Computer science is a growth area for our College. It is part of our further and our higher education curriculum, and we offer community-based classes as well.
Safdar Ali is the Programme Manager for Further Education (FE) Computing at Bradford College, and I visited him and lecturer Maroof Shaffi earlier this week to ask them about how ethics is included in FE computer science. Safdar explained that ethics is a cross cutting issue in computer studies, but some modules have a particular focus on ethics and the law. “We view ethics as very important,” he said, “both to help students prepare for working in computer industries, and to encourage them to behave ethically online, wherever they are.”
The three topics that stimulate most interest and debate are:
Ethical hacking: in a controlled environment, the students are taught how to hack into a basic computer system, and how to use that knowledge to improve their understanding of computer security and protection.
“The students find this module exciting,” Safdar said. “They begin to see that systems they thought were extremely secure can be vulnerable. The approach here is that in order to understand how to protect something, you need to also understand how it may be hacked into.”
Maroof explained that there is a widely held view in industry and education that you cannot stop people from hacking, and so it is better to teach computer science students to hack ethically and legally. “There are now degrees in computer security which go into this in more depth,” he said, “and for people working in the industry there is a certificate in ethical hacking which requires participants to sign an oath that they will only ‘hack for good’.” (These are not on offer at our College at the moment, but see for instance this course run at Northumbria University.)
Cyber-bullying: the students look at ways in which computers can be misused – for instance for pornography, cyber-bullying and invasion of privacy – and what can be done about this. This topic also provokes discussion, as the students have usually heard of instances of abuse either in their circle of contacts or in communities they relate to.
“This isn’t about our students in particular,” says Maroof. “It’s widespread. Photos can be taken, altered and shared online with ease. Sites get hacked into and inappropriate comments get left. A very unpleasant trend is hacking into Facebook pages to post comments that are then sent to all someone’s friends. It is used as a way of getting back at people. But whether it is subtle or full on it can be devastating and the shock to friends and family and the damage to reputation are very serious.”
Sharing and caring and piracy (also known as copyright infringement): most FE computer courses on offer at Bradford College have a module that looks at the Data Protection Act and the law on hacking. The module also includes the law on copyright, and here the topic that most often causes debate is the acquisition of films and music without paying the proper fee.
This happens when someone buys a CD, for instance, and then shares it with friends (known as ‘sharing and caring’), or when someone downloads pirated copies of a DVD cheaply or free of charge. “Young people across the UK know about this and where to go,” says Safdar. “We want our students to be aware of the consequences of their actions and to make responsible decisions.”
“The class is often divided on this,” adds Maroof. “If we continually rip off musicians they will go out of business, and when you pay you are supporting future creativity. But some people believe the artists get little and big businesses make millions, and to them free downloading and sharing are seen as a victimless crime.”
There’s a lot more going on in FE Computer Science that I won’t go into here. All students have to write an analysis of the College’s IT Security Policy, explaining why it exists and its contents. This struck me as perhaps a bit dry, but in fact such policies are present wherever we study or work, and are always important. Looking at the policy gives students a real life and very relevant example, and it must help boost compliance with our regulations and requirements and improve student safety.
The majority of our FE computing students are aged 16-18 and most are studying for one of a number of Diplomas on offer as a stepping stone to a higher level qualification in the same field. Hopefully they share their growing ethical awareness with their friends and fellow students and carry it with them when they leave FE studies.
As we finished, Maroof said:
“As they say, ‘with knowledge comes power, and with power comes responsibility’. That’s what we are sharing with the students on our computer courses.”
(I’ve tried to source that quote, and while lots of people ascribe it to Spider Man, it seems Voltaire may have got into print first…)