Computer Science and the Learning
Sciences, and the new interdisciplinary
College of Computing at MIT). The digital social sciences and humanities have
started to examine the intersections of
computational tools and methods in
fields such as history, literature, film
studies, political science, philosophy,
and sociology. Liberal arts colleges are
beginning to introduce technology requirements and offer specializations in
areas such as artificial intelligence and
data science. Much of this work aims to
unite computational and humanistic
questions in novel ways and inspire new
ways of seeing and thinking about computation and its place in our society and
lives. In middle and secondary computer science education, however, ethical
and political dimensions of computing
tend to be sidelined, including within
introductory courses such as Exploring
Computer Science (ECS) or CS Principles.
5 A pedagogical focus on power and
ethics in K– 12 CS education has the exciting potential to forge new disciplinary
bridges between the goals and practices
of CS and parallel efforts to engage youth
in civics and social justice. Additionally,
intentionally broadening the intellectual and social purposes of CS could invite
a wider range of student identities.
History as Our Guide
For computing education as a field
to rethink ethics and equity in ways
called for here will undoubtedly re-
quire a hard (and perhaps uncomfort-
able) epistemological and pedagogical
pivot. We would do well, though, to
remember a rich intellectual history
of thinkers in our field who have laid a
foundation upon which we may build.
For instance, mathematician, philoso-
pher, and pacifist Norbert Wiener for-
warded a view of ethics rooted in the
fundamental relationships between
science and power. Especially in his
later writings, he urged the field to take
seriously the ways machines may alter
society in ways that would challenge
the very meaning of human life.
recently, Jeannette Wing’s contention
that computational thinking is “a uni-
versally applicable attitude and skill
set [that] everyone, not just computer
scientists” can learn and use7 helped
spark an enduring debate about com-
putation’s transdisciplinarity and its
untapped potential to inspire new
ways of seeing the world. We see much
value in these early formulations, par-
ticularly with regard to their emphasis
on the power of computing to transform
society. Highlighting power as a con-
ceptual and pedagogical approach lo-
cates learning about computing within
a justice frame that both complements
and challenges previously articulated
visions for computing education.
Robust understandings of power,
ethics, equity, technologies, and society—as called for in this column—are
key for the design of future tools and
artifacts rooted in deep notions of the
public good and social welfare. Future
generations must possess the ability to
critically analyze the affordances and
constraints of technological advancement, as well as the moral imagination
and technical skill to create with compassion and ethical integrity.
1. Eubanks, V. Automating Inequality: How High- Tech
Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. St. Martin’s
Press, New York, NY, 2018.
2. Herkert, J.R. Ways of thinking about and teaching
ethical problem solving: Microethics and macroethics
in engineering. Science and Engineering Ethics 11, 3
(Mar. 2005), 373–385.
3. Margolis, J. Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race,
and Computing. MIT Press, Boston, MA, 2010.
4. Noble, S.U. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search
Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press, NY, 2018.
5. Vakil, S. Ethics, identity, and political vision: Toward
a justice-centered approach to equity in computer
science education. Harvard Educational Review 88, 1
(Jan. 2018), 26–52.
6. Wiener, N. Some moral and technical consequences of
automation. Science 131, 3410 (1960), 1355–1358.
7. Wing, J. M. Computational thinking. Commun. ACM 49,
3 (Mar. 2006), 33–35.
Sepehr Vakil ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is
Assistant Professor, Learning Sciences, in the School of
Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University,
Evanston, IL, USA.
Jennifer Higgs ( email@example.com) is Assistant
Professor, Learning & Mind Sciences and Language,
Literacy, & Culture, in the School of Education at the
University of California, Davis, CA, USA.
Copyright held by authors.
technology and society collide to simultaneously create challenges and opportunities for education and social action.
A Critical Practice for Democracy
and Civic Engagement
Focusing on power in discussions of
computing and ethics foregrounds justice and equity, and is thus a critical
practice that can benefit all members
of society. Democratic societies are
shaped, filtered, enhanced, and circumscribed by computing technologies and
the algorithms driving them, yet these
interactions between society and technology are often difficult to discern. Full
social and political participation hinges
on the ability to perceive and interrogate these interactions. Today’s and tomorrow’s civically engaged actors must
have access to technology and opportunities to develop technical skills, but
they must also possess the knowledge,
conceptual frameworks, and vocabularies to make sense of, vote, protest, design, and advocate for socially desirable
configurations between society and
technology. Centering power in considerations of ethics prepares people
to foreground how various forms of injustice may be disputed or reproduced
when considering interactions between
technology and society.
A Commitment to Traversing
Engaging the ethics and politics of computing demands an unprecedented and
vigorous transdisciplinary dialogue
between CS and the social sciences
and humanities. Computer science
instructors will need to move beyond
decontextualized modules on ethics or
individual courses on social impact that
deemphasize moral and political questions. Universities will need to create
learning pathways where students gain
knowledge and skills to build the technologies of the future as they simultaneously develop the sensibilities and intellectual integrity to question, modify, or
reimagine these technologies.
Toward these ends, there are encouraging cross-disciplinary developments
on the horizon the field should support
and continue to foster. Several universities with highly ranked CS programs
are expanding CS learning opportunities in interesting ways (for instance,
Northwestern’s joint Ph.D. program in
There are encouraging
the horizon the field
should support and
continue to foster.