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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Activities of the Learning Experience
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.
- Required entrance survey: a short (2 minutes) survey on a participant's views about censorship on the World Wide Web.
- Warning: I issue a warning about the content of this learning experience. Some of the sites visited will be offensive to many. (The learning experience will be password protected, and only adults will be allowed.)
- Scenario: "You are the systems administrator at a small public university. A state representative has asked to visit your campus and have a meeting with you and your university Provost at your office. After a few pleasantries, the representative asks you to show her how the World Wide Web can be accessed by a student at your university. You configure your computer with the University's opening screen for students and invite the representative to sit at your desk and pretend she is a student. She does so, and proceeds to bring up the following site: [insert hate site here]. The representative says, 'This is why I asked for this meeting. I've been getting complaints from constituents about tax dollars being spent to spread this kind of information to our students.' She turns back to the keyboard and brings up [insert pornographic site here]. She turns to you and says, 'I am told this is a popular site on your university machines.' Again she enters an address and brings up [insert a site advocating terrorist activity]. The representative turns away from the keyboard. 'I have just told your provost that your university has two options: block these kinds of sites from state owned machines, or lose funding for your Internet connection. The tax payers will not be made to support this kind of material.' As the representative strides from your office the Provost hurries after her, but over his shoulder says, 'I want a memo from you tomorrow morning about this situation. Bring it to my office at 9 a.m. and we'll discuss your recommendations.'"
- Activity #1: You need some help. You jump to the keyboard and write a quick email to several of your most trusted friends in cyberspace. You explain the situation and invite them to brainstorm on a bulletin board you have available for confidential discussions. You give them the bulletin board address and proceed to discuss what you should do next: [insert bulletin board address here]. (Note: there will be several bulletin boards for the class, and 5 students will be assigned to each bulletin board.) The password for your bulletin board is the same as the password you used to access this exercise. Brainstorm about your options and possible justifications for adopting one or more of the suggestions that arise.
- Activity #2: After brainstorming until [insert day and time here], have one member of your discussion group draft a memo to the Provost. Post the memo on the bulletin board, revise as necessary, and then mail the memo to [insert email address of instructor here]. Mail the proposed memo before [insert day and time here].
- Activity #3: The memos from all the small discussion groups will be posted at [insert Web site here]. Read all the memos and then vote at the Web site for the memo you think is most correct ethically, and also vote for the memo you think will be most effective at convincing the Provost and the representative. You need not vote for the same memo twice.
- Required exit survey: Students will be asked to take the initial 2 minute survey for a second time. Assuming that there is sufficient diversity in the results to ensure confidentiality, the survey statistics from before and after the exercise will be shared with the students in the class.
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Description of the Learning Materials
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:
- The instructions (similar to those listed above). The teacher should select internet sites that are candidates for the title "offensive." I have used the words "hate," "pornographic," and "terrorist" in the instructions above, but that is by no means an exhaustive list of the kinds of sites people find offensive. Local restrictions and custom will help shape your selection.
- An interactive survey concerning learner attitudes concerning web censorship. This is used twice, once before and once after the experience.
- One electronic bulletin board for each small group of students so they can discuss and plan their memo. Each bulletin board should be private, allowing access only by the small group writing the memo and the teacher.
- A different electronic bulletin board, accessible by the entire class, for posting the memos.
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Discussion of the Learning Experience
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.
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Some Web Sites of Interest
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.
- The Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning (OTEL)
- at the University of Illinois - Springfield. Helpful links about online education.
- J.A.N Lee of Virginia Tech
- has included the idea for this learning exercise in his collection of online computer ethics resources.
Offensive Web Sites
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.
Freedom of "Speech" on the Web
- Electronic Frontier Foundation.
- In its mission statement, the EFF states: "The Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded in July of 1990 to ensure that the principles embodied in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights) are protected as new communications technologies emerge."
- Computers Freedom & Privacy.
- Information on the annual conference of this name.