Computers and Society
(CPSC 430, Term 1, 2022–23)


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, 12:30 PM–1:50 PM (Section 101);
                           Tuesday, Thursday, 2:00 PM–3:20 PM (Section 102)

First Class: Thursday, September 8, 2022

Location: Dempster 110 (Section 101); Dempster 301 (Section 102)

UBC Web Pages: Section 101; Section 102; Waiting List 101; Waiting List 102

Instructors: Kevin Leyton-Brown (Section 101); Melissa Lee & Giulia Toti (Section 102)

Kevin's Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 1:50–2:30 PM, or by appointment

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

Course Coordinator/Lead TA and their Office Hours:

Hedayat Zarkoob (; Mondays 2:30 - 3:30 PM; Wednesdays 10:00 - 11:00 am  

Riley Knowles (


Michelle Huynh (

Swati Kanwal (

Rafi Meher (

Aishwarya Shenoy (

Grayden Zaleski (

Quick Links: Piazza; MTA (Enrolment code: b7c3d3bb. 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. Really.


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 are active in class and who complete assigned essays and peer reviews 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 and to perform peer review before being formally registered.


Will Classes Be Recorded? Frankly, we don't think watching a recording is a great way to gain value from a class that we've designed to emphasize interaction. We will work hard to make classes into a good use of your in-person time, and that's how we recommend that you engage with them. But if for whatever reason you want to watch recordings of lectures, these will be available through Canvas. After the first couple of weeks, we'll revisit whether to keep providing these.


Can I Attend A Different Section Than The One I'm Registered In? Please stick to your registered section until the add/drop deadline of September 12, because we expect the rooms to be very full. After this, you're welcome to attend a different section if it works better for you, and you'll get participation credit for doing so. If load balancing between sections becomes a problem, we may revisit this policy.


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. I strongly recommend against taking the course if you aren't physically in Vancouver; the course emphasizes in-class attendance and participation.


Masks: As of July 1, 2022, masks are no longer required in UBC indoor spaces. You're welcome to wear a mask if it makes you more comfortable.


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. 


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). Do not come to class if you have Covid symptoms, have recently tested positive for Covid, or are required to quarantine. In this class, the marking scheme provides flexibility so that you can prioritize your health and still be able to succeed. However, this class has not been designed to make attendance optional; your grade will suffer if you consistently skip class! If you have a prolonged illness or another special circumstance, please get in touch with the instructor.


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 40 %
Weekly Peer Review

15 %

In-Class Participation

10 %

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). It is strongly recommended 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 8 by 1:45 PM (sharp). Please note that your regular essay and peer review deadlines will continue that same week.


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. Nobody will be allowed to enter the exam room after 30 minutes have passed, and nobody will be allowed to leave before the same time.

Weekly Deliverables: Readings, Quizzes, Calibrations, Essays, Peer Reviews

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, 12:15 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, 12:15 PM (sharp)

  • Perform your own peer review of between 3 and 7 randomly assigned students' written questions.

Late and Missing Submissions  To provide flexibility for personal circumstances that get in the way of handing in work, we will drop 2 essay and peer review grades. Think of this as permission, given in advance, to not submit for 2 weeks because of illness, travel, starting the course late, family obligations, COVID emergencies, conflicts with other courses, etc. Beyond this, we will drop an additional 2 essays to account for the fact that once in a while everyone will receive peer grades they consider unfairly negative. Thus, your grade will be calculated based only on 7 essays and 9 peer review weeks, even though you will be required to submit 11. We will choose the essays and peer reviews to drop in the way that most benefits you. Our hope is that you will actually hand in essays every week, meaning that you'll get more writing practice before the final and that you'll give us more options from which to choose which 7 essay grades to keep. 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.


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.

How Essay Grades Are Calculated

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. Every time your peer graders have not yet demonstrated sufficient reliability, TAs will grade alongside them (thus overruling the grades they assign). TAs will also conduct spot checks: when reviewers' scores substantially disagree; when essays receive unusually high scores; and 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:

  • your first 3 essay grades will be scaled by 0.6;
  • your next 4 essay grades will be scaled by 0.8;
  • your final 4 essays will be scaled by 1.0.

Your final essay grade will be a weighted average of your individual essay grades using the weights given above. We will drop the 4 essays that produce the largest weighted average overall (i.e., we will not necessarily drop your two lowest grades, since later essays are worth more).

How Peer Review Grades Are Calculated

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 choose a grade close to the class average without considering the essay) and variance is our estimate of your tendency to differ from the essay's true grade when you do make an effort. 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, or if you grade very erratically, 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 (independently of whether they agreed with your scores). 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 a student with a dependability score exactly equal to our calibration threshold will receive a grade of 80%. Beyond this, the formula is 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:

  • your first 3 peer review grades will be scaled by 0.6;
  • your next 4 peer review grades will be scaled by 0.8;
  • your final 4 peer review grades will be scaled by 1.0.

Your final peer review grade will be a weighted average of your individual peer review grades using the weights given above. We will drop the 2 peer review weeks that produce the largest weighted average overall (not necessarily your two lowest grades, since later weeks are worth more).

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. In-person interaction has two key components: exposure to arguments by your peers, and making such arguments yourself.

  1. Exposure to Peer Arguments   Much of each class will be dedicated to discussions, and even if you watch quietly, you'll be exposed to a wide variety of different arguments from your peers.

  3. Active Participation   Of course, you'll learn the most by making your own arguments, responding critically to ideas you hear from your instructor and peers. Given the size of the class, it won't be possible for everyone to speak every session. We'll thus assess your participation by the number of times you raise your hand to speak rather than the number of times you speak.

How We'll Choose People To Speak In Class   You'll press a button in Mechanical TA every time you want to contribute to a discussion. Every time the instructor wants to call on someone they'll press a button, selecting one student at random (identifying them to the instructor by name and UBC Card photo) and recording  everyone who raised their hand for participation purposes. Some key details:

  • 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. However, 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.

How Participation Affects Your Peer Grading Quota   You will start out with a weekly peer grading quota of 7 essays. Every class you raise your hand at least once will yield you a 2-essay reduction in your quota, recognizing that both class attendance and peer grading give you exposure to peer arguments. In other words, if you attend every class and raise your hand exactly once per class, you'll have to peer grade 3 essays per week instead of 7.


How Participation Affects Your Grade  Participation is worth a portion of your final grade given in the overall breakdown above. We'll calculate your participation grade on a per-class basis and then average these grades across the whole term to obtain your final grade. Before averaging, we'll drop the 4 classes in which you have the lowest grades. This means that you can miss 4 classes without any grade penalty. Please use this flexibility to avoid coming to class if you feel sick! You can also use it to manage other constraints that may arise in your personal life, deadlines from other courses, etc.


Calculating your Per-Class Participation Grade  Your grade will depend on the number of times you raised your hand. To get a grade of 70%, you will need to raise your hands a (small) fixed number of times. We'll award higher grades by comparing your degree of participation to that of other students in the class. Specifically, we'll award you the largest number of points in the table below for which you meet the criterion:


Participate at least this many times     Get this many points (/10)
0 0








The median among students who participated at least once


The maximum among students who participated at least once



If your number of points is more than 4 but less than the median, we'll linearly interpolate accordingly; likewise if your number of points is more than the median but less than 10. For example, imagine the median was 8 and the maximum was 15. A student who raised his hand 6 times would receive 7 + (6-4)/(8-4) = 7.5 points, and another student who raised her hand 11 times would receive 8 + 2*(11-8)/(15-8) = 8.86 points. Observe that the median student will get a grade of 80% for participation (even if the median is 4 or less), and hence half the class will get a grade above 80%.

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.


September 8Introduction
September 13Course Topics DiscussionMaterial on writing linked above
September 15Writing and Argument
September 20Course Topics DiscussionChapter 1
September 22Ethics: Unworkable Ethical TheoriesSecs. 2.1 - 2.5
September 27Ethics: KantianismSecs. 2.6 - 2.8
September 29Ethics: Utilitarianism
October 4Ethics: Social Contract TheorySecs. 2.9 - 2.12
October 6Ethics: Virtue Ethics
October 11Networked CommunicationsChapter 3
October 13Networked Communications
October 18Intellectual PropertyChapter 4
October 20Intellectual Property
October 25Information PrivacyChapter 5
October 27Information Privacy
November 1Privacy and the GovernmentChapter 6
November 3Privacy and the Government
November 8Computer ReliabilityChapter 8 (Midterm due; no essay)
November 10No Class: Midterm Break
November 15Computer and Network SecurityChapter 7
November 17Computer and Network Security
November 22Professional EthicsChapter 9 (Essay option: Ch 8 or 9)
November 24Work and Wealth
November 29Work and WealthChapter 10
December 1Artificial Intelligence
December 6Artificial IntelligenceTBA
December 14
    3:30 PM
Final Exam: CIRS 1250