Computing values

Jan 25, 2017

Miles Berry

What’s the place of ethics in our work as computing or digital making educators? How can we help our students to help others?

A few things in the last few weeks have left me pondering the place of values and ethics in computing education and digital making.

  • Early in the new year The Children’s Commissioner published a report on children’s online rights.
  • I was asked, when presenting on the English national curriculum in Hanoi, why we didn’t mention values in our curriculum as they had in the framework they are currently drafting.
  • Back home, I discover that the European Parliament has produced a draft report on the ethical principles that should underpin the development and design of robots.

As a communities of digital educators, what are our shared values? What are the overarching aims or principles of what we’re trying to do in computing education or digital making?

The English computing curriculum starts with the ambitious vision that:

A high quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.

Understanding the world is an enlightenment value: it assumes the world is an knowable thing, and that curiosity about it is good. From this we might see the need for free access to knowledge, free participation in debate and the freedom to tinker or experiment as part of the learning process. Now, ‘Changing the world’ sounds pretty ambitious, but I worry that we leave implicit the idea of changing it for the better. Yes, the English computing curriculum emphasises the need for pupils to keep themselves safe and act responsibly, but shouldn’t digital literacy also include some consideration of the ethical use of technologies to improve the lives of others, and the ethical assumptions that underpin the algorithms behind the services we rely on (PageRank, EdgeRank, machine learning etc)?

The new US K12 CS Framework goes further: emphasising an inclusive culture in computing as a guiding principle and the need to teach the impacts of computing:

An informed and responsible person should understand the social implications of the digital world, including equity and access to computing.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has a clear mission statement:

to put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world, so they are capable of understanding and shaping our increasingly digital world, able to solve the problems that matter to them, and equipped for the jobs of the future.

and one can’t help but be impressed by its founders values in firstly making low cost, general purpose computers available to millions and secondly through prioritising education, in its broadest sense, as a shared goal. Other digital making projects share a sense of positive change through technology: Apps for Good is an excellent example. Yes, the young people involved in this learn skills and develop understanding, but they also design and make apps that have a societal benefit: a moral purpose.

I suspect that character, values and ethics in education are better learnt through example than worksheet - but I think we ought to bring these more to the surface in what we do: thinking about the why, as well as the what and the how of the things our students learn and the things they make.

A slightly longer version of my comment column for the launch edition of Hello World, a new, free magazine for digital making and computer science educators from the Raspberry Pi Foundation and Computing At School. The image above is by Alan O’Donohoe, taken at the launch of Hello World at the BETT Show.