Computers and Society
(CPSC 430, Term 1, Session 101, 2019-20)

Overview Grading Scheme Weekly Reading, Writing & Peer Review Text and Online Resources Schedule



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 5, 2019

Location: DMP 110

UBC Web Page: main course; waiting list

Instructor: Kevin Leyton-Brown

Instructor's Office Location: ICCS X565

Instructor's Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:30 - 4:00 PM, or by appointment

TAs and Their Office Hours:

David Johnson (; Tuesdays 11 to 12pm @  ICCSX239

Baraa Orabi (; Mondays 12 to 1pm @ Demco Table 1

Sang-Wha Sien (; Mondays 10 to 11am @ Demco Table 2

Hedayat Zarkoob (; Mondays 3-4 pm @ ICCSX151

Quick Link: Piazza; Mechanical TA (Student enrolment code: d2c5a9e1. Problems logging in: email Hedayat.)


Course Topics: History of computing, networking, and information storage; Essay writing; 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.


Wait List Policy:  I'm not in charge of the class waitlist; please don't contact me asking about your chances of getting into the class. Instead, please direct any questions you may have to the CS Department Academic Advisors. If you are on the waitlist and want to take the course, you should participate from the beginning. (1) Students who attend class will be given waitlist priority (I'll share attendance information with the main office); (2) Students who register for the course late still have to complete all assignments on the same schedule as all other students. Waitlisted students are eligible to submit assignments before being formally registered.


Equity, Inclusion and Wellness: Please see the CS Department's resources on this topic.


Academic Honesty: Plagiarism is a serious offence (see the CS Department's statement) 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.

Grading Scheme

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:

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)

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

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. If you don't succeed, you can go to TA office hours and demonstrate understanding of the readings to get access to the week's essay.


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

Each week you'll receive at least 3 peer reviews of your work (and will perform 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. If you're a "supervised reviewer" (see below), 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:

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. You will also perform "calibration" reviews of carefully pre-graded essays from previous years; these will automatically be graded by the system on a variable-weight scale that gives more weight to questions with unusual answers. These calibration reviews are a great way to understand how to grade well and also how to write good essays; you're required to do 3 each week, but are free to do as many as you like. Until you achieve consistently good grades in your reviews, you're a "supervised reviewer"; TAs will evaluate each peer review you submit, assigning them grades between 0 and 10, and only the TA grades will count for both you and the students you grade. Ultimately, you will evaluate papers without always being double-checked by a TA. To do so, you must achieve a total score of at least 75% of the maximum possible score on your 5 most recent graded essays (regardless of whether these are calibration essays or TA-graded essays; the numbers 75% and 5 may change over time). Thus, you can become an "independent reviewer" in the first week if you do more than the minimum amount of calibration essays.


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:

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  We will be using the textbook Ethics for the Information Age, 7th Edition, by Michael J. Quinn. It's important that you have a copy, because we'll be reading pretty much the whole thing. You can buy or rent a digital copy for a lower cost than buying the book. Copies of the book are also on reserve at the UBC CS Reading Room.


Mechanical TA  You will submit your quizzes and weekly essays, perform peer review of others' essays, and read articles on the course blog using our Mechanical TA site. This site requires you to have a UBC CWL account. If you don't yet have one, you'll need to create one. You also will need to know the student enrolment code "d2c5a9e1".


Clickers  We will use i>Clickers in class to perform polls, track how opinions change, and measure attendence. Clicker use will be responsible for about 10% of your final grade. Your grade for this portion of the course 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!


If you don't already have a clicker, you can buy an i>Clicker from the bookstore. You need to register your clicker on Canvas 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  Your second week of readings, on essay writing, will not come from the textbook. Instead, you'll read the following set of publicly available resources. For your convenience, they're also gathered together into one PDF in MTA.

  1. Purdue Online Writing Lab: Developing Strong Thesis Statements
  2. Douglas College writing: The essay
  3. Douglas College writing: Making an outline from the top down
  4. University of Chicago Writing Program: Argument: A key feature of college writing
  5. Harvard Writing Center: A Brief Guide to Writing the Philosophy Paper
  6. Purdue Online Writing Lab: Logic in Argumentative Writing (parts a, b, c, d, e, f)
  7. UCLA graduate writing center: The writing process

    You're additionally encouraged to read these optional articles:
  8. New York Times: The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative
  9. New York Times: Where do sentences come from
  10. New York Times: Other men's flowers
  11.  Thou shalt not commit logical fallacies

The Computer Science Reading Room has prepared an online list of resources related to technology and society, which you can access here.



Slides from each lecture may be accessed by clicking on the links under "topic"; applicable chapter numbers from the textbook are also given. Slides will not typically be available in advance. 


   Date Topic Reading Due
   September 5 Introduction
   September 10 Course Topics Discussion Chapter 1
   September 12 Course Topics Discussion  
   September 17 Writing and Argument See above; MTA
   September 19 Essay Writing Exercise
   September 24 Ethics: Unworkable Ethical Theories Secs. 2.1 - 2.5
   September 26 Ethics: Kantianism  
   October 1 Ethics: Utilitarianism Secs. 2.6 - 2.11
   October 3 Ethics: Social Contract Theory, Virtue Ethics
   October 8 Networked Communications Chapter 3
   October 10 Networked Communications  
   October 15 Intellectual Property: Property Rights Chapter 4
   October 17 Intellectual Property: Basics of IP
   October 22 Intellectual Property: Software Chapter 5
   October 24 Information Privacy  
   October 29 Midterm no assignment
   October 31 Information Privacy
   November 5 Privacy and the Government Chapter 6
   November 7 Privacy and the Government  
   November 12 Computer and Network Security  
   November 14 Computer and Network Security Chapter 7
   November 19 Computer Reliability Chapters 8 & 9
   November 21 Professional Ethics  
   November 26 Work and Wealth Chapter 10
   November 28 Work and Wealth  
   December 14, 3:30 PM Final Exam: ANGU 098