George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., isn't waiting for a new curriculum
directive. The school requires all computer science students to take a computer ethics
Tamara Maddox, GMU computer ethics professor, says it's imperative for students to
be aware of technical virtues. Undoubtedly, they will someday be faced with dilemmas
that may redefine Information Age values. "They will not be aware of how to handle
these issues if they have never thought of them before," she says.
Maddox, a lawyer and former software developer, wants her students to be prepared.
Her Computer Ethics 105 students must participate in group discussions and projects and
write research papers. Topics range from piracy to negligence in software testing, and
Internet freedom of speech vs. pornography, which she describes as "an age-old issue
with a new face."
Development of low quality software is a real ethical problem for the IT industry,
says Don Gotterbarn, Ph.D., professor of computer and information science at East
Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn. "When you let the schedule change
the quality of software you develop, that is an ethical issue," he says. For example,
says Gotterbarn, two years ago a computer expert did not program an incubator
thermostat properly. The inaccuracy reportedly resulted in the death of two infants.
Although such a high profile example is emotionally charged, GeoTrust's Martin says
you do not have to reach that far to find other examples of how ethics have played out
in the industry. Think back to January of this year.
The Y2K bug is a classic lesson of the lack of social and ethical awareness among
the computing industry professionals, Martin says. Years ago, says the former computer
ethics professor, developers thought little about future implications of their work:
Would airplanes be able to fly? What would the financial ramifications be? This lack of
foresight brougght problems of global significance.
Martin's academic colleague, Gotterbarn, sees another important event in the
ethical history of the IT industry -- powerful and fast computers in the hands of
nonprofessionals. This, Gotterbarn says, has made an enormous impact on how the
discipline of computer science is now being taught. "We used to teach computing in only
technical terms -- devoid of humanity. But they [students] did not get an immediate
sense that their computing affects people. Every decision a computer professional makes
impacts other people, either colleagues or laymen," Gotterbarn says.