ETHICS IN THE INFORMATION SYSTEMS CLASSROOM: GETTING STARTED!
Smith, Mark W.
Ed.D. JOURNAL OF INFORMATION SYSTEMS EDUCATION 3/92
Volume 4, Number
System Curriculum, Information System Ethics, Pedagogy
It would seem obvious
to most people that professional ethics should be included as a topic in
any curriculum. Whether it is done as a separate course or as units within
courses is not at issue. For most Information Systems (IS) educators the
real problem is, "How do I teach professional ethics" in my course?
This paper suggests several ideas for the IS educator to help develop a
sense of ethical professional behavior in their students. A brief discussion
of the background for computer ethics and established codes of professional
ethics and conduct in the IS industry; how to design and implement computer
ethics into the IS course; how the IS educator can become more of a resource
for his/her students in the area of computer ethics; and finally, some
suggestions on class exercises, assignments and readings on computer ethics
Industry can present
the computer professional with some very unique ethical choices. The IS
professional is expected to make the "correct" choice based on
professional training. We, as educators, may be somewhat negligent in providing
the necessary education in computer ethics. Do not ignore this side of
your students' education. Let's give our students the necessary background
to deal with ethical questions in information systems before they are put
to the test.
When and where
did you learn that your chosen career in Information Systems required a
sense of professional ethics? Was it while you were on the job? During
a tough time for the business? In a world where business scandals are appearing
with ever more frequency one wonders when and where the people involved
learned about professional ethics? It seems obvious that a need exists
for the teaching of ethics in the classroom in our institutions of higher
learning. Forester and Morrison  have said that computer science students
do not yet have a "social conscience" and that course work should
include components in the teaching of ethical behavior. Gries  argues
that software engineers aren't getting enough education in the area of
ethics and that they "lack professionalism". IS managers say
"it's not my job" and believe general management should be responsible
for IS ethics training . DeMichiell  feels that higher education
must accept some responsibility for helping students develop sound ethical
concepts regarding their future profession.
behavior begins early, but it doesn't stop when we graduate from high school.
The very nature of the computer business, unseen electronic/magnetic data
and speed of light processing, allows for abuse, change, misinterpretation,
and ownership questions. Information Systems is a relatively new profession
and as such has not had as long a time to develop ethical concepts. Complicating
this even more is the fact that new computer technology continues to evolve
presenting the profession with more and unanticipated questions on the
ethical use of the technology.
In a recent article
a study was conducted regarding IS majors and non-majors and their differences
in "applied, ethical decision-making" [5 ]. The results of this
study were encouraging from an ethical decision-making standpoint, however
the presentation of how to incorporate ethics into the IS course/curriculum
was not discussed in any detail. The focus of this article then is "how
do I, as an IS professional educator, include a discussion of ethics in
The answer to this
question goes back several semesters to a time when this author was experiencing
what appeared to be a higher than normal incidence of academic dishonesty
situations. In the search to resolve these problems, the larger issue of
professional ethics and the importance of its understanding by the IS student
So how does the
Information Systems (IS) educator progress with the teaching of ethics
in this highly technological undergraduate discipline? This paper attempts
to help the IS educator answer this question by looking at the background
of computer ethics and how to design and implement a unit on computer ethics
into the IS course; how a faculty member can become an ethics resource
for his/her students; a discussion of demonstrated professional behavior
by faculty; a brief discussion of established professional codes and standards
of conduct in the computer field and how to use them in the IS course;
and finally the design of specific class exercises, assignments and readings
on computer ethics.
The need for ethical
standards in the IS profession can be traced back as early as 1966 in which
a code of ethics was proposed based on a similar code developed by the
Engineers Council for Professional Development. It was not adopted by the
Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), however ACM did use the code
as its Guidelines for Professional Conduct. Later, in the 1970's, ACM and
the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA), both members of the
American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS) developed
codes of ethics . But the real problem is not developing codes of ethical
behavior, rather it is the teaching of professional ethical decision making
based on society and its current value systems. It is unrealistic to put
newly graduated IS students into an ethical conflict and expect them to
make the correct decisions if they've never been "trained" in
the issues of professional ethics. Hence, this author believes such training
must occur in our IS curricula. One of the "Underlying Principles"
of DPMA's Model Curriculum for the 90's is "It is important that IS
professionals possess a high ethical standard" . As such, DPMA
has stated that elective courses in IS Professionalism and Ethics be offered.
This can only be accomplished if the faculty have the requisite expertise
and teaching tools.
FACULTY MEMBER AS AN ETHICS RESOURCE
teaching a unit on professional ethics in a course or as an entire course
must first become a "resource". To do this reading the most recent
discussions on IS professional ethics would help prepare the faculty member.
A search of the literature concentrating on recent articles appearing in
professional journals, other periodicals and books would help the faculty
member become a resource for the most up-to-date ethical questions confronting
the IS professional. What better way to prepare one's students than to
help them anticipate ethical problems they'll encounter upon entering the
profession! Some suggestions include:
using Computer Select and ERIC (let's use the technology available to us!)
The Fall 1989 issue
of Information Executive, DPMA's journal on Information Systems management,
was almost entirely dedicated to computer ethics 
Review books and
case studies. Several excellent books include:
and Paradice , Forester and Morrison , Parker, Swope, and Baker ,
Parker , Ermann, Williams, and Gutierrez , and Johnson .
Review codes of
ethics for professional societies and associations including those of ACM,
DPMA, Engineers' Council for Professional Development (ECPD), and the Institute
of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Of particular note
is the use of case studies since the student generally wants to know "what
the ethically correct" decision should be. Many of the case studies
contain opinions by experts in the IS field.
From a pedagogy
point of view, Cohen and Cornwell [13, 14] present an excellent approach
to incorporating the teaching of computer ethics in the classroom. DeMichiell
 also presents a pedagogy which integrates ethical theory and business
practice. Review of these articles will help the faculty member prepare
to be not only a resource but a guide to his/her students in dealing with
dilemmas in professional ethics.
FACULTY MEMBER AS A ROLE MODEL FOR PROFESSIONAL ETHICS
Teachers live in
a very precarious position, a type of glass house. They are constantly
being viewed by students and used as a role model. Should the faculty member
exhibit any ethically questionable behavior this glass house could shatter!
Parker, Swope, and Baker state that "Although intent is a necessary
component of unethical actions, professionals rarely can legitimately claim
that they harmed someone unintentionally; they are expected to know what
is ethical and what is not" . This unethical action in turn could
be interpreted by students as acceptable behavior since the faculty member
is the "professional" role model the student associates with
the IS profession.
One of Cialdini's
 social-psychological principles described in his text, discusses "Authority"
which points out that people in authority help shape our behavior. To any
parent or teacher this is something seen every day. The authority figure's
opinion is viewed as correct and influences the student's judgements of
what constitutes sound ethical behavior. Of course, as Cialdini suggests,
this authority figure should be an expert and trustworthy. Thus, the faculty
member as not only a resource but also as a role model must be more than
just a symbol. The faculty member should openly practice what he/she preaches.
To ensure that
the faculty member exhibits sound ethical behavior the following areas
should be looked at:
relationships as well as teacher/teacher relationships
and fairly with all students
of student information
Discuss with students
ethical standards expected for a particular course and curriculum
Follow the letter
of the law when it comes to hardware and software use and abuse
Remember, the faculty
member must always exhibit the principles he or she purports to stand for.
SYSTEMS ETHICAL CODES/STANDARDS OF CONDUCT
Since most professions
adhere to established codes or standards of professional conduct discussion
of these codes should be introduced into the course from day one. Unfortunately,
this is probably not the case. Reviewing DPMA's and/or ACM's ethical standards,
the faculty member could easily invite stimulating discussion in the classroom.
Some of the books already mentioned have lengthy and in-depth discussions
of what the standards mean and examples/case studies which apply these
standards. It wouldn't be unrealistic to ask students to "adapt"
a set of these standards to the particular IS course in the beginning of
the semester, thus establishing the ethical standards under which the students
will conduct themselves.
EXERCISES, ASSIGNMENTS, AND READINGS
Cohen and Cornwell
 believe that "practice with solving morally ambiguous scenarios
may accelerate the moral development of our students". Finding exercises,
assignments, and readings which aren't dry and boring to the student can
be one of the real challenges to incorporating IS professional ethics into
the course or curriculum. Some ideas include:
Team teaching may
be a practical solution. DeMichiell  suggests that because philosophers
might not have an interest in IS technology, and the IS faculty member
may not feel comfortable teaching in an area usually oriented toward liberal
arts, they should team teach IS ethics.
in which students must take a pro/con stand on a particular case study
and back up their stance with current literature search. Such areas students
find particularly interesting include electronic crime, piracy, privacy,
to develop their own case studies from recent newspaper and magazine articles.
Develop role playing
scenarios so students can "feel" the effects of ethically questionable
Cohen and Cornwell
[13, 14] use the scenario method but carry it much further in a five step
pedagogy they have validated.
Have students evaluate
scenarios in the same manner found in examples in Parker, Swope, and Baker
, and then compare their results with the opinions found in the book.
Use the "Ethics
Quiz" which appeared in the Fall, 1989, issue of INFORMATION EXECUTIVE
. (See Appendix 1)
Use the "IS
IT ETHICAL?" questionnaire found in Parker, Swope, and Baker 
to help students formulate their own ethical guidelines. (See Appendix
Of the items just
mentioned the Ethics Quiz has proven to be an interesting and discussion
provoking exercise. Nine questions are asked with a range of responses
from A to D for each question. A guide on how you did explains how your
responses tie in with a sense of ethics and what the job requires. It helps
the student determine where they fall in the often grey areas of ethical
There are many
other ways to make ethics an exciting and interesting topic in your class.
In Parker, Swope, and Baker  a somewhat simplified and general set
of questions can be used to help your students answer the question "IS
IT ETHICAL?," taken from Ethical Conflicts in Information and Computer
Science, Technology, and Business.
This paper presents
a brief introduction and background on the subject of computer ethics.
It then suggests methods which can be used to incorporate the topic of
professional computer ethics into the IS course. Included are specific
exercises, readings, and an ethics quiz. These represent only the tip of
the iceberg and are presented to help the IS educator "get started"
on the subject of IS professional ethics.
in the Computer Information Systems/Sciences is a developing topic which
demands discussion and training in the undergraduate IS curriculum. Today's
complicated society and the ever increasing role of IS in all aspects of
our society require the IS professional be prepared to make ethical decisions.
These decisions have a much farther reach than the individual IS professional
and require the IS professional to be prepared to handle responsibilities
which impact on society. Industry can present the computer professional
with some very unique ethical choices. The IS professional is expected
to make the "correct" choice based on professional training.
IS educators, as a whole, may be somewhat negligent in providing the necessary
education in computer ethics.
Thus, the role
of the individual IS faculty member becomes even more important as a result.
Teaching computer ethics in the classroom can no longer be considered an
optional topic. Society demands that future IS professionals be prepared
to analyze the complex problems confronting them and make the proper ethical
decisions. It is an obligation of the IS faculty member to help train the
student to be prepared for this responsibility. Use of some of the techniques
mentioned in this article may help the faculty member meet this obligation.
As a now famous
set of commercials by Nike suggest, just do it. Incorporate computer ethics
in your IS curriculum now. It's a difficult subject to deal with, however
with preparation you can help your students define and understand professional
ethics and why they're needed. Involving your students now in this subject
area may help them make the best choice later when confronted with a decision
which puts their professional computer ethics to the test!
1. Forester, Tom
and Morrison, Perry, Computer Ethics. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990.
2. Gries, D., "Teaching
calculation and discrimination: a more effective curriculum", Communications
of the ACM, March, 1991, 34(3), pp. 44+.
3. "The ethics
gap: despite growing attention, many IS managers say, 'It's not my job'",
Computerworld, Oct. 14, 1991, pp 83+.
R., "Information systems development with ethics: integrating theory
and practice", Interface, the Computer Education Quarterly, Winter
1988-89, pp. 74-81.
5. Kievit, K.A.,
"Information systems majors/non-majors and computer ethics",
The Journal of Computer Information Systems, Fall 1991, pp. 43-49.
6. Parker, Donn
B. Ethical conflicts in computer science and Technology. SRI Menlo Park,
7. DPMA. INFORMATION
SYSTEMS The DPMA Model Curriculum for a Four Year Undergraduate Degree.
Data Processing Management Association, Park Ridge, IL. 1991.
8. DPMA. INFORMATION
EXECUTIVE. Data Processing Management Association, Park Ridge, IL, Fall
1989, pp. 14-45.
9. Dejoie, R.,
Fowler, G., and Paradice, D. (editors), Ethical Issues in Information Systems.
Boyd and Fraser:Boston, 1991.
10. Parker, D.B.,
Swope, S., and Baker, B. N. Ethical Conflicts in Information and Computer
Science, Technology, and Business. QED Information Sciences, Inc., Wellesley,
11. Ermann, M.D.,
Williams, M.B., and Gutierrez, C. Computers, Ethics, & Society. Oxford
University Press, New York, 1990.
12. Johnson, Deborah
G. Computer Ethics. Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1985.
13. Cohen, E. and
Cornwell, L., "Information systems ethics: refining the pedagogy",
CIS Educator Forum, Spring 1990, pp 9-12.
14. Cohen, E. and
Cornwell, L., "A question of ethics: developing information system
ethics", Journal of Business Ethics, 8:1989, pp 431-437.
15. Cialdini, R.B.,
Influence: Science and Practice, second edition. Scott, Foresman and Co.,Glenview,
Dr. Smith is an
Assistant Professor in Computer Information Systems, Department of Computer
Technology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. He received his
Ed.D. from Nova University, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in Computer Education.
His current research interests include computer ethics, computer anxiety,
and micro-based COBOL program development. He is also the Book Review Editor
for the Journal of Information Systems Education.