Ethics, Cybersecurity, ethics, curricula and standards

This morning, I read Alfred Thompson's post on teaching cybersecurity. as Alfred says, it's something of a CS Ed buzzword this summer.

Another hot topic in K12 CS Ed this summer is the inclusion of ethics in our CS courses courtesy of efforts like the #ethicalCS twitter chat every Wednesday at 8:00 Eastern time hosted by Saber Khan.

Discussions about both topics include "where should we be doing this?" "What should we be doing?" and of course "How?"

This got me thinking about designing curriculum from the top down - that is, as dictated by outside forces: principals, superintendents, states, industry or bottom up: a teacher sees a need and designs something for their students.

The best classes I've seen are those designed by a passionate teacher from the ground up. I met Doug Bergman at this past year's CSTA conference. He's terrific. I think he came to the conference wanting to find out more about what cybersecurity really meant. By the second day, he was raving about all the amazing possibilities. I'd love to be in the class he develops.

On the other hand, when topics or standards are forced down from above, I've seen something entirely different.

I've observed and been involved in cybersecurity discussions with CS teachers. The discussion goes something like this:

  • Well, we do memory allocation in course XYZ so we can give a homework assignment there.
  • We can rewrite the story (theme) for the assignment in our data structures class.
  • We already do a crypto assignment in algorithms so we're already doing it.

I've seen the same with groups of math teachers discussing implementing common core. They talk about resequencing topics, rewriting a few word problems or homework assignments but at the core, the feeling is "we already know how to teach math."

It gets worse when there's a standardized or high stakes test at the end of the tunnel and you get the "you need this for the test" type units.

This might not be as big of a problem in K12 CS right now because so many teachers are just learning their craft but in established fields such as math or college CS, when an edict comes from above telling a teacher how to teach, unless the teacher really believes in it, the teacher will only pay lip service to it. If it isn't an issue in CS Ed right now, it will eventually become one as our field develops legs.

This is arguably a bigger issue with Ethical CS than cybersecurity. If the teacher doesn't really believe it's an important topic, we'll get lip service at best and in the case of ethics, unless the teacher really believes it and models it, the students will be able to tell that it's a show.

I don't have an answer other than what my friend and mentor Herb Greenhut told me many years ago "Solving the education problem is easy. Hire good teachers and get the f*ck out of the way."


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