Students in the course, CSC 391: Ethical Computer Science.

A technology ethics course is helping students at Wake Forest cultivate moral agency to navigate potential challenges of emerging technologies in today’s society. The course, “Ethics of Emerging Technologies” (CSC 191), was created in 2020 by Dr. William Cochran during his time as a postdoctoral fellow with the Program for Leadership and Character. The course and its effects on students formed the basis for a journal article written by Cochran and the Program’s former Director of Research and Assessment, Dr. Kate Allman. “There is a dearth of literature discussing how to foster moral agency in computer science courses, and little if any research on the effectiveness of such courses in computer science,” they wrote.

Cochran taught “Ethics of Emerging Technologies” again in the fall of 2023 after returning to Wake Forest as an Assistant Teaching Professor in Computer Science and Affiliate in the Program for Leadership and Character. 

Dr. William Cochran teaching his course during the fall 2023 semester.

In the course, students researched an emerging technology. Afterward, they wrote a code of ethics where they described how the technology worked and its potential benefits as well as ethical concerns that could arise if the technology was developed without any guardrails. The code of ethics, in turn, was intended to help maintain the technology’s benefits and reduce its risk. At the end of the semester, the students presented their research and findings to the class. “They really get to become experts in an emerging technology, teach me as well as the rest of the students about it, and hopefully do something with that knowledge in the world,” Cochran says.

Another assignment that students completed in this course is the Technomoral Virtue Field Journal. Based on Shannon Vallor’s technomoral virtues, the purpose of this assignment is for students to develop strategies to cultivate a specific virtue and implement it into their own lives. For example, to help cultivate self-control, some students stopped using social media for a period of time or used it in moderation.

The term “techno-determinism” describes the feeling of having no control over the way that technology develops and shapes our future, says Cochran. One of his course’s goals is for students to feel empowered and to have a sense of agency over the direction that technology can take in their lives. 

At the end of the course, the students’ growth in moral agency was measured in a few ways. They completed a detailed survey as well as an assignment where they were asked to list ethical implications of an emerging technology at the beginning and end of the semester to track their growth. After reading through the students’ responses and reflections, most of the students shared several ways they felt like they had grown as moral agents after taking the course. “I think that the shape and direction of our shared technological future really depends on the ethical leadership of individuals,” says Cochran. “I think personally we need to reclaim moral agency, and I hope that the course that I taught is able to do that.”