CPSC 430 - Computers and Society

Syllabus for 2015W1 Section 101


Quicklinks: Mechanical TA, Connect, News Blog, Piazza:

Course Description: This course explores the interplay between information technology and society, with an emphasis on ethical issues. Students will come away from the course with greater understanding of the social and ethical implications of computer use and abuse, an improved ability to think critically and defend their decisions logically, and a greater appreciation for alternate points of view. The focus of the course is on reading, writing and discussion; each week students will complete an assigned reading, write a mini-essay in response, and evaluate the written work of others.

Meeting Times: Tuesday, Thursday, 2:00 PM – 3:30 PM
First Class: Thursday, September 10, 2014
Location: DMP 110
Instructor: Jessica Dawson (jqdawson@cs.ubc.ca)
Instructor’s Office Location: ICCS 227
Instructor’s Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:30 – 4:00 PM, or by appointment
TAs and Their Office Hours:
- Ivan Jovanovic (i6e8@ugrad.cs.ubc.ca), Mondays 9am - 10am, X237
- Dilan Ustek (ustekd@cs.ubc.ca), Mondays 10am - 11am, X237
- Kailang Jiang (jiangkl@cs.ubc.ca), Mondays 1pm - 2pm, X237
- Robbie Rolin (rolin@cs.ubc.ca), Mondays 2 - 3pm, X237

Course Topics: History of computing, networking, and information storage; Ethical theories (Kantianism, utilitarianism, social contract theory); Networked communications (spam, censorship, filtering); Intellectual property; Privacy; Security; Reliability; Professional Ethics; Automation, globalization, and other changes to the workplace.

Prerequisites: The course requires only third year standing and 3 credits of computer science. Beyond these formal requirements, an ability to speak, read and write fluently in English is essential for success in the class.

Academic Honesty: Plagiarism is a serious offence and will be dealt with harshly. I consider plagiarism to be the unattributed use of an external source (e.g., another student, a web site, a book) in work for which a student takes credit, or the inappropriate use of an external source whether or not attribution is made. The seriousness of the offence depends on the extent to which the student relied upon the external source. You must cite all external sources that you use, and write in your own words. Any text that you take verbatim from another source must be in quotation marks and followed by a citation. We will use TurnItIn (an online commercial service) to detect plagiarism including the resubmission of essays used in previous offerings of this course.


In order to pass the course, a student must receive a passing grade on the final exam. It’s possible I’ll make changes to the exact percentage breakdowns shown here:
Course Element Fraction of Grade
In-Class Participation 20%
Weekly Essay Questions 25%
Weekly Peer Review 10%
Midterm Exam (80 minutes) 15%
Final Exam (2.5 hours) 30%

Your credit for in-class participation will break down roughly as follows:

  • 10% for clicker responses to questions in class. These points will be calculated as the number of responses you submitted divided by the total number of questions asked. (Thus, some classes will count more than others). Every class will begin with a “participation quiz” that counts towards your grade, so don’t be late!
  • 10% for verbal contributions in class, and activity on the course news blog, calculated as a grade out of 10. We count the number of classes in which you participated; contributing once or more to the news blog can substitute for contributing verbally in one class from the same week. This means a max of 2 points per week. Spending the majority of a class obviously disengaged (e.g., on facebook or playing games) subtracts one half from your total count. Given this count, we calculate your grade as follows:
Participate this many times… Get this many points
21 10
13 9
9 8
6 7
4 6
2 5
1 4
0 3
-1 1.5
-2 0

Weekly Reading, Writing and Peer Review

This course emphasizes making and evaluating arguments about ethics and the social impact of technology. Each week, we’ll follow the same format.

Between Thursday, 3:30 PM and Tuesday, 1:30 PM (sharp)

  • Do assigned readings of up to one chapter from the textbook.
  • Take a multiple-choice quiz online to test your comprehension of the readings. You get three tries, and must get a perfect score.
  • Do at least 3 calibrated reviews if you’re in the supervised review pool.
  • After completing the quiz, answer one essay question (your choice from two or three given questions) and enter your answers on our peer review website, Mechanical TA. You’ll be allowed up to 300 words; that’s less than one single-spaced page.

Between Tuesday, 3:30 PM and Thursday, 1:30 PM (sharp)

  • Perform your own peer review of four randomly assigned students’ written questions (and/or calibration questions), again on Mechanical TA.
  • For the first few weeks, you’ll receive examples of TAs’ answers to the essay questions, and other TAs’ peer reviews of these questions. We’ll also accumulate an (anonymous) “hall of fame” of excellent essays and peer reviews that you can use as further examples.

Quizzes You won’t receive any grades directly for completing the multiple choice quiz each week. However, you’ll only be eligible to perform a given week’s essay and peer review if you get a perfect grade on the quiz, which makes the quiz important to your grade. You’ll be allowed three tries to complete the quiz. Be careful if you make it to the final try; failing to complete the quiz means missing out on a big chunk of your grade!

If you do not complete the quiz in three tries, then you must visit the TA office hours that week (Mondays) and demonstrate to the TA that you have done the reading in order to gain access to that week's essay and peer review.

Calculating Your Essay Grade Your essay will be graded between 0 and 5 in the following four dimensions.

  • Was the essay well structured, stating a thesis, supporting it with argument(s) that are clearly related to this point and (if relevant) distinct from one another, and linking these arguments in a logical way?
  • Did the essay do a good job of making its case, choosing relevant arguments, backing them up with evidence and examples at an appropriate level of detail, and responding to contrary views as appropriate?
  • Did the essay demonstrate a good understanding of the course’s subject matter, including both the topic and the wider context?
  • Was the essay presented clearly and in correct English?

Each week you’ll receive 3 peer reviews of your work (and will perform 3-4 such reviews). These reviews will be double-blind: neither an essay’s author nor its reviewer will know the other’s identity. Reviews will explain the rationale for your grade in each dimension, using at least 20 words. Initially, you will also receive a review by a TA, and only the TA evaluation will matter for your grade. In this case you will also see your peer reviews, along with the scores the TAs assigned to these reviews. When your essay is not graded by a TA, your essay grade will be the median of your peer review scores. If you were evaluated only by other students and disagree with their assessments, you can appeal, explaining in 100 words or more why you feel that the grade you were actually assigned was unfair. (Observe that a single unfair review will not affect the median–for your grade to go up, your lowest grade would have to increase above your middle grade, or your middle grade would have to increase.) If you do not provide a convincing argument, a TA may reject your appeal without regrading your essay; however, you can refine your argument and resubmit the appeal. If a TA regrades your assignment, you will receive the TA’s grade regardless of whether it increases or decreases your score; furthermore, the TA will grade all of your reviewers.

Essays will contribute increasing amounts towards your final grade as the term progresses, as follows:

  • the first 4 essays will be scaled to 1.5 points each;
  • the next 3 essays will be scaled to 2.5 points each;
  • the final 4 essays will be scaled to 3.5 points each.

Calculating Your Peer Review Grade You’ll only be eligible to perform peer review when you have submitted an essay, which means you will need to have completed the quiz as well. Initially, TAs will evaluate each peer review you submit, assigning them grades between 0 and 10. Once you achieve consistently good grades in your reviews, you will start evaluating papers without being double-checked by a TA. Specifically, to review independently, you must meet and maintain an average of 80% across your graded review (over the previous 3 weeks).

Grading independently benefits you: at the end of the term, every review that was never graded by a TA will automatically receive a perfect score. Furthermore, when you’re grading independently you don’t have to do Tuesday calibration reviews. However, independent reviews will still sometimes be graded by a TA. About half of these checks will be completely random; the other half will concentrate on cases where there is high variance among reviews (if reviewers disagree, we will take a look) and where essays receive unusually high scores (such essays are unlikely to be appealed, so we watch them closely). TAs performing these checks will override essay grades as appropriate, and may also go back and grade your previous independent reviews. If new review grades cause you to fall below any of the thresholds above, you will leave the pool of independent reviewers until you again meet the threshold. For calculating your grade, we’ll scale your peer review grades according to the same proportions as essay grades:

  • the first 4 reviews will be scaled to 0.6 points each;
  • the next 3 reviews will be scaled to 1 point each;
  • the final 4 reviews will be scaled to 1.4 points each.

Late and Missing Submissions At the end of the course, we will drop your worst essay and peer review grades. (That is, your grade will be calculated based on your best 10 essays and best 10 peer review weeks, even though you will be required to submit 11. Each grade will be computed as the sum of the number of points assigned on your 10 best contributions, divided by the total number of points available for these contributions.) Think of this as permission, given in advance, to not submit one week because of illness, travel, starting the course late, conflicts with other courses, etc. No further allowance will be made for failure to submit essays or peer review, except in truly exceptional circumstances such as a prolonged and serious illness.

Text and Instructional Resources

Textbook: Ethics for the Information Age, 6th Edition, by Michael J. Quinn. Required!

The publisher sells electronic copies as well. Copies of the book are also on reserve at the UBC CS Reading Room; however, these may only be the 5th edition (which is similar, but not identical; you’re responsible for all material in the new edition).

News Blog: You can contribute to the news blog for participation points once per week. A contribution to the blog will be considered as a replacement for participating in one lecture in a week (up to to a max of 2 points a week). If you'd like to contribute an article or other content, email it to Jessica with a 2-3 sentence description that includes why it is interesting, and how it relates to the topics we are discussing in class. To be considered, articles should generally focus on current events and include relevant discussion of ethical viewpoints, considerations, tradeoffs, etc. If your contribution does not meet these requirements you may be asked to choose a different article on the same topic, or to iterate on your description.

Connect: Course lectures, weekly schedule, quizzes will all be on Connect.

Piazza: Course discussion board.

Peer Review: You will submit your weekly essays, and perform peer review of others’ essays, using our custom-made Mechanical TA site. This site requires you to have a UBC CS account. If you do not have one, you can sign up for one online. Note that you must reactive your account every year - you may also want to reset your password, in case you have forgotton it since last year.

Clickers: We will use i>Clickers in class to perform polls, track how opinions change, and measure attendance.

If you don’t already have a clicker, you can buy an i>Clicker from the bookstore. You need to register your clicker on Connect to start earning your weekly clicker participation scores; if you register late, you’ll miss out on some marks. If the ID on your clicker is worn off, don’t despair. You can drop by the help desk at Chapman Learning Commons to get it retrieved. This is found on the 3rd floor of the Irving K Barber Learning Centre.

Additional Resources: The Computer Science Reading Room has prepared a list of resources related to technology and society, which you can access here.

Tentative Schedule

The schedule is tentative – topics/reading due dates more than two weeks out may shift. The most up to date schedule, and slides for each lecture, can be found on the Connect.

In 2016 the final exam period goes until Dec 22. Do not book any holiday break flights home in this period until exam date have been announced.

Date Topic Reading Due
September 8 No class - Imagine Day
September 10 Introduction
September 15 Course Topics Discussion Chapter 1
September 17 Course Topics Discussion; Group Work
September 22 History of Computing: Group Presentations See Connect
September 24 Essay Writing Exercise
September 29 Ethics Introduction Secs 2.1 - 2.5
October 1 Ethics: Unworkable Ethical Theories
October 6 Ethics: Kantianism & Utilitarianism Secs. 2.6 – 2.11
October 8 Ethics: Utilitarianism, SC Theory, Virtue Ethics
October 13 Networked Communications Chapter 3
October 15 Networked Communications
October 20 Intellectual Property Chapter 4
October 22 Intellectual Property
October 27 Intellectual Property
October 29 Midterm
November 3 Information Privacy Chapter 5
November 5 Information Privacy
November 10 Privacy and the Government Chapter 6
November 12 Privacy and the Government
November 17 Computer and Network Security Chapter 7
November 19 Computer and Network Security
November 24 Computer Reliability Chapters 8 & 9
November 26 Professional Ethics
December 1 Work and Wealth Chapter 10
December 3 Work and Wealth
TBA Final Exam