The only way is ethics

Feb 03, 2016

Miles Berry

We need to pay more attention to ethics when we teach computing. You’d be forgiven for thinking computing in the national curriculum is all about coding. It’s not. There should be a balance between computer science, information technology and digital literacy, or the theoretical foundations, practical applications and societal implications of computing.

A quick scan of the news demonstrates that an ethical approach to computing really does matter: see, for example, Audi, Talk Talk and the Investigatory Powers Bill. Attention to ethics in computing education would lead to a better informed debate about these and similar issues, and our trust in digital technology and those who program it.

The digital literacy strand of the curriculum expects teachers to promote an ethical approach to computing: seven year olds should know how to use technology safely, but also respectfully; they’re also introduced to the idea of online privacy. By the age of eleven, pupils should learn to use technology responsibly as well as recognising the difference between right and wrong (or acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, as the DfE phrases this). The curriculum’s drafting panel went further still, including in the aims that pupils could “critically articulate the individual, cultural, and societal impacts of digital technology”, although this didn’t survive the DfE’s subsequent editing. Schools are required to promote pupils’ spiritual, social, moral and cultural development, and a greater focus on ethics in computing could do much to support this.

Primary computing provides ample opportunities for teachers to help pupils understand some of the issues here.

Take, for example, intellectual property (IP). From an early age, children feel that it’s unfair if others copy their work, but how careful are they about asking permission and giving credit when it’s online content that they’re copying? I suspect as teachers we are often guilty of not respecting IP rights with online content ourselves, happily adding others’ images to our presentations, searching the web for policy documents or letters to parents, or downloading videos to show to a class, without acknowledging the source or observing the terms and conditions. More positively, let’s teach children how to share their work with an audience and to re-use or re-mix only content that’s been published with this in mind. Let’s teach pupils how Creative Commons licences allow them and others to build on creative work – the Scratch community site is a great example of this.

Honesty, integrity and truthfulness are curiously missing from the list of fundamental British values schools are now obliged to promote, but these surely should form part of any ethical approach to computing education. We should stress to children that they should be truthful when they write online. When pupils work in digital media, they should show the world as it is: they should learn how photos, audio and video can be edited to show things more positively (or negatively) than they are, but should also recognise the harm that should misrepresentation can do, and become more adept at spotting this when it happens. If pupils sign up for online services, they shouldn’t lie about their age or identity, and should stick to the conditions they (or their parents or teachers) agree to.

Often pupils are involved in framing the rules of the school’s acceptable use policy, but too many of these focus on risk aversion and safety, when there’s something to be gained from involving pupils in a richer conversation about values, morality and how we should decide what the right thing to do is. Despite the diversity of Wikipedia’s editors, there’s agreement over the principles which underpin the project: things like seeking consensus, assuming good faith, welcoming newcomers and calm discussion to resolve conflicts. Are these principles your school shares?

The next decade or two are likely to see ethical issues in computing become more important: as predictive analytics becomes more pervasive and powerful, how should we view algorithms making life-changing decisions about health care, employment, education and finance? Who gets sued when a self-driving car crashes? Who do we credit with algorithmically generated art or music? If a machine and a person can perform a task equally well, who should get the job?  When a machine passes the Turing test, what rights should it have? Important as having coding and other elements of computer science on the curriculum are, ethical questions like these are more important still: if primary school is a good place to start learning to code, perhaps it’s also the place to start discussing these issues.

Originally published as Digital Devilry in the January 2016 edition of Teach Primary. © 2016, all rights reserved.