Computers and Society
(CPSC 430, Term 1, 2021–22)


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–3:20 PM

First Class: Thursday, September 9, 2021

Location: Dempster 110

UBC Web Page: main course; waiting list

Instructor: Kevin Leyton-Brown

Instructor's Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:20–4:00 PM, or by appointment

TAs/IAs and Their Office Hours (links available on Canvas):

Unma Desai ( Office hours Tuesdays 11:30am–12:30pm

Hannah Elbaggari (

Edward Le (

Kattie Sepehri ( Office hours Fridays 11:00 AM–12:00 PM

Eric Tsai ( Office hours Wednesdays from 2:30–3:30pm

Greg D'Eon (

Hedayat Zarkoob (

Quick Links: Piazza; Canvas; MTA (Enrolment code: 7732a7e1. Login problems: email Hedayat.)

Important Information about Taking this Class

Course Topics: History of computing, networking, and information storage; Essay writing; Ethical theories (Kantianism, utilitarianism, social contract theory, virtue ethics); Networked communications (spam, censorship, filtering); Intellectual property; Privacy; Security; Reliability; Professional Ethics; Artificial Intelligence, 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: The course professor is not in charge of the class waitlist, and cannot assess your chances of getting into the class. 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 (attendance information will be shared 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: UBC provides resources to support student learning and to maintain healthy lifestyles but recognizes that sometimes crises arise and so there are additional resources to access including those for survivors of sexual violence. UBC values respect for the person and ideas of all members of the academic community. Harassment and discrimination are not tolerated nor is suppression of academic freedom. UBC provides appropriate accommodation for students with disabilities and for religious and cultural observances. Details of the policies and how to access support are available here. Please also see the CS Department's resources on this topic.


Academic Honesty: UBC values academic honesty and students are expected to acknowledge the ideas generated by others and to uphold the highest academic standards in all of their actions. Plagiarism is a serious offence (see the CS Department's statement) and will be dealt with harshly.  Plagiarism is the unattributed use of any external source (e.g., another student, a web site, a book) in work for which a student takes credit, or the inappropriate use of any 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.

COVID-19: Staying Safe

CPSC 430 is being held in person. You are required to wear a mask (as per BC Public Health Officer orders). If you feel sick, you should stay home. If you are in quarantine or having trouble getting to BC for the start of term, you can still participate in the course. I strongly recommend against taking the course if you aren't physically in Vancouver; the course strongly emphasizes in-class attendance and participation. Lectures are unlikely to be recorded.


Masks: For our in-person meetings in this class, it is important that all of us feel as comfortable as possible engaging in class activities while sharing an indoor space. All students in class are required by the BC Public Health Officer to wear a mask. For the purposes of this order, the term “masks” refers to medical and non-medical masks that cover our noses and mouths.  Masks are a primary tool to make it harder for Covid-19 to find a new host.  You will need to wear a medical or non-medical mask for the duration of our class meetings, for your own protection, and the safety and comfort of everyone else in the class.  You may be asked to remove your mask briefly for an ID check for an exam, but otherwise, your mask should cover your nose and mouth. Please do not eat in class. If you need to drink water/coffee/tea/etc, please keep your mask on between sips. Please note that there are some people who cannot wear a mask. These individuals are equally welcome in our class.


Vaccination: If you are not yet vaccinated against Covid-19, vaccines are available to you, free, and on campus. The higher the rate of vaccination in our community overall, the lower the chance of spreading this virus.  You are an important part of the UBC community. Please arrange to get vaccinated if you have not already done so. 


Seating in class: To reduce the risk of Covid transmission, please sit in a consistent area of the classroom each day.  This will minimize your contacts and will still allow for the pedagogical methods planned for this class to help your learning. 


If you’re sick, it’s important that you stay home, no matter what you think you may be sick with (e.g., cold, flu, other). A daily self-health assessment is required before attending campus. Every day, before coming to class, complete the self-assessment for Covid symptoms using this tool. Do not come to class if you have Covid symptoms, have recently tested positive for Covid, or are required to quarantine. You can check this website to find out if you should self-isolate or self-monitor. Your precautions will help reduce risk and keep everyone safer.  In this class, the marking scheme provides flexibility so that you can prioritize your health and still be able to succeed. It's described in detail below. Every class element except for the final exam will be conducted electronically.


If you are sick on a final exam day, do not attend the exam. You must apply for deferred standing (an academic concession) through Science Advising no later than 48 hours after the missed final exam/assignment. Students who are granted deferred standing write the final exam/assignment at a later date. Learn more and find the application online. For additional information about academic concessions, see this UBC policy.

Grading Scheme

In order to pass the course, a student must receive a passing grade on the final exam. The exact percentage breakdowns shown here may be subject to change.


Course Element Worth
Weekly Essay Questions 45 %
Weekly Peer Review

20 %

Midterm Exam (essay resubmission) 

10 %

Final Exam (2.5 hours)

25 %


The midterm will consist of resubmitting an essay that you previously wrote (covering Chapter 3 or later), subject to a word limit twice as long as the original essay (5000 characters max). I strongly recommend that you take into account feedback that you received from TA and/or peer graders to improve the essay. Your midterm will be due on November 23 by 1:45 PM (sharp); please note that you'll also have a regular essay due that day.


The final exam will be 2.5 hours long, and will consist of two parts. The first part will be two essay questions (with grades both for the outline and for the essay itself). They will draw on the topics and ethical theories covered in class, referencing current events related to the course. (You won't be required to be familiar with any details beyond those provided in the prompt, but having more background may help you to write a better answer.) The second part will consist of a set of short answer questions taken exactly from a much longer list that is posted in the Assignments Tab on MTA. You should not exceed 2 sentences per answer unless the question indicates otherwise. In all cases shorter answers are preferred, and point form is fine. The exam will be held in PHRM 1101 at 8:30 AM on December 14, 2021. Nobody will be allowed to enter the exam room after 9:00 AM, and nobody will be allowed to leave before the same time.   

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, 1:45 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 must get a perfect score but can keep trying until you do; every time you fail, you must wait 30 minutes before trying again.
  • After completing the quiz, answer one essay question (some weeks, your choice from two or three given questions). You'll be allowed up to 2500 characters; that's less than one single-spaced page.
  • Do at least 3 calibrated reviews if Mechanical TA indicates that you should. We recommend doing even more to improve your grading skills.

Between Tuesday, 3:30 PM and Thursday, 1:45 PM (sharp)

  • Perform your own peer review of four randomly assigned students' written questions (and/or calibration questions).

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 peer review if you get a perfect grade on the quiz, which makes the quiz important to your grade. You must get a perfect score but can keep trying until you do; if you fail to get a perfect score, you must wait 30 minutes before trying again.


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?

Evaluations on this five point scale will be translated into grades as follows.


Grade Points
0 0 %

25 %


50 %


65 %


80 %


100 %


Each week you'll receive at least 3 peer reviews of your work (and will perform such reviews yourself; the number will depend on your participation in class the previous week, as described below). 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.


Many, but not all, essays will be graded by TAs. Whenever a TA grades your essay, only the TA grade will matter to your essay score, though you will still see your peer grades. Our system will select essays for TA evaluation based on a range of different factors. TAs will always grade alongside students who have not yet demonstrated sufficient reliability (thus overruling the grades they assign). We will spot check when reviewers' scores substantially disagree and also when essays receive unusually high scores. Finally, we will conduct a large proportion of spot checks entirely at random. 


When no TA grades your essay, your grade will be computed as a weighted average of the grades assigned by your peers, where each peer's weight is proportional to our assessment of their "dependability": our belief about how much we can trust each score based on each grader’s behavior so far in the course (see below). In cases where we consider a peer grade unreliable, we may assign it a weight of zero. We will round your weighted average to the nearest integer grade in each dimension.


If you disagree with the grade you receive on any essay, you can appeal, explaining your concern in 100 words or more. 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. You can also flag rude or careless reviews and endorse high quality reviews if you’d like to bring them to the attention of TAs without asking for a change in your grade.


Even if your essay was not initially graded by a TA, we may flag it for later review, in which case we will override your peer grade with the TA-assigned grade. There are two key reasons we may do this. First, if our inference algorithm updates its beliefs about your graders' dependability to an extent that your grade would change by two points or more, a TA will override your peer graders. Second, if we become suspicious of a student’s grading behavior (e.g., because of appeals or other spot checks) we will go back and regrade other assignments this student has handled. 


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

  • the first 3 essays will be worth 3% of your final grade each;
  • the next 4 essays will be worth 4% of your final grade each;
  • the final 4 essays will be worth 5% of your final grade each.

Calculating Your Peer Review Grade   We use Bayesian inference to estimate each student's "dependability" as a reviewer on a weekly basis. The key idea is that calibrations and assignments graded by TAs give us information about which graders are more reliable; we then bootstrap this knowledge to decide how much to trust each grader on assignments that were not graded by a TA. Your dependability score is our estimate of effort * (1/variance), where effort is (1 - the probability that you always assign the class average without considering the essay) and variance is our estimate of your tendency to differ from TA scores. The system starts out with the assumption that all students have low dependability scores (specifically, low effort and high variance). As you grade assignments and perform calibrations, we'll update these beliefs. In particular, observe that doing more calibrations both helps you to get better at grading and gives us evidence of your grading prowess to overwhelm the system's pessimistic initial belief. Note that if you always assign each submission the class average, our model will assign you a low effort probability; you need to properly identify both strong and weak assignments in order to achieve a high dependability score.


Every time a TA grades an assignment that you also graded, they'll make a binary assessment of whether you offered thoughtful comments (whether or not your scores agreed with theirs). We'll use these assessments to update your effort probability and hence your dependability score.


For each student we will maintain both a "realistic" estimate of dependability and a "pessimistic" (lower confidence bound) estimate. Each week, we'll identify those students with pessimistic dependability estimates below a certain threshold and assign them to grade each other; we'll also have a TA grade each such assignment. (Note that this means that if you have a low pessimistic dependability estimate, you’ll likely get noisier peer grades, but this won’t matter because your grade will be entirely determined by a TA.) The remainder of students (those for whom even our pessimistic dependability estimates exceed a threshold) will perform independent peer grading as discussed above. This system ensures that your assignment will either be graded by a TA or will be graded entirely by peers that the system confidently predicts will grade reliably.


If your pessimistic dependability estimate falls below our threshold, you will also be required to perform 3 "calibration" reviews of carefully pre-graded essays from previous years, which will automatically be graded by the system. These calibration reviews are a designed to help you learn how to grade well and also how to write good essays. You're also allowed to do extra calibrations (whether your weekly assignment was 3 or 0); this is a particularly good idea when your dependability estimate is low, because doing extra calibrations will teach you to grade better and can also improve your peer grading scores.


Each week, we'll assign you a peer grading score; overall, these scores will make up the peer grading portion of your final grade given in the overall breakdown above. These grades will be derived from our "realistic" estimates of your dependability score. (The exact formula is complex and subject to change, but it's strictly monotone in dependability; you can see your current standing in MTA.) Observe that your dependibility score will start low, but you can increase it quickly by performing additional calibrations and by grading well. You'll only be eligible to perform peer review when you have completed the week's quiz. If you complete only x peer reviews in a week when you were assigned y, we'll scale your peer review grade for that week by x/y; if you complete only x' calibrations in a week when you were assigned y' calibrations, we'll (further) scale your peer review grade for that week by (y + x')/(y + y').


We'll scale your peer review grades in a manner similar to your essay grades:

  • the first 3 weeks will be worth 1.2% of your final grade each;
  • the next 4 weeks will be worth 1.8% of your final grade each;
  • the final 4 weeks will be worth 2.3% of your final grade each.

Late and Missing Submissions  At the end of the course, we will drop your worst two essay and peer review grades. (That is, your grade will be calculated based on your best 9 essays and best 9 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 9 best contributions, divided by the total number of points available for these contributions.) Think of this as permission, given in advance, to not submit for two weeks because of illness, travel, starting the course late, family obligations, COVID emergencies, conflicts with other courses, etc. (In past years, we've dropped only one essay and peer review grade; the extra drop is intended to provide extra flexibility for pandemic related dificulties.) 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.

In-Class Attendance and Participation

Active participation in the class is a key element of this course. The class is designed according to a "flipped classroom" model, meaning that lectures aren't used to repeat facts that you can learn from the textbook. Instead, everyone comes to class already exposed to the material, and we use the time interactively, focusing on discussion and critical analysis.


Reflecting the course's emphasis on in-person interaction, in past years, evaluation in the class has heavily weighted attendance and participation. Of course, this year is different. Some students will be unable to join class at the beginning of term because of visa issues or quarantine requirements; throughout the term, we don't want anyone coming to class when they might be sick. 


This year's evaluation metric reflects this new reality. Here's how it will work. Starting in our second class, we'll use an automated system in Mechanical TA to adjudicate in-class discussions. If you want to contribute to a discussion, you click a button to raise your hand. Every time I call on someone, one student with a raised hand will be randomly selected, and every student who had a hand raised will be recorded for participation purposes. More specifically:

  • If it's your first time raising a hand that class, you'll get 10 participation points.
  • Thereafter, you'll get 1 participation point.
  • If you're chosen to speak, you will not be chosen to speak again during the same class unless the only hands raised are from students who have already spoken. Regardless, you'll automatically get participation points as though you raised your hand throughout the remainder of the class.
  • If you have nothing to say, and clearly just raised your hand for points rather than to contribute to the discussion, you'll get zero points for the entire day, regardless of how many other points you might have been awarded earlier that day.
  • If you use MTA to raise your hand while not physically present in the class, this will be treated as a case of academic misconduct and serious penalties will apply. TAs will be able to see a real-time list of which students have put their hands up along with their UBC Card photos, and may verify physical attendance even for students who are not called upon.

Participation points will not directly factor into your grade, and thus students who are unable to attend the class will not be penalized. Instead, if you attend class you can use participation points to reduce the amount of peer grading that you must perform. Conversely, if you do not attend class, you will do significantly more peer grading than students who do. (A key focus of class discussions is on learning to critically consider and respond to other students' points of view, and additional peer grading is the best substitute available for students who aren't able to attend.)


Here is how you can use participation points. All the points you gained in a given week are called "new points"; the remainder are called "regular points". Recall that each week, you'll start out with a requirement to perform 8 peer reviews of other students' essays. Right before assigning peer reviews at the end of Tuesday's class, we'll do the following:

  • We'll reduce your peer grading assignment (initially 8) by up to 4 essays at a cost of 5 new points per reduction. Observe that if you come to both classes in a given week and simply raise your hand once per class, you'll earn enough points to reduce your peer grading to 4 essays instead of 8.
  • If you have new points left over beyond the initial 20, we'll convert these to regular points and add them to your existing total.
  • Every week, you have the option to indicate that you'd like to be eligible for further peer grading reductions or that you'd prefer to save your regular points for a future week. If you don't make a selection, by default you'll be eligible. In general I recommend that you not stockpile your points; however, you may prefer to shift them from one week to the next when you know you have a big deadline coming up, etc.
  • We'll determine a number k of additional peer grading reductions that we'll allow across the entire class. This number will depend in part on how many students have taken on extra peer grading because they did not come to class along with our estimates of these students' demonstrated peer grading reliabilities. We will always set k to at least 20% of the number of students registered in the class.
  • We'll determine a "price" c in participation points that "sells" exactly k peer grading reductions to students who have made themselves eligible: i.e., the "market-clearing" price at which supply meets demand. Each student who receives a reduction will have c participation points deducted from their regular points balance for each reduction; students who have participated extensively may receive more than one reduction. Students who receive no reduction will keep all of their points to use in subsequent weeks, so even students who only participate occasionally can eventually receive peer grading reductions.
Text and Instructional Resources

Textbook  We will be using the textbook Ethics for the Information Age, 8th 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.


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, which is given at the top of this page.


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: Creating an Outline
  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. Students in the Vancouver area can also request physical materials, which can be sent out for campus delivery or held for curbside pickup at UBC. If interested please contact the Reading Room either via email or via a Zoom drop-in session (see their website).


This schedule may be adjusted slightly as we go through the term. Slides will be made available after each lecture, and may be accessed by clicking on the links under "topic". Applicable chapter numbers from the textbook are also given.


Date Topic Readings
Sept 9 Introduction
Sept 14 Course Topics Discussion Chapter 1
Sept 16 Course Topics Discussion
Sept 21 Writing and Argument Material on writing linked above
Sept 23 Course Topics Discussion
Sept 28 Ethics: Unworkable Ethical Theories Secs. 2.1 - 2.5
Sept 30 No Class: Truth & Reconciliation Day
Oct 5 Ethics: Kantianism Secs. 2.6 - 2.8
Oct 7 Ethics: Utilitarianism
Oct 12 Ethics: Social Contract Theory Secs. 2.9 - 2.12
Oct 14 Ethics: Virtue Ethics
Oct 19 Networked Communications Chapter 3
Oct 21 Networked Communications
Oct 26 Intellectual Property Chapter 4
Oct 28 Intellectual Property
Nov 2 Information Privacy Chapter 5
Nov 4 Information Privacy
Nov 9 Professional Ethics Chapter 9
Nov 11 No Class: Midterm Break
Nov 16 Privacy and the Government Chapter 6
Nov 18 Privacy and the Government
Nov 23 Computer and Network Security Chapter 7. Midterm Due.
Nov 25 Computer and Network Security
Nov 30 Work and Wealth Chapter 10
Dec 2 Work and Wealth
Dec 7 Computer Reliability; more on Security Chapter 8
Dec 14, 8:30 AM Final Exam: PHRM 1101