The Moral Imperative of Teaching Every Student Tech Ethics

Opinion | Technology Trends

The Moral Imperative of Teaching Every Student Tech Ethics

By Karen Ingram and Megan Stariha     Aug 24, 2021

The Moral Imperative of Teaching Every Student Tech Ethics

What do you think about synthetic biology?

What about altering a baby’s genes?

You likely had a stronger reaction to the second question. But do you know how the two are related?

Emerging technologies like synthetic biology are all around us and at varying degrees of development and dissemination. Their applications are being tested, products are being built, data is being collected. But by and for who?

Some instances of scientists or technologists going too far or misusing technology reach the mainstream media and make headlines. That’s probably why you’ve heard of gene-edited “CRISPR babies.” These splashy and sometimes scary situations are more the exception, but illustrate an important point: We should all be paying more attention. That includes students, who are the technologists and ethicists of tomorrow.

Yet while these are important topics to be familiar with, only a handful of students will go into fields like synthetic biology. The real question is: How do we increase access and participation in the creation of emerging technology so that it represents and works for all of us? After all, when it comes to emerging technology, equity in terms of factors like gender and race is crucial.

Today’s schools can start laying the groundwork now. Educators can facilitate conversations around ethics in technology with students so that these technologies develop equitably. In fact, educators have a special role to play in fostering these discussions for students, and design thinking (which we at Stanford’s often simply call design) can be the methodology.

Design focuses on identifying challenges and rapidly coming up with solutions and ideas to address them. Using design as a framework allows for greater participation by identifying multiple entry points, circumnavigating technical jargon and creating a sense of participation and agency in evolving technology.

Start With the End

For many of us, the term “synthetic biology” is less captivating than “gene edited babies,” and there’s a reason. The ultimate consequences of a given technology are more accessible and relevant than any introduction to the technology itself. Centering the conversation on the tech invites participation from enthusiasts, evangelists and skeptics, sure. But it leaves out huge swaths of the population—those who are indifferent, or apathetic, or don’t feel like the tech is relevant to them.

Young people—our students—are no different. They occupy the same spaces along the spectrum of engagement when it comes to emerging technologies. Some will be fascinated by the topic; others will evince only a passing interest at first. But we can engage students in the creation of tech by starting with implications.

Centering learning on the ultimate first-, second-, third-order implications puts the student directly into the design challenge. Once they’re invested in making an impact or creating change about an issue they care about, they can navigate the layers of opportunity within the space to determine their role; are they

  • interested in crafting the system governing policy that protects privacy?
  • Building anti-racist datasets?
  • Making novel products with their perspective in mind?

Regardless of where they want to affect change, a layered understanding of the technology and potential implications shows there is a spot for everyone in creating well-rounded solutions.

When we lead with implications, we’re centering learning on what the students need to know in order to form an opinion. Not all students need to become specialists in code, gene sequencing or logic boards, but it is critical that all students consider the impact of what they’re creating has on humans and the broader world.

By accessing a technology through a human-centered lens, we bypass exclusionary jargon and high-tech barriers to entry and have students ask the essential questions:

  • Is this the best use of the technology?
  • Is it appropriate use of the tech or are there other options?
  • What is gained?
  • What is lost?
Students at the “design a cow” and consider the implications of their design, including the positive or negative impacts on the environment, organism welfare, planet welfare and the “yuck” factor.

Like It or Not, You’re Building Emerging Tech

As new technologies evolve, the range of people impacted expands, whether we are aware of it or not. It’s a fallacy that ambivalence or rejection of technology means neutrality. There is no neutral space to occupy. There is no black and white, but there is a lot of grey area, and that offers room to consider potential impacts, change course and charter new pathways.

All around emerging technology, there is a sense of inevitability. But there is also a sense of helplessness, frustrated resignation, or even panic that tech is something that “just happens” to people. In bioethicist Francoise Baylis’ 2019 book, “Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing,” Baylis notes a Pew research study conducted in 2018 which implies that heritable genome editing is inevitable. Most participants believed that human genome editing will result in greater inequality and that even if human genome editing were to be used appropriately by some, others would use it in morally unacceptable ways; nearly half said the technology will be used before the impacts on health are fully understood, revealing real fears and concerns.

But even if these technologies are inevitable, how they evolve is not. That’s where schools come in, as they help instill in students a sense of agency. Since we’re all participating, whether we like it or not, let’s build technology that serves all of us.

Find the Part You Want to Play

When we use design, we can more easily discuss applications that are about humans and stakeholders in the system, rather than just the tech itself. Design helps you consider why your perspective is important and necessary, and why the perspective of others is just as critical.

Creating with technology doesn’t have to be about coding or gene editing. It can be about coming up with implications to see the potential impacts. It can be building new systems to create equitable access, collecting new sources of data to represent more users and participants, creating more inclusive experiences, and so much more. In other words, it’s not about the code; it’s about what the code can do.

It is imperative we help learners find their agency and the opportunities to participate in the systems they exist in. The next generation may not call into question whether or not they will participate, but as they are a more diverse, educated, change-tolerant group than those that preceded them, design offers a way to actively create what comes next.

Design encompasses the many layers an emerging technology is aimed at solving and gives problem solvers an array of ways in:

  • Implications. What societal trends or phenomena do you see?
  • Systems. Are there any systemic issues? Which ones?
  • Experiences. What are the problems with the current experience?
  • Products. Are there any physical or digital products that are part of the current experience?
  • Technologies. Do you know of any tech being used in this space now?
  • Data. What types of data do you believe are available about this problem?

By expanding the scope of understanding from the tech itself to the entire landscape, we create more pathways to participation and amplify the possible connection points of learners to the technology. With this broadened understanding, we help students identify what they can bring to the table.

Once we have a starting point, we can start to uncover how we got here and how we can get to where we’d like to go, given what we are experiencing now.

Emerging technology is just that: emerging. While there is inevitability baked into its presence, agency is ripe in determining its potential impact. Design gives us a map to find our own agency in the landscape. Once we’re engaged, we can figure out what to create and what type of impact we, as designers, could initiate.

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