Tech Ethics Curricula: A Collection of Syllabi

TL;DR: Here’s the spreadsheet. Now read on for context!

In November 2017, a New York Times op-ed accused academics of being “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to tech ethics. A flurry of response and conversation ensued, amassing many tweetstorms and counter-op-eds, including this one from my collaborators on the PERVADE data ethics project.

Tugging on different threads pulled the conversation in different ways — for example, lack of resources for less-recognized disciplines such as STS or information studies, or the fact that technology critiques often come from already marginalized voices. One of these threads focused on technology ethics education, or rather, as many random people on Twitter tried to tell me, the lack of it.

I’m not going to try to tell you that universities as a whole(and particularly departments like computer science) are doing a super great job of teaching ethics. Instead, it’s highly variable. What I can tell you is that there are some super great classes and faculty in this space out there — and this is what I wanted to showcase back in November.

I started a Google spreadsheet to track links to tech ethics syllabi. I made it openly editable, because I worried that hand curation would result in me being a too-busy-assistant-professor bottleneck. I seeded it only with the ethics and policy class that I teach. I tweeted it. It got a lot of attention in part thanks to Boing Boing. It did not take long for me to make my point — that these classes are out there. A couple of months later, the New York Times also wrote about tech ethics classes, though largely presented these classes as something new, born from the bad PR of data science ethics scandals. A lot of the classes on this spreadsheet are not new— though I’m glad that there are even more now!

Besides simply the number of classes represented here, I think another point this data makes well is how spread across disciplines these classes are. About 50 are taught in computer science departments, but the rest come from information science/studies, communication, law, philosophy, and others.

The spreadsheet has also become an amazing living document, improved by others. It’s prettier now, more organized. Others have added pivot tables, and additional resources like computing ethics education research papers. Today, there are almost 200 courses in this collection. Many people have told me that this resource has helped them refine or create syllabi, or argue for the value of such a class.

I’m writing this post now in part because multiple people have told me that it would be useful to have something other than the spreadsheet to cite or to point people to, for context. Though I (as someone who studies research ethics for online content) would also encourage yo uto be thoughtful about how you cite, reference, or turn-into-data individual entries on this list, particularly in the course listings that might not otherwise be public.

If you improved this spreadsheet in some way, I’d like to credit you in this post, so feel free to let me know! (I’ll also note that I do occasionally save copies of the sheet in case there is ever vandalism, though it’s been great that this hasn’t happened so far! If you see it, please fix it. :) )

Finally, I would like to encourage anyone reading this who teaches any kind of technology-related course to consider using this resource to help you inject ethics into it. I think it is wonderful to see so many standalone courses, but I also think that real progress will be made when we see ethics as part of everyday practice, which means that it’s taught as part of machine learning, data science, design, even introductory programming. (Based on research I’ve been working on, I can tell you this is fairly uncommon right now — but also, getting better!) Ethics is not a specialization.

Please consider sharing this and also adding to the collection your own courses. You are welcome to reach out to me (casey.fiesler@colorado.edu) with any questions. Thank you to everyone who has contributed and turned this into such a great resource!