With cumbersome grading requirements and a lack of meaningful participation, CSC 379: Ethics in Computing almost entirely fails in its goal of challenging computer science students to think critically about vital ethical issues. Most of my peers dislike the course and feel that it is a misguided attempt to tackle the topic, and I can’t say I disagree.
Ethics is a required, one-credit-hour course for all computer science undergraduate students that meets once a week. It covers topics like whistleblowing, online commerce, freedom of speech, privacy and moral responsibilities of computing professionals.
The course’s grading is based on three things: online forum posts, in-class assignments, and personal reflections, all too bogged down in procedure to be useful teaching tools.
Forum posts are fairly straightforward, as are the in-class assignments, but both are often responses to fairly obvious questions and are thus tedious to write. However, they are not graded nearly as harshly as reflections.
Personal reflections are meant as a way for students to analyze a recent personal event and use this experience to better themselves in the future. However, they are far too structured, and therefore do not allow students freedom in their writing, so nothing meaningful comes out of them. The course comes with a drawn out explanation document getting far too involved in the philosophy of reflection for a one-credit-hour course.
I have had actual philosophy courses that have gotten less in-the-weeds about course material, which, coincidentally, have also taught me more about making ethical decisions than this class, namely PHI 340: Philosophy of Science.
According to the explanation document, each reflection is graded based on quality of writing, what one learned, questions and concerns posed, a self-evaluation portion, and looking forward and outward into “larger societal issues”. These may sound innocuous, but each category is graded in a very stringent way. I found it extremely difficult to write a genuine response, as I wasn’t challenged every week in a way that made me learn something significant or to the extent that I needed to look at a connection to broader societal issues.
When I began the course, friends who already passed the course warned me of this and gave me advice to just write around the five requirements. For my first reflection, I wrote about the difficulties of getting around with a broken leg, and while I approached it earnestly, I was docked points for not accounting for a category, even though it was completely irrelevant. With later reflections, I took the advice my friends gave and found it easier to just include a sentence or two pertaining to each criteria in a way that could be directly identified.
The reason for this is that other students grade reflections and nobody I spoke to was excited at all to do this. Instead of looking at a reflection and evaluating it from an honest perspective, most of the time students just look to get peer grading done as fast as possible and look if a reflection checks all five boxes. If I wanted to get a good grade on a reflection, I was forced to write it in a way that my peers would easily be able to get through it and acknowledge that I checked all the boxes.
In grading others’ reflections, I noticed a similar pattern. As the class went on, we all began to cater to the rubric and stopped trying to be genuine. The whole point of a reflection is to be honest and real; this assignment felt like the opposite.
During lectures, students rarely participate in discussions. I enjoy speaking in class, so I attempted to start discussions, but there was always minimal interest from other students. Part of this might have to do with the overly abstract questions posed and I certainly don’t think having the class at 9:35 a.m. on a Friday helped. There is no incentive to participate and attendance is taken through in-class assignments.
It’s not like participation is uncommon in other computer science courses. I vividly remember lectures in CSC 236: Computer Organization and Assembly Language being full of discussion. Presentation slides were filled with straightforward explanations of difficult material and we were posed with questions that made us challenge our understanding. The professor, Dana Lasher, scheduling officer & lecturer for the department of computer science, was hilarious and enthusiastic, which made me look forward to class.
I propose a complete overhaul of the course. Drop the online forum posts entirely, ease up on the grading requirements and actually incentivize in-class participation.