How to teach students about ethical issues behind new technologies

There are two ways in which digital technology can transform life in higher education institutions. Universities can, for instance, choose their own tech solutions, which seems simple but is a lot harder than you might think. Or they can use technology that comes from outside sources, such as the smartphone, TikTok teachers, Grammarly and, most recently, ChatGPT. These developments are even more difficult to control.

Fontys University in the Netherlands is keen to teach students to think about the impact of technology, something we call technophilosophy. That means teaching them to design and create advanced technology, such as artificial intelligence, data solutions and smart hardware.

Thinking about the impact of technology is a crucial competence, not only for IT students but also for students from all other courses. After all, disciplines such as healthcare, logistics, economics and journalism are also becoming increasingly imbued with digital technology.

Central to this strategy is our Technology Impact Cycle Tool, which enables everyone to better assess the impact of technology. More than 1,250 different technologies have now been assessed with the tool. This helps us to discuss the impact of technology much better and the online courses linked to the tool are popular with students and staff.

Recently we found that an additional advantage is that when the student population is better able to think about the impact of technology, that digital culture forms the basis for better conversations with students about the use of educational technology in universities.

This is very important – after all, a higher education institution that wants to increase the chances of technology having a positive impact on it must ensure that students are involved in the implementation journey.

The Moral Design Game

It is becoming increasingly important to teach students to think better about technology and to actively discuss the use of educational technology with them. This increases the chance of a positive impact, but, on its own, it is not enough.

Fontys University has also developed a different way that students can talk to each other about technology: through the Moral Design Game.

The original idea behind this game is that we need to step away from the mindset that we can organise ethics primarily in a top-down manner using laws, ethical codes or ethical theories. This is an ‘ethics through the backdoor’ model of innovation. We also need ethics to be present at the design phase, that is, at the start of the process.

Instead, we need a bottom-up design that incubates ethics when constructing new educational technologies. This also means addressing the question of who should decide on the morality involved.

With new educational technologies being introduced all the time, this is becoming increasingly important. For example, a smart AI app coaches students and helps them achieve better, but what if the app gives poor advice or causes anxiety? We need to learn to talk about this.

Based on scientific insights, the Moral Design Game challenges players to think about the dominant values that various stakeholders draw on to make decisions. This also makes it clear which values may sometimes be in conflict. For instance, what about the teacher who wants to use WhatsApp to communicate with their students and the students who want to keep their private life and education separate.

The game is based on the idea of the morality plays that were staged in the Middle Ages, which were performed in the local vernacular. The plays often featured characters who were taught a moral lesson and were typically about how everyone is accountable for their own life.

In effect, the Moral Design Game is also a stage play, but this game has a modern twist. The journey takes place in modern life at a time of emerging educational technology and when new forms of debate and governance involve their own moral issues.

Values and debate in the Moral Design Game

When it comes to moral issues, there are always several solutions, even though one particular solution may be incompatible with another. Choices will therefore always need to be made. This means that some values will be upheld, while others are not.

For instance, students won’t enjoy complete privacy if their attendance is tracked, but tracking will help them make better decisions. So, somewhere down the line, concessions will have to be made, but how do you achieve that?

In the Moral Design Game the teacher plays the role of dean, the dean becomes a student, the privacy officer an IT director and so on. Switching characters and trying to win the game as a different character increases insight into other people’s points of view and thus improves the debate.

The game board is inspired by the Theory of Basic Human Values. This is a theory of cross-cultural psychology and universal values that was developed by Shalom H Schwartz in 2012.

A particular value can conflict or align with other values, and these dynamic relationships are typically illustrated using a circular graphic in which opposite poles indicate conflicting values. The goal of the game is to inspire and teach students, teachers and staff to improve their thinking and debating about techno-ethical questions.

Rens van der Vorst is a researcher, lecturer and educational innovator at Fontys University in the Netherlands. He is known as a technophilosopher and has written two bestsellers on the impact of technology. A third book, about digital gremlins, will be published in March 2023. Van der Vorst is working on the acceptance of edtech as part of the Dutch Acceleration Plan by introducing a lightning-fast procedure that empowers teachers and students. He also designed and launched a Moral Design Game especially for assessing educational technology and expanded his popular technology impact assessment tool with an edtech branch. In addition, Rens has published scientific articles about griefbots, runs the quantified student programme and launched a widely used human alternative to the CAPTCHA. To hear more, Van der Vorst will be holding a session on Friday 31 March 2023 in the Auditorium at Ahead by Bett! You can see his full session details here and register to attend the show here.