The role of peer dialogue as disruptor in critical ethical analysis for computing students

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Department of Computer Science


The importance of dialogue in questioning assumptions and bringing new options and perspectives to light is well established in various areas of decision-making; what potential does it hold to enrich students' critical thinking competencies in the context of ethics education? We examine student work in an ethics course for senior computer science and software engineering students. The course includes a series of exercises in critical ethical inquiry, implementing the iterative Ethical Cycle approach of van de Poel and Royakkers with reflection sessions where students exchange peer critiques. Through a qualitative analysis of two years of student work, we explore two questions: what kinds of critical issues do students acknowledge in peer dialogue, and how do students incorporate, or fail to incorporate, critical challenges into their work? We identify and categorize critical challenges that appear in student reflection statements, and we identify a number of patterns of critical engagement: ways in which student map the identifications of critical challenges to subsequent changes in later iterations. Our results indicate that dialogue with others is generally an enriching component of students' ethical inquiry, though not all students take advantage of it even when built into class exercises, and other students may adopt new ideas in a superficial way, failing to truly incorporate them into prior discussion. The results also suggest certain design changes of the ethical analysis exercises that can help students take greater advantage of insights from their peers: fostering greater interplay between peers through a single clearly identified topic; more defined scaffolding of peer discussions, prompting students to identify critical challenges from others; further scaffolding to remind students of the peer challenges raised earlier and ask them how (and whether) they wish to incorporate these new perspectives into their own work; and more discussion and modeling of how to truly incorporate new ideas in a robust way.

Publication Title

Proceedings - Frontiers in Education Conference, FIE