First Time Publishing Pedagogical Research

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Racist search engines. Sexist algorithms. Violations of data privacy. Fake news. Killer robots.

Over the past few years, technology users around the world have begun to confront a number of ethical issues and social questions lying beyond the apparent slickness and simplicity of their everyday devices. Following promises made earlier in the century for how computer technology could help reshape the world into a freer and more connected “global village,” a New York Times article in 2019 declared the 2010’s as the decade in that “tech lost its way.” [1]

The rise of this kind of increasing concerns over computer technology has resulted in at least two sets of consequences in universities. On the one hand, students have become concerned with the ethical and social implications of computer technology, at times leading to a negative response toward potential job opportunities in the tech industry – a phenomenon that popular media has described as a “techlash.” On the other hand, it has led to a renewed interest on behalf of university administrators and professors for developing interdisciplinary classes that confront difficult questions at the intersection of technology, ethics, and society. In 2017, following a famous op-ed by Cathy O’Neil, author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction, in which she claimed that “academics have been asleep at the wheel” on issues related to tech ethics [2], university professors around the world came together to populate a crowd-sourced spreadsheet with hundreds of syllabi representing examples of existing tech ethics courses [3]. At the same time, courses by major universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT started being featured in popular media for their efforts in “trying to train technologists to consider the implications of tools before they’re used” [4].

At Rice University, ever since I was hired in Fall 2019 as a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Rice Academy of Fellows and with the support of the Technology, Culture, and Society Initiative, I have been working together with Dr. Moshe Vardi, Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering and leader of this Initiative, on developing academic curricula that can help computer science students address contemporary social and ethical concerns around technology. As a major part of this effort, since Spring 2020 Dr. Vardi and I have been co-teaching a 300-level elective course for computer science majors called Ethics and Accountability in Computer Science. Moreover, based on our experience teaching this class, and largely thanks to advice and support from the CTE, we have been publishing pedagogical research in this area at top computer science and ethics education journals.

Teaching Tech Ethics – and then Writing about Teaching Tech Ethics

In early 2020, at the time that Dr. Vardi and I first started working on redesigning the syllabus for the Ethics and Accountability in Computer Science class, we sought to leverage our interdisciplinary expertise – Dr. Vardi’s in computer science and engineering, and mine in philosophy and critical media studies – to help create a distinctive and compelling experience for students. Similar to other existing tech ethics courses that we found in our research, as well as to previous versions of the same course at Rice, we designed our class to cover a variety of topics, including algorithmic bias, privacy and surveillance, work and automation, government regulation, etc. Yet, in addition to doing so, a specific objective of our course was to push the theoretical boundaries within which these topics are traditionally examined. By pulling together a series of methods and insights from theoretical approaches outside of the mainstream analytic philosophical tradition - including primarily from the work of theorists such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Alexander Galloway – we sought to help students focus their ethical questions, away from abstract conceptions of “right” or “wrong,” and instead toward to the lived reality of people in different socio-economic circumstances, oftentimes living under long-established structural mechanisms of material and ideological oppression. For us, what was critical was moving class discussion away from detached, rationalist perspectives on morality, and more toward the terrain of historical social inequalities and the need for greater affective structures of care. In other words, we were concerned not only with discussing ethics, but with thinking through different sociotechnical approaches to promoting social justice.

As we began teaching the course, we soon surmised that something integral to the success of our class would be gathering actionable feedback from students. Even just after a few classes, as we were introducing the students to new and challenging theoretical material, we were eager to learn from students what was working and what was not. To this end, we immediately approached the CTE for help. They were extremely responsive in this regard, helping us to design feedback questions, conducting an anonymous conversation with students, meeting with us to discuss the results of this conversation, and then providing advice on how to improve upon certain aspects of the class.

Soon after our discussion with the CTE, Dr. Vardi and I then started to reflect more deeply on the students’ reactions and began to think about the potential value of sharing our experience teaching this class with other professors in the international computer science community. We began to conceive of an article describing our theoretical approach to the course as well as successes and limitations as based upon students’ reactions to the course. Yet, at this point, even though both of us had experience publishing in our respective academic fields, neither one of us had published pedagogical research before. And so, the CTE’s guidance was crucial here as well. Acting as PI on the investigation, the CTE helped guide me through the IRB process, including actions such as requesting students’ approval, creating a research disclosure statement, and safely collecting and storing student data. At the end of our semester teaching the class, and after successfully navigating through the IRB process, we were able to obtain critical insights and observations from a large percentage of students. The data collected included final reflections, course evaluations, and other written assignments that students had turned in throughout the semester. Since then, both at times when I have taught the class on my own (Fall 2020) and again with Dr. Vardi (Spring 2021), I have the appropriate procedures in place to help us receive student approval from the outset of the semester and collect information from all students in class.

Pedagogical Research: An Opportunity to Practice What We Teach

Based upon the data collected in our class, thus far we have published two pedagogical research articles in prestigious academic venues. The first article, “Deep Tech Ethics: An Approach to Teaching Social Justice in Computer Science,” we presented at The 52nd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE ’21) and is now accessible as part of the conference’s proceedings [5]. This article describes our theoretical approach to the class, our strategy for implementing this approach in the syllabus, and contains a careful analysis of both qualitative and quantitative student responses to the course, as well as some particular limitations that we experienced in having to transition the course online due to ongoing pandemic. The second article, “Computing and Care: An Activity for Practicing ‘Deep’ Attention” focuses on students’ relationship to contemporary attention economies and describes the intricacies of an at-home assignment that we designed to help students challenge their relationship to their social devices and consider the role of care and empathy in practicing ethics. This article will be published in Teaching Ethics: The Journal of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum in their Spring 2021 issue. In addition to these articles, Dr. Vardi and I have also presented our research in a teaching webinar to scholars at the University of Reykjavik in Iceland and at the Gran Sasso Science Institute in Italy, and in journal club meeting to a group of ACM-affiliated computer science professionals in the UK.

All in all, we take our modest success in publishing this research to represent, not only our peers’ recognition of our work with students in the classroom, but also of the value and significance of conducting pedagogical research. We, at first, were motivated mainly by the desire to help computer science students at Rice to confront the ethical and social questions they in many ways were already having in relationship to technology. This led us to seek to develop an innovative curriculum that would help students challenges existing social paradigms and would encourage them to think at a more structural and historical level about these issues. Our hope in this regard was for students to carry the knowledge learned in class outside of any academic boundaries and into their personal lives, as everyday technology consumers, and in their professional futures, as computer scientists and technology developers. Yet, later on, in discovering the possibilities for writing about our experience and sharing it with fellow teachers and scholars, we found the extraordinary opportunity to effectively practice what we teach when we teach ethics. We found the opportunity not only to tell students about the value and significance of social collaboration in ethical world-building, but to effectively share and collaborate with other professors – perhaps halfway across the world - with similar academic interests and pedagogical objectives as us. This process of writing, publishing, and then presenting this pedagogical research has helped us tremendously in establishing relationships and working together with other educators in learning how best to help students navigate through the social and ethical challenges that computer technology poses today – a problem that we all see as critical for creating a more just society and politics.

To conclude, and as a final note on this this collaborative spirit, we recognize the vital impact that both the CTE and our students have had in our research. On the one hand, the CTE has been an invaluable partner in providing guidance and advice throughout the data collection and publication process. While, on the other hand, we are happy to recognize that none of this would have been possible without our students’ willingness to share their opinions and experiences in the class with us and to participate in our research. Since we started teaching this class, we have been astounded by student’s enthusiasm for confronting long-standing social and ethical prejudices in computer science. Furthermore, we have been impressed to see how positively they have engaged with our class and have been greatly pleased to hear from their own words how much they had enjoyed and learned from our discussion. We profusely thank both the CTE and students for making our research possible.


[1] “The Decade Tech Lost Its Way,” The New York Times, Dec. 16, 2019.

[2] C. O’Neil, “Opinion | The Ivory Tower Can’t Keep Ignoring Tech,” The New York Times, Nov. 14, 2017.

[3] C. Fiesler, “Tech Ethics Curricula: A Collection of Syllabi,” Medium, Nov. 21, 2019. (accessed Aug. 11, 2020).

[4] S. Wykstra, “Fixing Tech’s Ethics Problem Starts in the Classroom,” The Nation, Feb. 21, 2019.

[5] R. Ferreira and M. Y. Vardi, “Deep Tech Ethics: An Approach to Teaching Social Justice in Computer Science,” in Proceedings of the 52nd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, New York, NY, USA, Mar. 2021, pp. 1041–1047, doi: 10.1145/3408877.3432449.

Guest Post by Rodrigo Ferreira, Rice Academy Postdoctoral Fellow