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C'est la Z

Airline Seats - An Ethics Lesson

I've held off on sharing any details on my Ethics in CS class because I wanted to wait until some of it ran. I didn't want to talk about a topic and then find out that after we covered it I was all wrong.

Now that we're well into the semester, I think it's time to share a few things.

One of my premises when I designed the course was that most ethics courses are taken by either people who already have religion or people who see it as the "easy course" without programming. The few courses I saw out there were largely based on case studies and discussion. Nothing wrong with that - we've got that as well but I wanted to try something a little different.

I wanted to have the class play with some technical situation, preferably with code, and then hopefully discover an ethical issue after which we can discuss.

Here was my first attempt.

Overall I think the lesson has great potential but I also know it needs tweaks. Most notably with teh level of comfort some of the class had with Python. Next time around I want to address that issue but I'll talk about the specifics in the end.

I started by giving the class some code that provided a barebones airline seating system.

Here's an empty plane. I just made windows and interior seats figuring that windows were more desirable and didn't have to differentiate them from aisles.

  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win
  win          avail          avail          avail            win

The code I provided also allowed for the purchase of an "economy plus" ticket. An economy plus passenger could select their seat on purchase. I had a function that with a 70% probability tried to select a window seat and then it would just select a random seat.

You could also select a regular economy seat. For those, the airline would assign a seat at some later point.

Here's a plane where the economy plus seats have been sold and the remaining seats are sold to economy but unassigned.

ep-4          avail          avail          ep-2           ep-5
ep-8          avail          ep-19          avail          ep-11
ep-3          avail          avail          avail          ep-6
ep-1          avail          avail          avail          ep-9
ep-14         avail          avail          avail          ep-16
ep-15         avail          ep-20          avail          ep-18
ep-10         avail          ep-17          ep-24          ep-21
ep-13         ep-22          avail          avail          win
ep-23         avail          avail          avail          win
ep-7          avail          avail          avail          ep-12

I asked the class to finish the routine that assigned the regular economy seats. I also wrote a version that just assigned them randomly. Here's a sample result. Note that u-# represents a block of purchased seats so you'll notice u-1 appears multiple times below. That passenger purchased multiple seats but they were assigned all over the plane at the end.

ep-13         u-6           u-1       ep-16      ep-24
ep-8          ep-15         u-9       u-3        ep-11
ep-22         ep-12         u-2       u-4        u-10
ep-9          ep-5          u-1       u-5        ep-25
ep-2          ep-21         ep-3      u-7        ep-17
ep-1          ep-23         u-8       u-8        ep-6
ep-14         u-12          ep-4      u-4        ep-26
ep-10         u-1           u-11      avail      ep-18
ep-20         u-6           u-11      u-9        u-2
ep-7          u-13          u-2       u-8        ep-19

The class was quick to notice that this could lead to families being split apart and small children being seated away from parents. They also noticed that this would affect poorer passengers more frequently and to a greater extent than richer ones.

Great. Part 1 mission accomplished.

Now, the question became, should we do something about it and if so what.

That was the assignment.

The class noted that this was an unintended consequence of being motivated purely by profit and airline convenience and that airlines should do better. We also noted that it's not always so simple, particularly if an airline is running on thin margins. Finally, we discussed that this situation was real and in fact did result in changes in regulations.

The following week, we discussed possible alternatives. How they might work better and how they might affect an airlines bottom lines and if that should really matter. We also discussed how similar ethical scenarios might play out in other industries.

As a final piece, students had a long term assignment to code up an updated algorithm that did better.

That's the long and short of it.

I'd like to think that by playing with the code, discovering the dilemma and then trying to fix it led to a deeper appreciation of the ethical issue and to be honest, the one big thing I want my teachers to walk away with is more awareness of potential issues and that many of them are not as obvious or simple as "stop doing that" even though we'd like them to be.

That said, I've got to work on some things.

First and foremost my teachers came in with varying programming backgrounds. They all completed a data structures in Java course over the summer but a good number were not that comfortable with Python. I covered Python over the first couple of weeks but I think I have to be more structured with that in the future. More specific assignments rather than giving them as much freedom as I did. I also think I'd move this unit down in the syllabus - later after some smaller programming assignments and then finally, I'd scaffold it more.

Even so, I think it was worthwhile and a keeper. I think it could also be a nice ethics assignment in any programming class that covers 2D arrays or something similar.

There are a couple of other units that follow this do it and discover theme. Once those happen I'll report back on them as well.

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