A classroom demonstration that uses role playing and group and individual decision making to explore decisions about web censorship
Author: Keith Miller
Department of Computer Science
University of Illinois at Springfield
Presented at the OEC International Conference on Ethics in Engineering and Computer Science, March 1999
The Online Ethics Center advocates "active learning" for ethics education. The Center's definition specifies "classroom exercises," but I contend that active learning can also occur asynchronously using the World Wide Web in conjunction with an online computer ethics class.
The Online Ethics Center includes "group and individual decision making" as well as "role playing" as possible active learning activities. The exercise in this paper uses these modalities to explore decisions about Web censorship.
For this conference presentation, I have designed this exercise to take place within 50 minutes. When I give this exercise to students in an online computer ethics class, I give students several days to explore Web sites and think about them. I find that increasing the time available for introspection and asynchronous "discussions" (via electronic bulletin boards) enables students to think more deeply and express themselves more eloquently about the issues.
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Here is an outline of the activities I envision for an active learning experience on the topic of Web censorship. The points in this outline would be presented to students in the order shown here, but in an asynchronous learning environment students are encouraged to do more exploration than is prescribed in the exercise, perhaps changing the order in which they encounter various points. Except for the surveys (one taken before other activities, the other afterwards) the order need not be strictly enforced.
The materials needed for this learning experience all need to be accessible via the World Wide Web. I use the commercial product WebCT for my online classes, but there are many other possibilities available. Nothing in this learning experience requires anything out of what is considered "ordinary" in recent browsers. The required materials are:
On the one hand, I fear that some people who routinely dismiss Web censorship as useless, unethical, or completely impractical haven't experienced some of the worst of the Web, sites that are dramatically offensive. On the other hand, some people who advocate censorship don't think carefully about the technical, political, and moral problems associated with controlling a system that was designed to be open and international. I hope this learning experience will tend to make people think about strengths and the weaknesses in their current ethical position on Web censorship, and perhaps see opposing views in a more realistic (and less simplistic) light.
I have some reservations about including links to offensive Web sites in this exercise. I find it interesting that while designing a class exercise on Web censorship I found myself struggling with the issue of whether or not I should censor my exercise. In the end, I included Web sites I thought provocative and disturbing. All of my students are legally adults, and I emphasized the warning about the purpose of linking to those sites. I also checked with our system administrator about including the links, a precaution I recommend.
Instead of a traditional set of print references, I'll conclude this paper with a list of Web sites that might be interesting to people reading this paper. This list is meant to suggest the breadth of materials available on the Web today. All of these links were active on June 8, 2006.
Instead of publicizing such sites (and risk the charge that I am endorsing them), I'll suggest you use your favorite search engine (assuming it is not content restricted) to find sites you find offensive.