Ethics, starting with Richard Mason's seminal 1986 paper.

The remainder of the course is spent studying one specific topic per week (e.g. intellectual property rights, privacy, censorship, accessibility, etc.). In the first class session of the week, a debate is used to introduce the topic to the students. This debate provides the starting point for discussion of the topic and immediately involves the students in the material.


The enrollment for the course is usually 20-25 students, making the debate format manageable. The students are divided into teams of three. If necessary, due to enrollment numbers, some two member teams are allowed. Students are permitted to select their teams; those students that do not pre-select a group are randomly assigned to a team.

Each debate consists of a proposition (see the Debate Topics section below). One team is assigned the PRO position (i.e. they agree with the proposition) and the other team supports the CON position (i.e. they disagree with the proposition). The debates are assigned to the teams using a "draft" system. The teams are placed in a random order and then take turns choosing the PRO or CON side of the debates in which they wish to participate. The order is reversed, once each team has selected a debate, and the process is repeated, until all of the debates have been assigned. Some restrictions are placed upon the teams, during this process: each team must debate at least once as a PRO side and at least once as CON side, and no two teams can debate each other more than twice. Teams often end up arguing for a position with which they may not agree, but most have found this to be an excellent learning experience, and it aids in anticipating the opposition' s strategy.

Each team participates in at least three debates, during the course. The general format for each debate can be found in Table 1. …

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