Initiative trains U of T students to integrate ethical considerations into tech design

As transformative advances in technology spark global concern over the downstream impacts on society, a team of U of T faculty is preparing computer science students to integrate ethical considerations into technology design and deployment.

First launched in 2020 as a two-year pilot program, the Embedded Ethics Education Initiative (E3I) integrates ethics modules into select undergraduate computer science courses. As challenges such as AI safety, data privacy and misinformation become increasingly prevalent, E3I aims to provide students with the ability to critically assess the societal impacts of the technologies they will be designing and developing throughout their careers.

Reaching 400 computer science students in its first year, the program has seen significant growth over the last four years. This academic year alone, total enrolment in computer science courses with E3I programming has exceeded 8,000 students. Another 1,500 students participated in E3I programming in courses outside computer science.

In recognition of the program’s impact on the undergraduate student learning experience, Sheila McIlraith, Diane Horton, David Liu and Steven Coyne of the Department of Computer Science have been named winners of the 2024 Northrop Frye Award (Team), one of the prestigious U of T Alumni Association Awards of Excellence.

E3I aims to help students “recognize the broader ramifications of the technology they’re developing on diverse stakeholders, and to avoid or mitigate any negative impact,” explains McIlraith, an associate director at the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society (SRI).

Horton, who leads the initiative’s assessment efforts, points to the team’s recently published paper showing that after participating in modules in only one or two courses, students are inspired to learn more about ethics and are benefiting in the workplace.

“We have evidence that they are better able to identify ethical issues arising in their work, and that the modules help them navigate those issues,” she says.

Horton notes these recent findings build on their earlier assessment work showing that after experiencing modules in only one course, students became more interested in ethics and tech, and more confident in their ability to deal with ethical issues they might encounter.

As a first-year student enrolled in CSC111: Foundations of Computer Science II, Malaikah Hussain participated in an E3I module that explored how a data structure she learned about in class laid the foundation of a contact tracing system and raised ethical issues concerning data collection.

“The modules underlined how the software design choices we make extend beyond computing efficiency concerns to grave ethical concerns such as privacy,” says Hussain, a third-year computer science specialist.

Hussain says exposure to these modules propelled her interest in ethics and computing, leading her to pursue upper year courses on the topic. During a subsequent internship, she organized an event about the ethics surrounding e-waste disposal and the company’s technology life cycle.

“The E3I modules have been crucial in shaping my approach to my studies and work, emphasizing the importance of ethics in every aspect of computing,” she adds.

E3I is a collaboration between the Department of Computer Science and the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society, in association with the Department of Philosophy.

The team says this interdisciplinary collaboration is critical to delivering both a curriculum and experience with an authentic voice, giving instructors and students the vocabulary and depth of knowledge to engage on issues such as privacy, well-being and harm.

“As a philosopher and ethicist, I love teaching in a computer science department,” says Coyne. “My colleagues teach me about interesting ethical problems that they’ve found in their class material, and I get to reciprocate by finding distinctions and ideas that illuminate those problems. And we learn a lot from each other — intellectually and pedagogically — when we design a module for that class together.”

E3I is founded upon three key principles: teach students how — not what — to think; encourage ethics-informed design choices as a design principle; and make discussions safe, not personal.

“Engaging with students and making them feel safe, not proselytizing, inviting the students to participate is especially important,” says Liu.

Horton explains the modules support this type of learning environment by using stakeholders with fictional character profiles that include names, pictures and a backstory.

“Fictional stakeholders help add a layer of distance so students can think through the issues without having to say, ‘this is what I think.’ Stakeholders also increase their awareness of the different kinds of people who might be impacted.”

Advocating for an opinion that is not necessarily their own encourages empathy, McIlraith notes.

Liu says students have a “real hunger” to learn about the ethical considerations of their work.

“An increasing number of students are thinking, ‘I want to be trained as a computer scientist,’ and ‘I want to use my skills after graduation,’ but also ‘I want to do something that I think will make a positive impact on the world,’” he explains.

Together, the E3I team works with course instructors to develop educational modules that tightly pair ethical concepts with course-specific technical material. In an applied software design course, students learn about accessible software and disability theory; in a theoretical algorithms course, they learn about algorithmic fairness and distributive justice; and in a game design course, they learn about addiction and consent.

Steve Engels, professor, teaching stream, says integrating an ethics module about addiction into his fourth-year capstone course on video game design felt like a natural extension of his lecture topic on ludology — psychological techniques used to make games compelling — instead of something that felt artificially inserted into the course.

“Project-based courses can sometimes compel students to focus primarily on the final product of the course, but this module provided an opportunity to pause and reflect on what they were doing and why. It forced them to confront their role in the important and current issue of gaming addiction, so they would be more aware of the ethical implications of their future work and thus be better equipped to handle it.”

By next year, each undergraduate computer science student will encounter E3I modules in at least one or two courses every year throughout their program. The team is also exploring the adoption of the E3I model in other STEM disciplines, from ecology to statistics. Beyond U of T, the team plans to share their expertise with other Canadian universities that are interested in developing a similar program.

“This initiative is having a huge impact. You see it in the number of students we’re reaching and in our assessment results. But it’s more than that — we’re instigating a culture change,” concludes McIlraith.